Can Teens’ Recorded Messages to Incarcerated Parents be a Turning Point for Prisoners?

A partnership between the Hear Me project and Amachi Pittsburgh gave kids with incarcerated parents the chance to tell their stories—and parents the chance to listen.

In Pennsylvania, more than 81,000 children have a parent in state prison, according to PublicSource. That number doesn’t include those whose parents are in federal prison or county jails.

Tirrell was 19 when he recorded this Hear Me testimonial in 2012 for his father in prison:

The question I would ask him is, was he thinking of me when he did the crime he did? Or did he think of family in general? It’s a bigger impact than parents know, what happens to kids after the fact they get incarcerated. They think they have the bad life. They think that everything happens to them because they’re in jail themselves. But they don’t realize what happens outside of jail to the families that they were involved with.

Tirrell and other teens’ stories were recorded through a partnership between Hear Me, a project of CREATE Lab, and Amachi Pittsburgh, an organization that provides mentoring and support programs for kids with incarcerated parents.

The stories were edited together in a compilation that’s played for incarcerated parents as part of Allegheny County Jail’s re-entry program, with the hope that hearing their kids’ messages will encourage reflection and ultimately reduce recidivism.

“If I had a message to all incarcerated parents, it’s just that kids need to be involved with both parents,” one of the teen boys says. “Even if the parents aren’t living together, they should still have both parents in their lives.”

According to a 2010 report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, there are 2.7 million children under age 18 with a parent behind bars. That enormous number is reflective of the United State’s overwhelming prison population, the world’s largest, which has grown about 700 percent since the 1970s.  There are more people in prison in the United States than there are high school teachers. Even more sobering: a black man born in 1979 without a high school degree had a two in three chance of going to prison by age 34.

As is evident  in the Hear Me stories, widespread incarceration take a tremendous toll on children. Many can experience PTSD, mourn the loss of parent, and face social stigma.

But the price of incarceration doesn’t end when parents are released. Rates of recidivism are extremely high. A recent U.S. Department of Justice study found that more than 75 percent of state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested again within five years. The reasons are many, but at the top of the list is that a criminal record makes it nearly impossible to find a job. Those with records are barred from public housing, where often family members are residing. Even voter disenfranchisement takes a toll.

Despite these barriers, research shows that strong family connections can prove critical in curbing recidivism.

Research has shown that strong family attachments during prison and after release can significantly improve outcomes, writes Jeremy Travis and Christy Visher in “On Your Own Without A Net.” However, family relationships are often weakened by long prison sentences and infrequent communication, and few programs exist to support and build contact. As with employment programs, few programs continue to serve families after prison release.

Travis and Visher note that “in a report on promising reentry programs nationwide, only nine had a ‘family intervention’ program in operation.”

While Amachi’s work with Hear Me isn’t a family intervention program per se, its aim to encourage parents to reconnect with their kids and consider their struggles is an important one. For some, hearing the impact of their incarceration right before being released may spark a turning point in life. Harvard professor Robert Sampson and University of Maryland professor John Laub, who have researched turning points in the lives of people with criminal records, found that “new situations that provide the opportunity for identity transformation” can play a major role in redirecting the course of a person’s life.

In the Hear Me project, the recording clearly struck a chord with some parents. When the project first kicked off, Amachi posted a collage of parents’ responses on its Facebook page.

“It’s hard knowing our actions hurt our children so badly,” wrote one mom. “If I could turn back the hands of time I would do things differently.”

For parents who have spent time away from their kids while incarcerated, there unfortunately is no way to go back. But the words the teens shared with Amachi Ambassadors may help parents choose to go forward with their kids in mind.

Photo/ Sarah Caufield

Published May 06, 2014