D’Juan Collins’ son Isaiah was just shy of his first birthday when his father was arrested for drug possession in 2007. Collins, who was sentenced to eight years in prison, remembered that day as the worst of his life. Isaiah went into foster care and, while his foster agency initially brought him to Rikers Island to visit once a month through the city’s Children of Incarcerated Parents Program, things became much more complicated after Collins was moved upstate to the Fishkill Correctional Facility.
When he was finally able to see Isaiah again months later, Collins worried his son might not recognize him, but those fears were promptly alleviated when the then-2-year-old saw him and yelled out “Daddy!” When it was time to say goodbye at the end of that first visit, Collins recalled, he took small steps to make their walk back to the door take as long as possible.
Years later, Collins, now a leader with VOCAL-NY’s Civil Rights Union, is helping other incarcerated people advocate for their parental rights. Helping others avoid some of the pitfalls he’d fallen into is rewarding work, he said, but he still feels the sting of the two long years he was apart from his son.
Late last month, the Daily News reported that former New York City Council candidate Celia Dosamantes was provided with an unusually flexible arrangement while incarcerated on Rikers Island for campaign fraud. Dosamantes, who is serving a weekends-only sentence, is driven to the jails complex by a correction officer in a van each Friday and permitted to bring her baby daughter with her into the jail. The two stay in the Rose M. Singer Center nursery instead of a cell, where they are able to see visitors instead of the general visit room with the rest of the jail’s incarcerated population.
It’s a humane, accommodating arrangement – one that contrasts sharply with the experience of most incarcerated parents. While children under the age of 16 are allowed to visit with an adult, opportunities for most incarcerated people to see their children are often limited – especially outside the confines of formal visitation rooms. Entering the Rikers Island complex tends to be both an intimidating and arduous process due to factors like a strict dress code, long waits and security measures like metal detectors, barbed wire and plexiglass. Not wanting their kids to see them in such a hostile environment or for them to have to go through the visitation process, some parents end up telling their children not to visit altogether. That’s the case for a lot of the people whom MK Kaishian, an attorney with New York City-based civil rights firm Kaishian & Mortazavi, works with.
“Parents are seeking to protect their children and unfortunately, for incarcerated parents, that often means forgoing that visitation in the interest of their child,” she said.
The Department of Correction said it has tried to improve the visiting experience by crafting a visitor handbook, providing visiting children with crayons and drawing books, along with other measures.
Of the roughly 31,000 people incarcerated in state prisons, about 60% are parents. And while the number of men behind bars has fallen somewhat in recent years nationally, from 1980 to 2021 there was a 525% jump in the number of women incarcerated. In New York City, 1 in 5 public high school students – around 36,000 people – reported that at least one of their parents had served time in jail or prison, according to a city report from 2021. The impacts of parental incarceration are often profoundly negative. Children with incarcerated parents are six times more likely to be incarcerated themselves because of the ripple effects of losing someone who is often a central figure in their lives, said Jared Trujillo, senior policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“It means taking a person, usually a breadwinner, out of the household, which can heighten childhood poverty and puts a lot of stress on a co-parent and other family members,” Trujillo said. “That also means knowing that your parent is in this really violent environment which has truly profound consequences on a child’s psychology, on their educational attainment and everything else. Incarcerating parents is one of the worst things we can do for kids.”
Part of the problem is the stigma that comes with having a parent who is incarcerated. The city’s Children of Incarcerated Parents Program was created in 2000 in part to help ease this stigma. City leaders have created several child-friendly visitation programs to help with some of the strife that comes from family separations. One of these was Crafting Family Connections, a program started by then-first lady Chirlane McCray in 2018 that facilitated monthly visits for parents and children away from Rikers Island at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.
Other programs work independently from the city, like Children of Promise NYC, a nonprofit after-school program based in Brooklyn and the Bronx, that provides mentoring, therapy and group counseling, while helping facilitate and foster children’s relationships with their incarcerated parents through letters and other forms of communication.
“We recognize that no matter what, that scholar loves their mom or dad, regardless of the infraction to society, whatever the case may be. They love their parents,” said Sharon Content, president of Children of Promise NYC. “We want to make that connection as strong as possible so that when mom or dad returns home, that will allow them to have a better relationship.”
Research has shown the benefits of a system that supports incarcerated people seeing their loved ones. In a research study published in 2008, criminology professors William Bales and Daniel Mears found that incarcerated people who were visited were 31% less likely to reoffend than those who were not.
Under city law, incarcerated parents with children in the foster care system have a legal right to see their children, unless a court has ordered otherwise. The foster agency or the city Administration for Children’s Services is supposed to make an effort to facilitate at least a monthly visit. But advocates said many incarcerated people aren’t aware of their parental rights, though Correction Department officials claim that informational resources are readily available to people behind bars.
“People feel really trapped and isolated without resources and incredibly powerless when these decisions are being made without them,” Kaishan said. “Family Court decisions are made, decisions about placement are made, decisions about child support and other consequential decisions that relate to the incarcerated parent are made while that person is completely unable to participate in that process.”
This is a pattern that carries into other aspects of the incarcerated parent experience, according to advocates.
Some pregnant people who recently gave birth are permitted to stay in nurseries where they have a chance to raise their babies behind bars in those early months, but space and acceptance is limited. The Singer Center, the only women’s facility on Rikers Island, has roughly 25 beds in its nursery.
“A lot of people don’t even know that is an option that’s available to them. … The issue is that people are not being supported,” Kaishian said. “They don’t necessarily have a person who is an expert in walking them through the process. A criminal defense attorney isn’t necessarily going to know how to advocate on the family side.”
A better future
Activists have fought for years to get the Department of Correction to loosen the rules at Rikers Island that have barred extended visits and left many mothers separated from their children. Success has been limited. There have been gains elsewhere – one law, passed by the state Legislature in 2020, required the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to ensure that incarcerated parents are sent to state prisons closer to their children’s homes. There are also now laws protecting women in nurseries from being shackled. But progress has been limited when it comes to extended stays, underscored by the recent exception granted to Dosamantes.
A swirl of discourse followed the publication of the Daily News story about her arrangement, and the stark differences between her experience behind bars and most parents’ experiences. It underlined the disparity in treatment of people who are politically, financially or socially empowered with those who aren’t. In response to the story, some called for Dosamantes to be subject to the same harsh restrictions as other mothers detained on Rikers Island. But Kaishian thought that response missed the point.
“The solution is to move everyone in the direction of equity, humanity, better conditions rather than what many people seem to be calling for, which is that she be treated as awful as all other incarcerated parents,” she said.