Parenting from prison

My wife and I are expecting our first child, and that has me paying special attention to what the Bible has to say about raising children. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” Proverbs says, “even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Turn back a few chapters: “Children should be proud of their parents.” In 2 Corinthians we’re told, “Children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.”

Imagine the heartache an incarcerated parent must feel reading verses like these.

I picture myself, now an expectant father, again living behind the razor wire, cut off from the rapidly developing new life the Bible calls me to shepherd and care for. I empathize with the remorseful offender who now finds herself unable to fulfill this God-ordained role in her child's life - a role that changed but did not end the day she was arrested. And my heart goes out to the children who still long for a meaningful relationship with their parents, who still desperately need the grace-filled encouragement only their parents can give.

That's why I'm encouraged that officials in Coconino County, Ariz., are pioneering a creative way to help inmates stay connected with their families. Anyone who has ever used Internet video-chat to “visit” a distant loved one can appreciate the ingenuity of incorporating this technology into the correctional environment. It provides a secure, semi-private, infinitely convenient way for loved ones to go behind prison walls without enduring the emotional trauma of being screened for contraband and exposed to a threatening environment. Especially for those who would be separated from their visitors by a pane of shatter-proof resin, the virtual separation of a video screen is a welcome alternative.

But perhaps the most important thing video visitation makes possible is regularity of contact. It is difficult for someone who has never endured a sentence of confinement to appreciate the agony and disorientation of sporadic contact with loved ones. Regular letters and visits are a fragile lifeline preserving an inmate's diminishing sense of belonging to the free world. Sever that connection, and the inmate soon retreats into the harsh inside world of the institution, gradually abandoning his former roles and assuming new ones. After four or five years of such separation, well, you can do the math.

Of course, no parent can fully live up to their responsibilities from the confines of a jail cell, even with dedicated support from loved ones and the option of regular face-to-face contact. Children will suffer significant relationship compromise even under the best of circumstances. But there is no reason why the justice system should not cooperate with a family's sincere efforts to maintain a meaningful connection. Video visitation represents an important step in the right direction.

Children must learn that freedom entails responsibility - that when citizens violate community standards, there will be consequences. A parent's obedient submission to punishment is a lamentable but legitimate way to communicate that message. If continuing a relationship with an incarcerated parent is difficult but reasonably possible, children may yet grow and thrive as a result of the experience. But if incarceration effectively means wholesale deprivation of a parent's influence, then it seems far more likely that children will grow up bitter and resentful - both toward the parent and toward the authority figures who helped sever the relationship.

What Do You Think?

  • Is video visitation a just way for prisoners to maintain outside relationships?
  • What are other ways Christians can answer the Bible’s call to “remember those in prison?”

 

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