Arizona’s Legislature recently passed a law charging prison visitors a onetime $25 fee as a way to help close the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit. Middle Ground Prison Reform, a prison advocacy group, challenged the law in court as a discriminatory tax, but a county judge upheld its constitutionality.
Fees like that, slapped on prisoners and their families, couldn’t be more counterintuitive. But then again, so many of our criminal justice policies are just that. Since it is mostly the poor, the desperately poor who fill U.S. prisons, the $25 fee is one more economic hardship offenders’ families have to struggle with. It becomes another bill they have to scramble to pay -- that is if they can.
These kinds of charges (and Arizona isn’t the only jurisdiction trying to shift the cost of incarceration to the poor) have even graver consequences. When a family can’t pay the fee, their contact with their loved one is limited, essentially cutting an offender off from the only supports he or she has in the outside world.
Psychologists have long known how central it is for an individual to have nurturing people in his or her life in order to develop emotionally, psychologically and socially. This need for a supportive network is even more essential when we talk about the young people who are locked away from family and loved ones in our nation’s prisons and detention centers.
As anyone who has worked with kids in the penal system knows on a gut level, it is crucial to have families and other supportive community members involved in young offenders’ lives as they serve their time. Now, that commonsense intuition has been given empirical strength by studies done by such juvenile justice groups as the Vera Institute of Justice which have demonstrated that maintaining young people’s connection to families is a major factor in helping kids stay out of jail once they are released.
But it’s easy to question whether these families are really such a positive influence. After all, if they were doing such a great job what are their kids doing in jail?
It’s an easy assumption to make until you see some of those family members in the prison visiting room with their sons and daughters. I got to do that at least twice a year when the jailhouse high school where I taught for 10 years in a county adult facility had its open house for families and caregivers.
The place was packed with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, or the people who stepped into those roles when circumstances -- AIDS, death, addiction, incarceration, abandonment, all the things that ravage the lives of the poor and disenfranchised -- demanded it. It wasn’t easy for many of them to get there. Meals had to be missed. Second jobs skipped. Long cross-county bus rides with tickets to pay for, transfers to be negotiated, at night, often in bad weather.
The grandmother of one of my students, Leon, a skinny 15-year-old who was finally making progress in class, had to travel over an hour on three busses to get there. It was a trip I knew she faithfully made twice a week to see her grandson. “I wouldn’t miss a visit with my boy for anything,” she told me, reaching over and giving Leon’s nappy hair a playful tug. “But now you tell, Mr. Chura, how’s he doin in class?” That set Leon squirming.
It was a conversation I had over and over during those family visits. Miguel’s uncle who gave me his phone number and urged me to call him if Miguel wasn’t in school. Luis’ mother, frail and in a wheelchair, holding her son’s hand, telling me how when Luis got out of jail she was moving her whole family out of state to get away from the gangs that ran wild in the streets. “I just want my boys to be safe,” she said, her English halting but her fear and determination palpable.
It was hard to hear in the visiting room sometimes with people chattering in several different languages, children running around, little brothers squealing when their big brother in his funny orange jump suit picked them up, mothers crying, locked-up sons trying to explain, promise, console. It was hard to hear but it was easy to know what was going on: Families -- fragile, fragmented, strained, mending -- were desperately trying to stay a family.
Many of those visitors would be willing to admit that they hadn’t done such a good job at maintaining the family bond, but that they did the best they could given the problems they had to face. Like Luis’ mother the determination was there but the resources weren’t.
If we as a nation are serious about reducing crime (and not just by increased incarceration) it is important that we not put more obstacles in the way of young inmates’ families but rather that we give them the opportunities and resources to develop and sustain those crucial connections. It’s an investment that’s worth losing 25 bucks over.