Father’s Day at San Quentin – images of prison parenting

Many thanks to Shaul Cohen for the link to this photo montage of Father’s Day visits to San Quentin, California, US. The website details the annual Father’s Day event, “Get On The Bus” which brings children in California to visit their fathers in prison. According to The Center for Restorative Justice Works, the non-profit organization that runs the “Get on the Bus” programme, 60% of parents in state prison report being held over 100 miles (161 km) from their children. Regular prison visits seem to lower rates of recidivism for the parent, and also have benefits for the children in maintaining a relationship with their parents.

What struck me most about the montage, which includes images of children riding the bus, of parents and children reconnecting, and of fathers doing facepainting with their children, was these two images, of children wearing the purple t-shirts of the “Get on the Bus” programme, having their photos taken with their fathers, wearing prison-issue blue. In the visiting space there’s a backdrop of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, and the smiling snapshots are taken in front of it. From the images it seems that the Golden Gate is not the only backdrop option, but its the one they’ve chosen for these images, or perhaps just the one that happened to be on offer on the day.

I’m intrigued about the role of this backdrop for the fathers and their children, and why they chose to have their photos taken in front of it.

Maybe the backdrop is just decorative – more decorative than the beige walls of the visiting space. Maybe it’s just conventional that a backdrop like this is used, like in a photographer’s portrait studio. Or maybe it’s there so that children showing these treasured images to their friends don’t need to explain where they were, or what was going on – although one might anticipate that the backdrop would raise more questions than it obscures.

The backdrop image itself intrigues me too – by using a famous California landmark, there’s a reconnection to the locality, the state, and to the landscape that is familiar to the children and families on the outside. These images look almost like holiday snapshots – families on a day trip having their photo taken in front of the Golden Gate bridge. There’s an element of enactment here, heightened by the ‘stageset’ of the painted backdrop.

It’s a small detail, but perhaps a significant one in terms of understanding what goes on during prison visiting, and the ‘performances’ that are undertaken by both visitors and visited, especially when families are far apart, visits are few and far between, and everyone wants the visit to go well. It also gives a tantalising insight into what happens after the visits are over, and the importance of visual records of the visits themselves, both for parents and children, in terms of the maintenance of a narrative of parenting and family, when a parent is incarcerated.

The relationships between visiting and reduced recidivism, and visiting and children’s well being, have been observed in a range of contexts, but perhaps it is attention to details such as this, seemingly trivial issue of family photographs, that is key to understanding how these things are related to each other, and to enhancing these positive effects of visitation.

Mother’s Day in Prison – virtual crossing of the prison wall

Mother’s Day in the US has highlighted the problems facing families trying to bridge the divide of the prison wall to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones. Some of these examples highlight the value of online advocacy and social media in bringing issues of personal communication to a wider audience

  • Media Literacy Project, Strong Families, and Thousand Kites have a Mother’s Day radio special which highlights the charges made in the US by telephone corporations to families wishing to keep in touch with their incarcerated loved ones.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union has a new  Justice Mamas feature on its website, with a series of mothers talking about what it is like to have a son behind bars and in solitary confinement
  • The Get on the Bus initiative in California brings children to visit their mothers in prison. Sixty percent of parents in state prison report being held over 100 miles from their children.

What each demonstrates is the reach that the prison has beyond its physical boundaries, into the lives of the families and friends of the incarcerated. Carceral geography has debated the apparent ‘inside/outside’ binary, (for example Baer & Ravneberg 2008, Moran in press), and within criminology, prison sociology and ethnography there is a wealth of research into the ‘collateral’ effects of incarceration (see for example the work of Helen Codd, and Megan Comfort’s recent book). Where carceral geography can contribute further, though, is in the exploration of these hybrid inside/outside spaces of collateral confinement, in which contact with the carceral, be that vicarious, for example through telephone conversations, or actual, through the entry of  ‘free’ individuals into the carceral estate, affects the lives of the family and friends of prisoners.

Just as important, though, is work which addresses the after-effects of incarceration, such as Matthew Lowen’s paper at the AAG conference in Seattle in 2011 which considered the effects of supermax confinement on prisoners’ lives after release. Matthew argued that “upon release prisoners experience social and spatial isolation as a result of limitations imposed by laws, regulations, and societal expectations.  Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that prisoners often impose social and spatial isolation upon themselves thus limiting their contact with others and in effect contributing to the re-creation of the many limiting conditions of mobility while in solitary confinement”.

Whilst Mother’s Day rightly draws attention to the suffering of the families of the incarcerated, as Matthew Lowen argues, “there is a need for a deeper analysis of the political implications the of socio-spatial (im)mobility of prisoners held in solitary confinement as well as recently released prisoners with a history of solitary confinement.” See more in the American Service Friends Committee’s report “Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in Arizona’s Prisons and Jails” (Matthew Lowen and Caroline Isaacs, 2007)

Distance Matters: Parenting in Prison

Where prisons are matters – not just for the local inhabitants of surrounding areas concerned for their house prices or their employment prospects, but for the families of the incarcerated who face problems in visiting prisoners when they are held at distance from home, and for imprisoned parents who want to see their children.

In New York, USA, two politicians have recently introduced bills that would establish a pilot program for 60 parents to be incarcerated near their children. According to a piece in the NY Daily News, although more than 73% of incarcerated women in New York are mothers and roughly 100,000 New York children have a parent in prison, the state Department of Corrections makes no provisions for parents when it assigns them to prisons across New York state.

The impact of distance on the experience of imprisonment, particularly for mothers with young children, is the focus of  a recently completed project looking at the experience of women in Russia’s prison system, and is discussed in a forthcoming book, as well as in a recent paper which describes Russia’s geography of punishment.

While carceral geography has tended to concentrate on the impact of the spatial distribution of places of incarceration on the communities which host or surround them, research into the impact of distance from home and family during imprisonment would complement the wealth of research within criminology and prison sociology into the ‘collateral’ effects of  incarceration.