Series: My Brother's Keeper

The Value of Family Visits

Ryan Shanahan Director, Restoring Promise
Jul 27, 2014

Much of my work in Vera’s Family Justice Program focuses on understanding the impact of staying connected to family for people who are incarcerated and helping our government partners to identify policies and practices that enhance opportunities for family connections during people’s incarceration or their transition home. It seems intuitive that family—broadly defined to include all supportive people—is critical to the long-term success of incarcerated people as well as to ensuring public safety. But intuition is not always enough to incentivize policy change, and for that we have a growing body of evidence that measures the impact of family involvement with in-facility outcomes and recidivism data

It is encouraging that the recent report to President Obama from the My Brother’s Keeper task force places family connection as a central recommendation. Among the task force’s recommendations is a focus on outcomes for children of incarcerated parents and a request that government “…help incarcerated parents enhance their parenting and other skills while providing more opportunities for them to stay connected with their families.” There are two ways we can respond to this call to action quickly and without much cost: 1) provide relationship classes within correctional facilities—especially ones that focus on parenting, and 2) provide as many opportunities as possible for visiting, phone calls, and other forms of family contact.

We know that helping parents who are incarcerated has long-term benefits for their children. Parenting classes can be a cost-effective way to provide people who are incarcerated with tools they can use when they return. Classes that allow for parents to practice what they are learning are especially effective—for example, the Baby Elmo program, which the Ohio Department of Youth Services has implemented, uses video-based learning to prepare parents for their child’s visit and has impressive results on the relationship between parents and their children and on parents’ achievement while incarcerated.

In all of the work of Vera’s Family Justice Program, incarcerated individuals and their family members are consulted about the role of families and contact during incarceration in order to inform our recommendations. Overwhelmingly, we hear that in-person visits are the preferred way to keep in touch—though visitation comes with challenges, and can be cost-prohibitive when families have to travel long distances. My Brother’s Keeper recognizes that one way to address these challenges is through technology. Televisiting programs, also known as video visitation programs, use technology to create opportunities for families who cannot visit in person to stay connected. In the most innovative programs, video technology is being used not only for visitation but to also to update families on the progress in programming for a person who is incarcerated or to help children in the foster care system maintain ties to their biological parents.

Vera is currently studying the role for technology to support family connections in partnership with Washington’s Department of Corrections. Washington has committed to offering this technology without reducing support for in-person visitation—in direct response to the needs and preferences of incarcerated people and their families. We look forward to learning how this project in Washington can support the My Brother’s Keeper recommendation.

Vera’s My Brother’s Keeper blog series provides insights from Vera staff and other experts on the recommendations President Obama’s task force released in 2014, as part of a progress report on the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. We invite your comments.