A Parent in Prison, a Void at Home

Chicagoan Shaun Carr has worked to care for daughters Kyra, 10, left, and Heaven, 12, and their two siblings since his wife was imprisoned five years ago. He is forming a support group for men with incarcerated spouses.
Chicagoan Shaun Carr has worked to care for daughters Kyra, 10, left, and Heaven, 12, and their two siblings since his wife was imprisoned five years ago. He is forming a support group for men with incarcerated spouses. (By Kari Lydersen -- The Washington Post)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2007

CHICAGO, May 27 -- When 12-year-old Heaven Carr wakes up, her mother is not there to make her breakfast. As the school year ends, Heaven is already sad that her mother will not be around to do the back-to-school shopping come August.

Carr's mother, Elaine, has been behind bars for five years. Her father, Shaun, who was once jailed himself, does his best to pick up the slack, even as he runs a home remodeling business during the day and a cleaning service at night. But Heaven says it's not the same.

"There are no services for men in this position -- none," Shaun said. "You'd think that if a man decides to stay with his kids, people would embrace you and help you pull through. But it's the opposite."

The stakes are high for Heaven and her three siblings. Those who deal regularly with the incarcerated suggest that 50 to 70 percent of children of imprisoned parents will end up behind bars. Such children are also less likely to do well in school, a growing body of research suggests.

In the Chicago area, where there are an estimated 90,000 children of the imprisoned and paroled, a fledgling coalition of community groups and state politicians is developing strategies to create better lines of communication between children and their jailed parents, and to diminish the severe shortage of help.

The Chicago-based Community Renewal Society is working with legislators and state officials to expand family-oriented programs, to be run by nonprofits, in prisons.

"I'm so grateful they put a face on this issue," said Roberta Fews, deputy director of support services at the Illinois Department of Corrections. "We can't punish the children because their parent made a few bad decisions. We don't want to see the child go down the same path."

With all the goodwill, the problem is daunting. More than 2 million men and women are behind bars in the United States on any given day. Long distances and restrictive visiting hours can impede children trying to connect with imprisoned relatives, and most families are not aware of counseling or other services, according to the Community Renewal Society, a faith-based social justice organization founded in 1882.

"We're trying to build public will and recognition of what appears to be an intergenerational cycle where a parent is in prison, then the child is later found in the criminal justice system as well," the society's executive director, the Rev. Calvin S. Morris, said. "The tragedy has epic proportions, but it's not something readily known or understood."

Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. has called for hearings on the subject, and town hall meetings in Chicago and rural areas throughout the state are planned. Shaun Carr is organizing a fathers' support group, to teach men parenting skills, cooking and other things. He also wants to organize birthday parties and picnics for children of the incarcerated.

"My daughter wants to be around kids in the same situation she's in, because she can't tell people at school about it and they don't understand," Carr said.

Other recommendations include financial support to help families visit prisons far from home; a reduction of the often-exorbitant charges for collect phone calls made from prison; and an extension of prison visiting hours.

"Prisoners tend to be housed further from home these days," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a national advocacy group. "More and more prisons are built in rural areas, almost as a form of economic development."

That means Chicago public schools security guard Otis Gordon, 54, takes the family to see his wife in prison once every three months, since he doesn't have a car.

"We have to rely on the transportation program they provide," he said. "It's not easy making ends meet, getting to work at 4 a.m., paying all the bills. I'm still getting used to it."

Carr, 36, takes his children to see Elaine, 34, about once a month, with private trips on each child's birthday. With high gas prices this summer, he says, the three-hour drive from their suburban Chicago home will be hard to afford.

"We usually stay in a hotel so we can visit two or three days in a row, after driving all that way, but I don't know if we can do that now," he said.

Especially as the number of women in prison skyrockets, Mauer said, more attention is being paid to the effect on children.

"But there's more talk than action," he said. "In terms of funding to address the issue, it tends to be very limited and localized."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company