David Chura

David Chura
Northampton, Massachusetts, United States
March 21
Teacher, youth advocate, author of "I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Kids in Adult Lockup" (Beacon Press).

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FEBRUARY 1, 2012 8:46AM

Keeping Locked-up Kids and Their Families Connected

Rate: 11 Flag

Arizona’s legislature recently passed a law charging prison visitors a onetime $25 fee as a way to help close the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit. Middle Ground Prison Reform, a prison advocacy group, challenged the law in court as a discriminatory tax, but a county judge upheld its constitutionality.

Fees like that, slapped on prisoners and their families, couldn’t be more counterintuitive. But then again, so many of our criminal justice policies are just that. Since it is mostly the poor, the desperately poor who fill US prisons, the $25 fee is one more economic hardship offenders’ families have to struggle with. It becomes another bill they have to scramble to pay—that is if they can.

These kinds of charges (and Arizona isn’t the only jurisdiction trying to shift the cost of incarceration to the poor) have even graver consequences. When a family can’t pay the fee their contact with their loved one is limited, essentially cutting an offender off from the only supports he or she has in the outside world.

Psychologists have long known how central it is for an individual to have nurturing people in his or her life in order to develop emotionally, psychologically and socially. This need for a supportive network is even more essential when we talk about the young people who are locked away from family and loved ones in our nation’s prisons and detention centers.

As anyone who has worked with kids in the penal system knows on a gut level, it is crucial to have families and other supportive community members involved in young offenders’ lives as they serve their time. Now, that commonsense intuition has been given empirical strength by studies done by such juvenile justice groups as the Vera Institute of Justice which have demonstrated that maintaining young people’s connection to families is a major factor in helping kids stay out of jail once they are released.

But it’s easy to question whether these families are really such a positive influence. After all, if they were doing such a great job what are their kids doing in jail?

It’s an easy assumption to make until you see some of those family members in the prison visiting room with their sons and daughters. I got to do that at least twice a year when the jailhouse high school where I taught for ten years in a county adult facility had its open house for families and caregivers.

The place was packed with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, or the people who stepped into those roles when circumstances—AIDS, death, addiction, incarceration, abandonment, all the things that ravage the lives of the poor and disenfranchised—demanded it. It wasn’t easy for many of them to get there. Meals had to be missed. Second jobs skipped. Long cross-county bus rides with tickets to pay for, transfers to be negotiated, at night, often in bad weather. The grandmother of one of my students, Leon, a skinny 15 year old who was finally making progress in class, had to travel over an hour on three buses to get there. It was a trip I knew she faithfully made twice a week to see her grandson. “I wouldn’t miss a visit with my boy for anything,” she told me, reaching over and giving Leon’s hair a playful tug. “But now you tell, Mr. Chura, how’s he doin in class?” That set Leon squirming.

It was a conversation I had over and over during those family visits. Miguel’s uncle who gave me his phone number and urged me to call him if Miguel wasn’t in school. Luis’ mother, frail and  in a wheelchair, holding her son’s hand, telling me how when Luis got out of jail she was moving her whole family out of state to get away from the gangs that ran wild in the streets. “I just want my boys to be safe,” she said, her English halting but her fear and determination palpable.

It was hard to hear in the visiting room sometimes with people chattering in several different languages, children running around, little brothers squealing when their big brother in his funny orange jump suit picked them up, mothers crying, locked-up sons trying to explain, promise, console. It was hard to hear but it was easy to know what was going on: Families—fragile, fragmented, strained, mending—were desperately trying to stay a family.

Many of those visitors would be willing to admit that they hadn’t done such a good job at maintaining the family bond, but that they did the best they could given the problems they had to face. Like Luis’ mother the determination was there but the resources weren’t. If we as a nation are serious about reducing crime (and not just by increased incarceration) it is important that we not put more obstacles in the way of young inmates’ families but rather that we give them the opportunities and resources to develop and sustain those crucial connections. It’s an investment that’s worth losing 25 bucks over.

Originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

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Thank you for being one to pay attention to these kids who need so much.
Thank you so much for sharing your experiences here. That fee is just sad and unfair. For a number of years, our state would transport prisoners out of state to be incarcerated, from CT to VA, and it was just terrible for the prisoners & families. A teacher I knew had his younger brother incarcerated there, and it was so hard on everyone. He would visit prisoners up here when he couldn't get down to see his brother, and finally they came back.
There's a line from an old hymn: "When in a prison you came to my cell...Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me." Those are, basically, Jesus' words. I wonder how Jesus would feel about a $25 visitation fee.

Important and eye-opening post. I hope this gets on the cover.
Arizona judge visits his 'kids' in prison.

A kid is a young goat who's not a gal yet.

Judge tells his children at the prison visit:
"I changed my name to Judge Lame Goat.
Charging families a fee to visit their loved ones is a travesty. Thank you for your continued good work with those who are truly in need. Rated.
Outrageous. More antics from the Arizona Jesus haters.
The prisons and detention centers should pay the family for coming to visit. It keeps the kids out of trouble there and usually is therapeutic. In those cases where the family is a bad influence , sometimes the kid can see it and learn from it.
Great post. Sometimes I forget just how much $25 is for a lot of people. This is just one more example of all the little things that make it so hard to pull oneself out of a bad situation.
And of course, while babies might get in free, I'd bet older kids, who might still be too young to be left at home alone don't. The airlines started charging $15 for a reserved seat on a short haul flight. Not much. 25$ for a long haul. Again, not all that much. But when we added up round trip tickets for a family of 4, it was $360, which is a very different thing from a $25 charge.

What Arizona really needs to do is to lock up fewer people. I'd bet massive parole and rehab services cost less than imprisonment.
Thank you for bringing attention to this.
Three things: You can't tell me there's not a better way to scrape together that $25 for the state. It's a punitive measure because we punish the poor in this country.

Second. We get so many heartbroken parents at my school in the Bronx, who are trying to keep their kids out of gangs and trouble. They can't always control everything, and, as is indicated above, have night jobs and second jobs.

Third. We take kids back into the school after their stints in juvie. We treat them fairly. They're kids. They need support, not only from family but the community and their country--this fee re-enforces their lack of worth in Arizona's eyes.
You're so right about many of these young people are confronted bt things they can't control in their lives. Those are the conditions that we as a society ignore--poverty, racism, addiction, disease.

I think it's great that your school will give kids getting out of "the system" the respect of saying "you're still our students. We care about you." In my own jail classroom I made it clear that when they were in my room they were "students" not "inmates" and that I expected certain behaviors and that in turn they would be treated respectfully. It worked wonders.
This makes me want to cry. It's wrong, on so many levels. Thank you for writing this article and publicizing this issue.
This is an important piece of writing. Thank you for taking the time to share this information with the rest of the world. I'm an Arizona native... All I will say is Arizona needs more people like you!