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Thank you to Echoes of Incarceration, Jacobia Dahm, and Salvador Espinoza for their photos.

Voices from See Us, Support Us: Tips for a Successful Visit with Your Incarcerated Parent

“It was helpful for me to understand the layout of Daddy’s visiting room before I arrived.” - Ava

Who knew it would be harder to get into prison than to get out? Last month, my Daddy’s facility abruptly decreased our visiting hours to a third of what they had been. My family and I discovered the new rules the hard way when we were rejected from our weekly visit. After five years of visiting my Daddy in prison, I thought I’d finally learned all the rules! But the only certainty about prison is uncertainty. While most children want to visit, there are lots of barriers to visiting, and often those hurdles can't be overcome. I'm writing about my personal visiting experiences with the hope that my words might help other children of incarcerated parents to enjoy successful and rewarding visits.

Unpredictability

In our visiting room, you never know what to expect. When we started visiting, we used to be able to see Daddy on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Now, we can visit only once a weekend on alternating days. When our facility goes into lockdown, visits get canceled without notice, sometimes for months.

Our visiting area has also become more restrictive over time. When we started visiting, the visiting room was split into three sections: the noisy indoor area, set-up like an airport waiting lounge; the covered patio, with picnic-style tables for sharing a meal or playing a quiet game; and the outdoor area, a small, fenced-in, gravelled section where kids could run around. Now all that is left is the noisy indoor area.

Food options are also unpredictable. Expect your hunger to be held hostage by overpriced vending machines that dispense junk food. The hard part is adjusting to the reality that your $8 burger might be moldy; that the machine might just steal your $5 note; or that there won't be enough food in the machine.

Before the Visit

 

Every visiting room has a different layout and set of rules. Before our first family visit, Mommy visited by herself, so she could prepare us for what to expect. Knowing details - the schedule, the dress code, the security screening, what you can bring (nothing, but money for the vending machines, a car key, and ID), the visiting room layout, what Daddy would be wearing, waiting for “count”, the food, and lots more - helped us adjust to the visiting room.

I know my Daddy loves it when we arrive early. Being on time is a great way to let Daddy know how important he is to me and how much I value our time together. Waking up early on the weekend isn’t always easy, but I remind myself to WAKE UP! I also set out clothes the night before because I don't want any last-minute delays.

I never know what my eating options will be once I’m inside the visiting room, so I try to budget time to eat a big breakfast before visiting Daddy. If I’m planning to use the vending machines, I make sure to have the right coins and bills - and enough of them!

My Daddy wants to hear about all the important events that happened - highs and lows - since I last saw him. I’ve learned to keep a mental list of those events and other issues that require his guidance. It’s a lot like talking to my Mommy after she picks me up from school. That reminds me, I’m usually wiped out after our visit, so I try to tackle my homework and chores before they become stressors.

 

During the Visit

 

It can get pretty chaotic in the visiting room. Sometimes the background noise makes it hard to connect. I try to stay focused because time flies, and my visit is always over sooner than I want it to be.

When I have trouble finding something to talk about, I remember my handy list! Before I know it, Daddy and I have lost ourselves in a deep discussion about art or a book. I try to make sure to ask Daddy about his days too. He tells me that his days are boring, but he always has amazing insights and can find humor in the most mundane tasks. Also, I think it strengthens our bond when we can imagine how the other person spends the day and can give each other advice about how to deal with difficult situations.

Sometimes, we just want to play! We have to stay in our seats, and there isn't much with which to entertain ourselves, but we’ve figured out lots of creative ways to have fun - from reading a book together, to making up a story, or folding scrap paper into amazing origami art.

We try to set a few minutes aside before our visit officially ends because we all seem to remember ten more things that we want to say on the way to the exit! The extra time allows us to catch up on last-minute thoughts and to say our goodbyes (or "see you soons") without feeling too rushed.

After the Visit

Visiting an incarcerated parent can be pretty draining business! Luckily, I don’t have to drive us home, so the trip back ends up being a good time to take a nap and reset. When we arrive home, we send Daddy an email to let him know that we made it back safely. Emails usually take about two hours to arrive each way (because they undergo security screening). If Daddy doesn’t get our email on time, he worries and calls to check that we are okay.

Phone calls are a good way for Daddy to check in on us. He is allowed to call us, but we can’t call him. Daddy has only 300 phone minutes a month, and a maximum of 15 minutes per call, so he has to ration and to use them thoughtfully. On special days - like birthdays and graduations - Daddy always calls early to let us know he is thinking about us.

During our time apart, I follow up on the things Daddy and I talked about. I keep adding to my mental list. My siblings and I save our schoolwork. Mommy takes nonstop photos. If we can’t visit or if there is a lockdown, we send a package. There are lots of restrictions about what we can send in the mail - like no colored paper or greeting cards - but you can send 25 photos per envelope. Daddy loves getting our mail, and it gives us even more to talk about when we see each other next!

Without Mommy, we know we wouldn’t be able to visit Daddy, so it’s important to make sure we take good care of her too. After we get back from the visit, she is exhausted! We love to let her fall asleep, while we cook a delicious dinner.

The realities of the visiting room might seem harsh, but Mommy tells me that our visiting room is "middle of the road" in terms of how strict it can be. She tells us to imagine the prison visiting room as if it’s a holiday home - a place where we can go to catch up with loved ones and to disconnect from the outside world. I wouldn't exchange time with my Daddy for anything. With this new perspective, I couldn’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be than a prison visiting room with my family!

In collaboration with KidsMates