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Prison visits give the child and caregiver opportunities to strengthen family bonds with the loved one in prison and address trauma that the incarceration has caused all parties, especially the child.
Visits need to be voluntary, physically and emotionally safe, and focused on meeting the parties’ needs. Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers need to prepare the child and caregiver to meet their loved one in prison to increase the visit’s impact.
Each visit is unique and requires different levels of preparation. Generally, the level of preparation depends on the child’s needs and the safety risks the prison visit poses to the child.
Consider these following values and steps when preparing children and their caregivers for prison visits.
Step 1: Give Information
Information about loved one’s status.
Before meeting the child and caregiver about a prison visit, confirm:
- The prison where the loved one is located and that they haven’t been transferred to another prison.
- How the loved one is doing and that they are in good physical and emotional health.
- Access to the prison and that no security, health or other issues limit public access.
Information about the prison visit.
The child and caregiver need to know what to expect so they can mentally and emotionally prepare themselves for the visit. Explain the:
- Rules for visitation.
- The dos and don’ts for prison visits and security procedures to enter, such as searches, dress code and permissible items to bring (e.g. food or gifts).
- Prison environment.
- Where the meeting will take place and how their loved one will look (wearing prison clothes, behind a noncontact barrier or physical/mental issues the loved one may have developed).
- Meeting structure.
- How the encounter will proceed, who will be present, how long it will last, who will be in the surrounding area and what will be the level of privacy.
Key practice: Coordinate with corrections officers, prison chaplains or Prison Fellowship staff or volunteers who know the loved one in prison to learn information about their status.
Step 2: Understand Needs
Understand the child and caregiver needs for the prison visit.
The more extensive the needs, the greater the level of preparation. Common needs are (from least to most preparation typically required) are:
- Build and maintain family bond.
- Informal visits when the child and caregiver want to connect and share updates with their loved one in prison.
- Generally, only basic preparation is required.
- Build and maintain child-parent bond.
- When the caregiver is unable or refuses to accompany the child or the child wants to visit their parent alone.
- These visits are more personal and often require deeper understanding about relationship dynamics within the family.
- Know the truth about the parent’s incarceration.
- When the child wants to ask questions about their parent’s imprisonment and the surrounding circumstances.
- Visits are more structured, need greater privacy and require greater preparation for all parties, including the parent in prison.
- Address harm the parent in prison has caused the family.
- When the child and caregiver want to address harm that the parent in prison or their incarceration have caused.
- Visits are structured and require privacy. An experienced practitioner needs to facilitate the encounter.
- Prepare for the loved one’s release from prison to rejoin their family.
- When the loved one in prison nears the end of their sentence, and the family wants to address unresolved conflict and prepare for their transition home.
- An experienced practitioner needs to facilitate the encounter.
Assess material resources to support child and caregiver during the prison visit.
- Provide transportation or money for transportation for travel to/from the prison.
- Food or snacks to eat during the visit or during an overnight stay, if required.
- When overnight stays are required.
- When the caregiver has other children and needs childcare during prison visit.
Step 3: Assess Safety Risks
Depending on the need, children require different levels of emotional readiness to meet their parent in prison. Parent-child power imbalances potentially make prison visits unsafe for the child. The higher the safety risk, the greater level of preparation. and safeguards required to minimize those risks.
When assessing the visit’s safety, consider these factors:
- Age of child.
- Safety risks are higher when the child is younger or less mature.
- Father or mother.
- Safety risks are generally less when the parent in prison is the mother.
- Parent in prison was abusive or caused harm within the family.
- Safety risks are very high and it’s likely the child is emotionally vulnerable. Because extreme power imbalances and trauma most likely exist, assess the child’s emotional health and capacity to make the visit.
- Child’s relationship with the parent in prison.
- Safety risks are higher when the child has a strained relationship with their parent in prison or they have had long periods with limited or no interactions.
- Caregiver unsupportive of the prison visit.
- Safety risks are higher when the caregiver is unsupportive.
- Parent in prison and unhealthy motives.
- Safety risks are higher if the parent in prison manipulates the child to influence their thinking, get information or relay messages.
- Parent in prison and unhealthy behavior.
- For example, If the parent in prison is involved with drugs and unsupportive of the visit, the visit may create conflict between the child and caregiver.
- Does the caregiver have a new relationship? If so, does the new relationship impact their support of the child visiting the parent in prison?
- Does the caregiver have a strained relationship with the parent in prison? If so, what are the underlying reasons and can they be managed?
- Is the caregiver a nonparent (stepparent, relative or foster parent)? What role will that person play during the visit?
Key Practice Try to learn about the parent in prison’s motives before the visit. Otherwise, anticipate them and prepare the child and caregiver accordingly.
Step 4: Arrange Safeguards
Most, if not all, children with parents in prison have experienced trauma, and prison visits risk triggering that trauma. But safeguards and accommodations can minimize risks to children’s emotional safety.
- Pre-visit preparation.
- Thoroughly prepare the child, caregiver and parent in prison before the visit. Understand the child’s emotional stability and teach them ways to manage their emotions. You may need to delay the visit if the safety risks cannot be managed.
Key Practice: If you are unable to manage safety risks related with an in-person visit, consider recommending that the family and
loved one in prison have a phone or video conversation before an in-person visit.
- Counseling services.
- When needed, connect the child or caregiver with professional counseling that occurs over multiple sessions, as required.
- Support person.
- A friend or relative can provide the child emotional support during the prison visit. The support person may be someone other than the caregiver.
- Privacy and confidentiality.
- When the child wants to have a sensitive conversation, the location needs to be private so the parties can speak freely and openly in confidence.
- Post-visit debrief.
- After the visit, debrief with the child and caregiver to understand their impressions, whether the visit met their needs, and its emotional impact.
Key Practice: Prison visits are voluntary. Your role is to give information, talk through expectations, explain safety risks and provide
safeguards. The child and caregiver decide whether or not to make the prison visit.
What Resources are Required?
- Licensed social worker.
- NM staff or committed volunteer to oversee preparation.
- Access to counseling services.
- Offer a staff person, committed volunteer or a contracted service provider to give counseling services for children and caregivers.
- Costs related to preparation sessions.
- Staff and volunteer travel costs and their time to prepare the child and caregiver. The more complex the needs and safety risks, the more meetings you will require for the preparation.
- Costs related to prison visit.
- Hired vehicles or the cost to use the national ministry’s vehicle for transportation to/from prison; snacks, drinks and in case of overnight stays, meals and lodging; childcare services.
How Can I Learn More?
- Reach out to other National Ministries for support
Other Helpful Resources