SUSU In Action: See and Include the Incarcerated Parent
Much of the stigma children of incarcerated parents face can come from feeling like their relationship with their parent is different than their peers’ and will be judged negatively. While children with incarcerated parents face unique challenges, their parent still remains their parent even when incarcerated: incarceration is where they are; not who they are. Many incarcerated parents are and want to be involved in their child's life, and many children of incarcerated parents want the same.
One way a parent can maintain their relationship with their child throughout incarceration is by participating in their child's education, but often the parent depends on others to make this possible. Because of their limited access to means of communicating, it may be difficult for an incarcerated parent to be as involved as they would like. This is an opportunity for educators and school staff to help create pathways for the incarcerated parent to stay up to date on the child's school experience and even participate in this.
Below are some steps educators can take to see and include an incarcerated parent in their student's educational journey:
Ask the student and their family what they need
Before exploring how to involve the incarcerated parent in their child's education, make sure to check in with the student and their family/caregivers first to confirm this is something the child wants and would be beneficial to them and their parent.
Decisions are often made for children of incarcerated parents, so ensuring the child has a say in the decision will help them feel seen and heard.
"Prison has given my dad the opportunity to go back to school and obtain his GED and then go on to achieve his Master's degree in Theology at Mercy College. My dad's accomplishments have shown me anything is possible, despite the circumstances. It has also made our relationship something a daughter could be proud of. My father and I are like best friends and each other's sole purpose for living. Having a lifelong relationship with my dad makes both of us better people." –Osborne program graduate
Find where you can be of assistance
Once you check in with the child and their family, figure out what role you can play as an educator. This may include encouraging the student to share their homework and grades with their incarcerated parent, setting up a parent-teacher meeting with their incarcerated parent, communicating with the incarcerated parent by phone or email, or sending them their report cards. Each school and state may have different processes for setting up meetings with incarcerated parents so make sure to check in with your school administration about how to go about this process and consult your local department of corrections website about their phone call and video visit policies.
There also may be in-prison programs that can provide support. For example, the Bedford Hills Parenting Center, a longstanding program of Hour Children, is located within New York's maximum security prison for women and offers a wide array of programs and advocacy for incarcerated mothers. Among these is educational advocacy where mothers are allowed access to phones to speak with their children's teachers or school staff, and to participate in parent-teacher conferences. The difference this makes can be life-changing for the children, as well as for the mothers and for the teachers who in most cases, realize the tremendous benefit of involving mothers in their children's educational journey.
"While I was incarcerated, I was able to advocate for my children's educational success. My daughter was cutting school, and I would call her every morning to make sure she got to school. We turned this around and she went every day. I was able to talk with her and my son's teachers and they did better after that." –Assia, Bedford Hills program participant
For more information about this program, please contact Jane Silfen, firstname.lastname@example.org
Use inclusive language when speaking about parents
One way to symbolically see and include incarcerated parents is to use inclusive language when speaking about parents. Bringing the experience of parental incarceration into your classroom and school can help students feel like their experience is acknowledged and welcomed rather than stigmatized. Also, be mindful of how certain occasions and holidays can have an impact on students with incarcerated parents. Graduations and milestones in their education can also serve as reminders that their parents are not there to celebrate with them. Figuring out ways to bring the incarcerated parent into the celebration, even if it is just acknowledging how proud their parent must be of them, can help bring their parents closer to home while away.