In Depth: Prison parenting

September 19, 2017 06:38 PM

It's a sobering thought -- over 2.7 million minor children have a parent in jail or prison. That's according to a Pew Research Institute study. The opioid crisis is fueling some of it.

With the start of school, NewsChannel 13 wanted to know how do you parent from behind bars? To find out, we traveled to the Albany and Rensselaer County Jails.

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She asked not to be identified, so we'll call her "Meghan." So far, she's spent five months behind bars at the Albany County Correctional Facility.

"I made a poor choice, which ended me up in here and I'm suffering the consequences to my actions," she acknowledged.

However, she's not the only one. Her kids are paying for her crime too.

"I have four [kids]," explained Meghan "17, 13, 10 and 3," she said, listing their ages.

"I know definitely, deep in my heart that this definitely affects them, absolutely. How couldn't it? Their mom's not with them," she acknowledged.

Last month, Meghan was among 203 inmates at the Albany County Correctional Facility, with a total of 362 kids in grades K-12. The number could be higher, because the jail doesn't mandate inmates report numbers. However, the impact of incarceration is known.

"So many families are dysfunctional today because of that, because of incarcerated parents," noted Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple.

One case still sticks with him.

"There was a time we had a grandfather, a father and a son in here and I thought to myself, 'Where's the next generation? There's almost no hope,'" admitted Apple.

Some of that dysfunction directly relates to today's epidemic opioid crisis -- turning ordinary people into inmates.

"This epidemic has really hit at an all-time high and continues to take lives and put people in jail every day," noted Apple.

"Alice" – (not her real name) -- has been in jail at the Rensselaer County Correctional Facility twice for crimes she says were fueled by an addiction to drugs.

"Mainly opioids – I started out with pills," she explained, saying she started taking the pills because of an injury.

Today, her 5-year-old and 8 month old are growing up without her.

"I have pictures of them and I think about them 24/7," admitted Alice. "It hurts, because I'm missing so much. He was in kindergarten. He's going into 1st grade. I missed a lot."

Jennifer Isager has two kids and has been jailed 11 times because of drugs.

"Drugs are a major problem for me, but the bigger problem is myself and fixing me from the inside," she acknowledged.

She and the other women find out about homework, the prom and their kids' activities through phone conversations a couple of days a week.

Rensselaer has offered parenting classes in the past, but doesn't offer them currently. Albany County, which is sometimes criticized for its many inmate programs, is offering help for inmate parents, getting some help from "Sesame Street."

The teaching pioneer is also an expert at broaching those tough subjects.

"What's 'carsarated' and why was your dad 'in' it,'" asked a Muppet, as they spoke with a human character in one episode of the show.

"I disagree with somebody who says your job is just to close the gates and leave them in there. Nobody wins then," pointed out Apple.

While the sheriff tries to help inmates become better parents, the focus at School 2 in Troy is on the kids who live with all kinds of trauma. Three years ago, the school created a student support team.

Looking at suspension rates and data, they determined that much of the student's behavior was pain-based -- so the staff changed their behavior. They started meeting with the kids, offering counseling -- but they went a step further and started making home visits -- not to confront, but to partner. They're seeing improvement, with suspensions down over last year.

WEB EXTRA: School 2 team talks about helping kids facing trauma

Back at the jails, the moms are doing their time and looking at getting out and getting a second chance at becoming a better parent.

"I'm going spend some quality time with both my children and I'll be following up with a rehab," avowed Isager.

"I'm going to meet him at the school bus when he gets off and there'll be lots of hugs and probably tears," echoed Alice.

"Counting the days, counting the weeks, yes," admitted Meghan.


Elaine Houston

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