The hardships of incarceration are undeniable, but prisoners are not the only ones who suffer. What about the burdens to families when loved ones are behind bars?
In our interviews with family members of the incarcerated, many shared common challenges that strain both their resources and relationships. Chief among them is the distance from prison to home, which three in five family members reported as an obstacle to staying in touch, followed by lack of transportation.
It stands to reason that the greater the distance from home, the greater the challenge to sustaining relationships with family. Even regardless of distance, the trip to visit a family member can be grueling. Families may travel for miles by bus only to discover that the prison is on lockdown and visitors are prohibited. Mothers may sit in crowded, unfriendly waiting areas with hungry, fidgety toddlers sometimes for hours, just to spend an hour or so with a loved one.
For state prisoners, the distance from home varies depending on the state’s size and its correctional policies, but averages about 100 miles. Not so in the federal prison system, where the average inmate is incarcerated 500 miles from home—by car, that’s a good 14 hours or more roundtrip. Add the cost of an overnight stay, transportation, food, and time off from work and you’re looking at a hefty tab for just one visit. What’s more, on average, those with longer sentences are housed further away from home, making for lengthier travel times and greater gaps between visits.
Is this really a matter for public policy?
Not surprisingly, our research shows that in-prison contact with family members leads to closer family relationships following release, which can help smooth the transition to post-prison life. Maintaining connections with their children encourages parents to get their lives on track after returning home, yielding major benefits. Exiting prisoners with strong, positive relationships with their children tend to hold legal employment longer than those who don’t.
The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) understands the importance of this issue and recently agreed to allow federal inmates from the District of Columbia to serve the final six months of their sentences in their local jail. The BOP also held its first-ever Universal Children’s Day a few months ago, a weekend event with both parenting workshops and kid-friendly activities like storytelling and face-painting. The BOP could hold more family visitation events like this, but it can also revise routine policies to make it easier and more affordable for families stay in touch year-round. Lowering the cost of phone calls and enhancing secure email and video conference capabilities would help inmates maintain ties with family members.
The BOP could also send text alerts to family members when facilities are on lockdown to minimize a potential travel burden with no pay-off.
Let’s face it: this is a big country, and it’s not going to be easy for the federal prison system to house every inmate close to his or her home. But it should do what it can to keep families together, which in turn can save them money, preserving both resources and relationships that will help former prisoners live better lives on the outside.