Parenting from New Hampshire's Prisons

Jan 20, 2017

Any parent will tell you that parenting is a difficult job. Being a parent when you’re in prison makes that job even harder.

Reporter Alyssa Dandrea of the Concord Monitor recently reported on what it’s like to parent from prison. And she joins NHPR’s Peter Biello to talk about the challenges these parents face and her series.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

One of the obvious problems for these parents is that when you’re behind bars you can’t see your kids – can’t see your kids as much, I should say. You can’t be out for school events or sporting events or other major milestones in their lives. But what kind of contact do their parents have with their children, if they have contact at all?

It definitely varies for each family. Some families have the opportunity to actually go in and have in-person visits, which I think is preferred for a lot of people. It’s very difficult for families that don’t have that one-on-one contact. But through the Department of Corrections’ Family Connection Center, they really give parents other ways to connect with their children, whether that’s through video visits like on Skype, or being able to record their voice to their children’s favorite stories. Some of them do holiday cards or write letters to their kids. So even if they don’t have those one on one visits, they still try to build those connections and to still have relationships with their kids.

And as part of this series you did for the Concord Monitor you also had video clips of part of your interviews with some of these people. And one woman you interviewed in jail, her name is Heather Leavitt, and she has a 17-year-old and an 8-year-old. And she spoke about writing cards and communicating with her children. Let’s listen to a little bit of what she said to you.

Heather Leavitt: Through the recreation department here, we’re able to get cards, blank cards, birthday cards, things like that. So I send a lot of those to sort of just, a cheery card to let her know I’m thinking. But without an expectation of a response. Tailored to positivity in her life. I certainly don’t want to make her feel sorry for me. And I think at the beginning that was a struggle. Like, I wanted to see her, and I was drowning in my own shame and anger. And it was really hard to turn that around and make it more about what she needed.

Prison is such a difficult experience, and these people are putting their kids first even while they’re in prison.

They are. And I think that’s difficult initially when they’re first going in because so many of them are dealing with a lot of internal problems, a lot of emotion, and it’s difficult for them to not make if about themselves and to really turn that around and make sure that their kids are okay. And I think in a way that’s a therapy for them and it helps them get better because they’re able to refocus some of the anger on doing good and making sure that they’re helping their kids.

Yeah, as you write, prison is in some cases exactly what they needed at those moment. Sometimes to become better parents, sometimes to just mature and grow up. There were programs inside these prisons to help them become better parents. Could you tell us about those programs?

Yes. New Hampshire’s very unique with the Family Connection Center. There aren’t a lot of centers like that in the U.S. New Hampshire has really paved the way in that regard. And the Family Connections Center's continued to grow and continued to have more participants. And it started at the Laconia facility which is no longer open anymore. But it’s really provided connections for children and parents, and I think there’s hopes in the future that maybe the center can bridge out more into the community and help the prisoners, when they are released, reconnect with their families and to help those families prepare for the transition. And also not only help children but to help spouses and other family members be able to maintain those connections.

Talk a little bit about the impact on spouses and children. We’re talking a lot about what it’s like for the parents, but what about for the children and spouses?

Yeah, the children we spoke to for the series were pretty incredible, particularly Evanor Pineda – his two children, now teenagers. He went away when they were toddlers and the impact has just been phenomenal on them. And I think they’ve been forced to mature well beyond their years, and they have learned a lot from the experience. But it hasn’t been easy, and they’ve faced a lot of internal struggles of their own trying to figure out why their father was away. He initially didn’t tell them the full story and then kind of grappling with that and trying to understand things. It’s hard when you’re young because you don’t have that full scope and that full development to really understand some of those issues. So I think there are cases where we see in that family where those conversations go well and kids are able to understand. But I think there are also cases were kids really get angry, and they rebel and the have their own personal issues as a result for the experience.

In your reporting did you find there were sufficient resources in the state of NH to assist families with the difficulties involved in having a loved one in prison?

I think that we’re getting there, but I think there’s still progress that can be made, and I think officials within the prison will tell you that as well. They want to have more resources for families to be able to better support themselves and to deal with the effects of incarceration. I think that there are child psychologists that are seeing children on these issues, but I don’t know as  a lot of them specialize in treating children of incarcerated parents, and I think that there’s a void there.

So what drew you to this topic?

I first attended a conference in late October that was sponsored by the Department of Corrections and Child and Family Services. That conference was called “Counting the Days”, and it focused a lot on this issue. There was a keynote speaker, and they also featured a video of children who spoke about what the experience was like for them to have an incarcerated parent. And I made a lot of connections there and realized the potential for a lot of deeper stories on this issue.

When I just did some basic research myself I noticed that there was a real void in covering this topic and attention around this topic. But it’s also something that’s a really important issue in the state and nationally. And so I felt like there was a lot of opportunity to explore something that hadn’t really been talked much about and to raise awareness about an issue that really is affecting New Hampshire but maybe people really don’t think so much about. There’s a lot of stigma surrounding incarceration and I think sometimes we forget about the kids and the impact that it has on them.