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When prisoners connect with and meet their families, it creates opportunities to strengthen family bonds.
Healthy family relationships give prisoners a sense of responsibility as parents and spouses. They get to see their children grow. It gives their lives meaning, helps them cope with the realities of prison life, and motivates them to improve their behavior and stay on track for their release.
When prisoners have positive family relationships, they can rely upon them for support and find a sense of belonging during their transition from prison. Rootedness in positive family relationships and communities play an important role to keep people from reoffending.
Step 1: Screen for Visit
Contact prisoners about potential visits.
When prisoners express a desire for their family to visit:
- Gain background information from your staff or volunteers who know and have interacted with the person in prison.
- Often your team needs to initiate contact with families about the prison visit and prepare them.
- In case the family refuses to meet, be sensitive when informing the prisoner and prepare yourself for the conversation beforehand.
Key Practice: Use programs like Angel Tree or go through church pastors to initially connect with families. After the first visit, encourage ongoing communication, like letter writing, phone or video calls, or consistent prison visits.
When family members express a desire to visit their loved one in prison, obtain background information about prisoners through:
- Prison program staff or volunteers who know the prisoner and can provide direct background information.
- Prison chaplains or other prison official who know the prisoner and can either give background information or recommend them to participate in a family visit.
Key Practice: Have regular cross-program team meetings where staff or volunteers from each team share information and coordinate efforts. When you discuss cases as a team, you gain different perspectives that can increase the quality of the prison visit.
Obtain basic information from contacts about the prisoner.
- Verify whether the prisoner is at the same prison or has been transferred to another location.
- Physical and emotional health.
- Understand the prisoner’s physical and emotional health and how it might impact the child and caregiver during the visit.
- Understand whether the prisoner expresses remorse and wants to improve themselves.
- Explore whether the prisoner’s current behavior (positive and negative) aligns with your thoughts about their attitude.
- Positive behavior: What steps is the prisoner taking to improve themselves, like participating in national ministry prison programs and activities?
- Negative behavior: Is the prisoner involved in unhealthy behavior, like drugs, or getting in trouble with prison authorities?
Key Practice: Actively build relationships with prison chaplains and other key prison officials, like social workers or psychologists, to gain their support and influence. Leverage these relationships to gain program referrals or background information about prisoners.
Access prison records, when necessary.
Depending on the need, you might use formal prison procedures to access reports or other documents to gain information about the prisoner. Limit using reports only when necessary and make sure to strictly protect confidentiality.
Key Practice: Prioritize prison visits you coordinate based on positive background information or referrals from prison chaplains or other prison officials. Your team’s limited time and resources should be spent coordinating visits that are safe and will make a positive impact.
Step 2: Assess Needs
What are the prisoner’s needs?
The more extensive the needs, the greater level of preparation required. Common needs (from least to most preparation typically required) are:
- Build and maintain family bonds.
- Informal visits when prisoners want to connect and get updates from their families.
- The level of preparation is less for routine visits where families have regular communication.
- Share truth about crime with child.
- In some cases, a child may want to ask questions to learn the truth about their parent’s imprisonment.
- Visits are more structured, need greater privacy and require greater preparation for all parties.
- Address harm prisoner caused their family.
- When prisoners want to address harm caused to their family.
- Visits are structured and require privacy. An experienced practitioner needs to facilitate the encounter.
- Prepare for reentry.
- As prisoners nears the end of their sentence, they might want to meet their family to prepare to live with them. They may also need to address tension or conflict in the relationship.
- An experienced practitioner needs to facilitate these encounters.
Key Practice: If the child or caregiver feel uncomfortable about a face-to-face meeting, first coordinate a phone or video call between them instead.
Does the prisoner take responsibility for crime?
It’s critical to understand with certainty the extent prisoners take responsibility for crime and empathize with their family members about harm caused to them when the visit’s purpose is to:
- Share truth about crime with child.
- Address harm prisoner caused their family.
You need direct access to the prisoner and most likely multiple conversations to gain this level of understanding. In cases where prisoners need time to take responsibility, consider:
- Victim empathy sessions.
- Incorporate sessions in your current programs or activities that help prisoners take responsibility for crime and develop empathy for people they have harmed.
- For example, you might have a series of Bible studies that weaves in themes of taking responsibility. In some cases, you might implement a program like the Sycamore Tree Project.
- Parenting classes.
- Host or collaborate with another organization parenting classes that prisoners, and potentially their family members, participate in.
Are there unhealthy relationship dynamics in the family?
Dynamics that risk harming the caregiver or child during the prison visit. Ask questions to understand:
- Prisoner’s relationship with the child.
- Is the relationship strained? How often do the parent and child communicate? Does the child know the context and reasons for their parent’s imprisonment?
- Abuse or harm the parent in prison caused the family.
- Was the parent emotionally or physically abusive toward family members. Is the parent incarcerated related to domestic violence?
- Prisoner’s relationship with the caregiver.
- Is the relationship with the caregiver strained? Is the caregiver parent in another relationship? Is the caregiver a non-parent, like a stepparent, relative or foster parent?
Step 3: Set Expectations
Prisoners need a clear understanding of what to expect during visits and not be surprised by anything. When possible, discuss with the prisoner:
- Child and caregiver expectations. Prisoners should understand the issues or needs that caregivers and their children hope to address during the visit.
- Fears or concerns prisoners might have about visit.
- Ask them what fears or concerns they have. Create an environment where they trust you and answer authentically.
- Visit details.
- Who will be present? Family members, support persons, PF staff or volunteers?
- Where will the visit take place?
- How long will the visit last?
- Level of privacy: are other visits happening nearby?
- Will prison officials be present?
Key Practice: Plan and make time to prepare the prisoner for the visit
- Assess how much time you need to prepare the prisoner based on the needs of all parties who plan to come and the visit’s purpose.
- It’s not always possible to meet prisoners until the day of the visit. But try to meet them, even if the meeting occurs right before the visit.
What resources are required?
- Costs related to preparation sessions
- Most costs are related to staff and volunteer travel and their time to prepare prisoners.
- The more sensitive the visit’s purpose, the more meetings required for the preparation.
How can I learn more?
- Reach out to other national ministries that can provide support.
- Read other helpful resources.