WASHINGTON – Eighth-grader Cailyn Moreno can’t wait to tell her mom about the exciting news she just received: “I got my grade up 15 percent,” exclaims the 14-year-old from Anne Arundel County. “Fifteen percent in two days!”
It’s a Wednesday afternoon, but she’ll have to wait until the weekend if she wants to break the news in person.
“I don’t want to tell her over the phone,” she said. “If it’s really important or really exciting, I want to tell her in person.”
Her mother is 30 minutes away, incarcerated in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. But unlike most children of incarcerated parents, Moreno, a member of the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program, will be able to visit her mom outside of normal visit hours and in a less formal setting than the visitors’ room.
Maryland is one of only a few states that has a program to allow daughters to visit their mothers with their troop in a gym where they can share activities, play and talk. Tailored to support the 195,000 incarcerated women in state prisons and local jails, programs like these are finding ways to keep mothers in touch with their children so the family remains intact.
The reforms are partially driven by the fact that incarcerated moms struggle with providing care and affection behind bars. In most states, much of that parenting happens over the phone. In 2015 the Federal Communications Commission capped rates paid for in-state prison calls and limited service fees, causing the cost of a 15-minute phone call in Maryland to drop 63 percent.
“It is so important that those calls be made and that connection be kept,” said Shari Ostrow Scher, the founder and executive director of Maryland’s Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, which is based in Frederick.
Maryland ranks third in the nation for the affordability of a 15-minute state prison intrastate phone call, coming in at 52 cents, with no commission paid to the state prison system per call and no service fees. But experts say even a minimized charge still is a burden to families navigating the system.
While the state doesn’t offer mandatory parenting classes for all incarcerated parents, advocates like Scher have taken matters into their own hands. For the past 16 years, Scher has taught a “parenting from afar” class on Wednesday nights to incarcerated mothers at the Frederick County Detention Center on the west side of the state.
The Jessup facility is the state’s only women’s prison and one of approximately 80 state-run women’s prisons nationwide. While debate over criminal justice reform in Washington has come to a standstill, Maryland is one of a handful of states enacting new reforms for incarcerated women at the local level. In 2014, for example, Maryland passed a bill banning the physical restraint of pregnant inmates and inmates in labor unless otherwise determined by their doctor. It also outlawed the use of waist and leg restraints on pregnant inmates. In recent months, the state, along with other Arizona, and Virginia, has started providing free menstrual products to inmates.
And it supports the volunteer efforts like Girl Scouts Beyond Bars.
“What we do on the federal level is important, but where a lot of this has to happen is on the state level,” said Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, a leading advocate for criminal justice reform, at a February event. “The federal government only has between 10 and 20 percent of the prisons.”
An important factor beyond advocates’ control is the geographic distance between incarcerated parents and their kids. Maryland cannot take into account the location of a mother’s children when placing her in prison because Jessup is the state’s only women’s facility. In fact, since around 80 percent of states only have one or two women’s state prisons, it’s a common problem. Sixty-three percent of inmates in state prisons are locked up over 100 miles from their families, making visits hard on families.
Valerie Montague, manager of the central Maryland chapter of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, said her program provides transportation for girls who live in Baltimore. They have a 15-passenger van that picks up the girls at their homes, takes them to the prison and brings them back after the meeting. Moreno’s grandmother has a car and the means to take her and her siblings to Jessup, but for other families it can be a challenge to travel across the state.
“Buses in places like Frederick are great but they may not come that often from where you live,” Scher said, adding that her group – Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership — is applying for grants to offer more options to local families. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was ongoing transportation right to the front door of the jail?”
Even if families can make the trek to Jessup or one of the local jails holding women, visitation rules are restrictive. At Jessup, visitation days are Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., and inmates are allowed a maximum of two visits per week. Only five visitors are permitted per inmate at one time, with no more than three adults in the group. In 2015, all state correctional facilities adopted a new policy that bans touching at the beginning of a visit, kissing on the mouth or taking pictures. Hugging and kissing on the cheek is limited to the end of the visit. Local jails sometimes have more restrictive policies, like only allowing inmates to interact with visitors behind glass. Research has found that non-contact visits can be stressful and potentially traumatic for children. A study from the Urban Institute states that, “noncontact visits make it difficult for family members to see or hear their loved ones, which combine with the general lack of privacy to create a poor experience.”
Moreno said she enjoys the Girl Scouts program because it allows her to see her mom outside of the regulated visiting hours and without her other siblings.
“During visiting, it would be my grandmother and my brother and my little sister and my other sister and it’s kind of shared time, but during Girl Scouts, we have our mom doing activities with us instead of just sitting down and talking,” she explained. “She can braid our hair and it’s really cool … for her to be able to do that with us even though she’s still in there.”
However, the program is restricted to mothers with daughters between the ages of 5 and 18 who can easily travel to the Jessup facility. Montague said there’ are 23 moms and 34 girls enrolled in the program, and mothers have to be infraction-free as well as imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. This excludes sons and children who may live out of reach from the facility.
Maryland may be leading the way, but lawmakers in Washington are trying to reform the federal system, where 14,000 women are locked up. Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have proposed what they call a family-oriented policy for the treatment of those inmates.
“The issues that I think I see in Maryland are issues that are international,” Scher said. “That child loves that parent no matter what that parent did, and we need to do everything to help that child and that parent stay connected.”