Over 20,000 children in NC have a parent who’s incarcerated

Over 20,000 children in NC have a parent who’s incarcerated

By Rachel Crumpler

“Daddy, look at what I painted.”

“You need to watch Stranger Things.”

“Dad, I made the honor roll.”

These are pretty run-of-the-mill things kids tell their dads at the dinner table, on the couch or during a car ride from place to place. But on a recent Saturday, the setting for these comments was not all that ordinary: Parent Day at Orange Correctional Center, a state-run minimum security prison in Hillsborough. 

The event allowed five fathers and one grandfather to spend four uninterrupted hours with their children and grandchild. It was a rare opportunity to play board games, paint artwork, take pictures and eat lunch together. 

In short, it was an opportunity to act “normal.”

For many there, it had been months — even years — since they had seen, touched and talked with each other in person. During that time, separated by miles and prison fences, the children had grown and milestones had passed, but this was a day of connection and bonding. 

David Marrero holds his daughter at Parent Day. When the children saw their fathers and grandfather walk into the room, many jumped into their arms for long hugs. Credit: Rachel Crumpler/NC Health News

James Albright, who is incarcerated, said he soaked in every second he spent with his 16-year-old son.

“It meant a lot to him,” Albright said. “It meant a lot to me. We don’t get to see each other hardly ever. Throughout my whole incarceration, we’ve only seen each other twice. It’s both been at Parent Day.”

Albright said the time together was crucial for bonding with his son and will help fuel their relationship moving forward. He said they caught up about everyday things and talked about what they wanted to do together when he was released. 

The separation has been hard for both of them. As much as they try to stay in touch with phone calls, Albright said, there’s no substitute for in-person connection.

“We’re getting through,” said Albright, whose anticipated release is in May. “These days like this make a difference.”

Orange Correctional Warden Amanda Cobb has watched Parent Day make a positive impact on the incarcerated men and the children, and that’s why she works to make the event happen twice a year at the prison. It’s one way to help build family ties, she said, which will be important before and after the incarcerated men return to the community.

“Reentry isn’t just giving these guys programs for vocational education,” Cobb said. “It’s also about the family and building those family ties, and continuing to build so that when they go out, they are already a part of this child’s life.”

Parental incarceration takes a toll

Cobb said there’s growing recognition that incarceration affects more than the imprisoned; it affects the entire family

“When men come to prison, their families kind of come to prison too,” Cobb said.

Almost 11,000 people — or about one-third of the state’s overall prison population — are parents of children younger than 18 years old, according to a January analysis by the Department of Adult Correction. At least 20,666 children across the state have a parent who is imprisoned, according to the same report. Even more children have a parent incarcerated in county-run jails, a fact not captured in these numbers.

“The parents may have achieved a different title — whatever you want to call them when they come to prison — but they didn’t lose their status as parents,” said Melissa Radcliff, program director of Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons Center, which advocates for increased support for the children of incarcerated parents. “They’re still fathers. They’re still mothers.” 

Radcliff said it’s important to work to maintain parent-child relationships during incarceration, rather than waiting to reconnect upon release.

“We’re taking someone out of their life through no fault of their own,” Radcliff said of the children. “It wasn’t the kids who did anything. If we think about how we have kids who are amazing and well-adjusted, it takes a village. And the village includes that incarcerated parent — if it’s safe and appropriate.”

Parental incarceration takes a toll on children, Radcliff said, noting that it’s one of 10 adverse childhood experiences found to affect kids’ long-term health and well-being. Research shows that children with parents who are incarcerated are at an elevated risk for mental health problems and antisocial behavior.

Strong parent-child relationships can help buffer that risk, and she said Parent Day is intended to help strengthen those connections.

Jasmine Rodriguez made the three-hour trip to bring her 9-year-old daughter to spend the day with the girl’s father, who went to prison in 2019. She said it had been about two years since they’d seen each other in person.

“I feel like they need this time with each other so that they can bond a little bit more,” Rodriguez said. “She got a little older. She was in kindergarten when he left so she has got a lot of questions and stuff, and hopefully she can get the answers.”

Research also shows that visits by family members reduce recidivism among incarcerated individuals and that strong family support is a key factor in successful reentry experiences.

“Building family ties is a big part of their transition back into the community,” Cobb said. 

Day of intention, interaction

Leading up to the day, there was eager and nervous anticipation among the incarcerated men and children. After all, it would be the longest window of time they had spent together in quite awhile. 

“This is the first time that they’ve had an opportunity to spend such a longer time with him one on one, just kind of hanging out with their dad,” said Mercedes Sanders, who brought her two children to visit their dad. He has been incarcerated for about two and a half years.

Shanika Woods, who brought her 6-year-old grandson to visit his father, also said the time together was desperately needed. She said all her grandson could talk about was spending time with his dad. Her son was just as eager, calling her the morning of the event to make sure they were still coming. 

Radcliff has organized Parent Days at prisons across the state since 2012, when the first event was held at Orange Correctional. Since the program’s inception, the days have been carefully planned, including input from incarcerated people. There’s no Monopoly because it’s a long game and people will get frustrated if they can’t finish. There are no movies because movies aren’t interactive. 

Instead, Radcliff brings in plenty of other games, arts and crafts and books. Service dogs and the incarcerated men who train them through a program called At Both Ends of the Leash also came for part of the day.

“For four hours, there was something to keep your hands busy, and that can lead to some really great conversations,” Radcliff said.

And that’s what happened. Throughout the day, the conversation never lagged. There was frequent laughter and prolonged embraces. The men and children freely moved around the room, switching from activity to activity as they pleased.

In contrast, regular in-person visitation at Orange Correctional is limited to one hour of sitting at a table, talking, with less physical contact allowed. Parent Day is also different because caregivers do not attend with the child. That’s to put the focus completely on parent and child bonding, not on caregivers catching up with adult conversations about paying bills and what’s happening at work.

A day for parent and child to interact with freedom and flexibility is meaningful, Radcliff said. One father at Orange Correctional has attended Parent Day three times with his daughter.

“We don’t have a lot of concrete research, but the fact is, he signed up for this three times,” Radcliff explained. “The little girl wanted to be there for the third time. And Mom made it happen three times. It’s working for their family. If anybody’s willing to commit to doing that, I have to assume she is seeing some benefit.”

When the four hours of quality time came to a close — arriving sooner than any child or father wanted — Radcliff asked all the participants, “Did you have fun today?”

There was a resounding, loud “yes,” and everyone shared their favorite part of the day — from eating pizza together to playing with the service dogs to teaching each other new games. 

One child piped in with her answer of simply, “Everything.”

Cobb, the warden at Orange Correctional, agreed.

“I liked everything about today — just seeing dads and children having a good time and enjoying each other,” she said.

A young child pets a puppy during Parent Day at a prison
A child pets a puppy at Orange Correctional during Parent Day. The puppy will be trained to become a service dog by a handful of incarcerated trainers at the prison through the At Both Ends of the Leash program. Credit: Rachel Crumpler/NC Health News

Thinking of the family

Robert Van Gorder, warden at Sampson Correctional Institution in eastern North Carolina, said he saw the benefit of Parent Day immediately after the first one at his medium-security prison in 2022. 

“It’s a totally different atmosphere — a very nurturing atmosphere — and I think it’s beneficial for both dad and kids,” Van Gorder said. “It was just a heartfelt room.”

At the first event, Van Gorder said he went from table to table, and each father and child expressed how much they appreciated the opportunity to be together. In particular, he said, one of the little daughters looked at him and said, “I want to thank you, Mr. Warden, for letting me hug my daddy today.”

That comment affected Van Gorder deeply, he said. From then on, he committed to thinking more about how incarceration affects the family.

Now he’s all about encouraging other wardens to hold Parent Day at their facilities.

In 2023, Radcliff had six Parent Days at various prisons, and she’s on track to hold the same number this year. Radcliff added that she’s eager to continue to grow the scope of the event and connect with interested prisons, including coordinating one at a women’s prison.

Sanders, who brought her children to Parent Day, said she thinks that’s a great idea: “I hope that this is something that they can keep up not just here but for families across the state.” 

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