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Leaving Prison Is A Fraught Time For Inmates And Families - How One Program Helps

Jill Sheridan
Indiana Public Broadcasting/IPB News

Indiana has the second-highest rate of parental incarceration in the nation. In 2015, nearly 11 percent of Indiana children had a parent who was — or had been — jailed.

Prison affects all members of a family in countless ways, but time lost with loved ones can be one of the hardest parts of being incarcerated. And re-integrating into family life can be difficult for the inmates and their loved ones alike.

One program in central Indiana is working to connect inmates and their families with resources before their release. The aim: Break the cycle of incarceration through continuity of care.

The program, called Bridge to Success, connects inmates with children to therapy, case management and employment assistance. Rachel Halleck, senior director of behavioral health services with Volunteers of America, the force behind Bridge to Success, said the organization heard again and again how concerned mothers were about their children.

“The first thing out of their mouth was, ‘My kids, my kids, where are my kids? I need to check on my kids,’” Halleck said.

Bridge to Success grew out of a three-state pilot called Look Up and Hope, which offered services to families across multiple generations.

Halleck said through that program, VOA learned how fragile former inmates and their families were at the time of release.

“Where we have people drop out of services is in those times of transition,” she said. “So if we can start them with a support person while they are incarcerated, the likelihood of them staying in services is significantly higher.”

While Look Up and Hope focused on services in women’s prisons, “Bridge" focuses its efforts on incarcerated men, with the understanding their health affects their children, too. Halleck said a child who has a parent who is incarcerated is eight times more likely than one without a jailed parent to enter the criminal justice system themselves.

“For these families, even a single intervention helps boost resiliency and their ability to fight through whatever adverse experiences they are having,” Halleck says.

When Langston Hughes heard about Bridge to Success, he was serving two years for a probation violation, his second sentence. He said his incarceration this time was a lot harder on his 8-year-old daughter.

“In my situation, my child was hurt because I wasn’t there,” Hughes said. “So that affected the way she was around the house, in school, acting out and misbehaving.”

Experts say having a parent behind bars impacts not just a child’s behavioral wellness but their physical health as well.

VOA worked with Hughes to lift his daughter’s spirits.

“They asked my daughter what is she interested in and she said dance,” he said. “She’s real big on the dancing, so they put her in dance school.”

Before prison, Hughes helped his mother and sister financially. VOA helped him find a job that allowed him to keep helping to support his family.

“It eased my burden a lot, because in there you can’t do nothing but think and worry, think and worry,” Hughes said. “It’s a stress reliever.”

Besides stress, more than a third of inmates report a combination of past substance abuse, at least one mental health issue, and trauma.

The VOA program involves a trauma-informed care approach, which focuses on how a person's circumstances can affect their health and behavior.

Program coordinator Greta Compton said this can be complicated for men.

“They don’t consider it trauma, it’s just normal,” Compton said. “But it’s not normal to see someone stabbed in your backyard when you’re 8, it’s not normal and it’s not healthy. A lot of what we do is reframe it and say, ‘Yes, this happened to you, now let’s work on it.’”

Halleck said the work also has to consider a hierarchy of needs.

“If I don’t know where my next meal is coming from or I don’t know if I will have a roof over my head, we’re not going to be able to do breathing techniques to focus on my anxiety,” Halleck said.

Hughes has been employed for almost a year. His daughter lives out-of-state, but when she comes to visit he looks forward to parenting … in every way.

“I don’t know if I should say this,” Hughes laughed, “but you know, she’s got an attitude problem, so I try to steer her and line her up in the right direction.”

This story was produced by a partnership between Indiana Public Broadcasting and Side Effects Public Media, a reporting collaborative focused on public health.