By Craig Schneider
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The 7-year-old Atlanta boy walks past the fence topped with razor wire into the women’s prison. He’s acting like a real hotshot.
“Going to see my momma,” he says.
He teases his older sister walking beside him, explaining, “I have fun annoying her.”
Then, inside the brightly colored children’s visiting room, he sees his mom standing there in her drab prison uniform. Everything stops. And the boy melts into her arms in a long hug.
For many children of incarcerated adults, life doesn’t get much better than a visit with mom. Whatever crimes their parents committed, the kids pay their own price: a parent absent for years, the shame and stigma of a loved one behind bars, moving in with grandma.
They are the invisible victims, the collateral damage, the unintended orphans.
Across the nation, this is an important time for these children. Criminal justice reforms are sweeping the country as policy-makers shift away from decades of tough-on-crime laws.
In Georgia, those old policies vastly expanded the prison population and doubled state spending, costing taxpayers about a billion dollars a year by 2011. Yet the recidivism rate stayed at about 30 percent, according to a report this year by the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform.
Today, Georgia is leading the nation in criminal justice reforms, many of them aimed at helping offenders become productive citizens, while still keeping the public safe.
Roughly 8 percent of Georgia’s children - at least 189,000 according to a conservative estimate - have had a parent behind bars at some point in their childhood, a study found. Proponents of the reforms say these kids are already beginning to benefit from the new policies.
Drug courts are diverting nonviolent offenders away from prison beds, keeping them with their families. Prisons are enhancing educational programs, some allowing inmates to obtain not only a GED but a full high school diploma. And one new agency is providing “family days” where ex-convicts and their families interact with local employers, faith leaders and providers of drug counseling and mental health services.
“We help the offenders become successful, and our aim is that the family unit will benefit, including the children,” said James Hill, a spokesman for the newly created state Department of Community Supervision.
Each of the state’s female prisons has a special children’s visiting center, said state Corrections Commissioner Homer Bryson. There’s also one at the men’s prison at Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, about a two hour drive north of Atlanta.
“The department has and continues to improve its efforts to provide additional programming and avenues to help incarcerated adults maintain and build relationships with their children,” Bryson said.
But several community activists say the jury is still out on whether the reforms will have a profound, widespread effect on the children of imprisoned adults. Many of the changes are only a few years old.
Still, optimism is rising, said Sandra Barnhill, president of Foreverfamily Inc., an Atlanta-based nonprofit that has worked with these children for 29 years.
“Parents are coming out of prison a little more optimistic that they can be gainfully employed and provide for their families,” Barnhill said.
Slow on some reforms
Once a month, Sandra Barnhill loads up a small busload of children from Atlanta and heads off to some prison around the state. It was her group that brought the 7-year-old boy to Pulaski State women’s prison in middle Georgia for a visit in August. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is not identifying the boy because of his age).
But groups like hers are few and far between.
While embracing these justice reforms, community advocates say Georgia needs to do more to help children with parents behind bars. The kids suffer from higher levels of depression, anxiety, poverty and poor academic performance. So they need more counseling, peer support, educational assistance, affordable housing and easier visitation, as many inmates are housed hours away from their kids, they say.
“We’ve not seen direct policy that sustains the relationship between inmates and their children, and considers the stress on the family,” said Marissa Dodson of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. “All the benefits to children have come indirectly, by increasing programs such as educational opportunities and job training in prison.”
Concern extends beyond Georgia, according to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation on the effects of parental incarceration on children. The report said, “Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce.”
“Few programs exist to support these (parent-child) relationships during incarceration,” the report added, “and, upon reunification, families are left to travel bumpy terrain on their own, from readjusting to life after prison to resuming parental roles.”
Jeremy Griffin lost both his parents to prison. He was only about 2-years-old when he moved in with his grandmother in Union City in 2001. For years, once a month, he visited his mother in prison, often catching a ride on Barnhill’s bus rides.
“I used to be the first up in the house,” he said.
At the prison, he liked to sit in his mother’s lap, when the guards allowed it. And he hated leaving, hated it to tears.
His mother, Chartisia Griffin, was serving 15 years for armed robbery. In 2000, she and another woman talked their way into the car of woman parked by an Atlanta mall, then beat and robbed her. Griffin told the woman that if she did not cooperate, her partner would “blow her brains out,” according to court records.
Through the years, Griffin’s regrets grew, in part because she saw changes come over her son. During visits, Jeremy closed up about his life. He developed a hard shell over his emotions.
“I knew I didn’t have a parent,” he said. “I was telling myself what to do. I had my own rules.”
He stopped listening to his grandmother, who was overwhelmed taking care of Griffin’s children. Money was scarce; several times the family found themselves evicted, and at one point they lived in a shelter.
Jeremy started talking back to teachers, then skipping school and hanging out with a gang.
“I confronted him about the gang,” his mother said, “but he denied it.”
Jeremy began smoking pot and ripping off other kids. When he was about 12, he was caught with some friends breaking into a house. The owner didn’t press charges so he got off easy. The next year, he spent a week or so in juvenile detention when he was caught joyriding in a car stolen by a friend.
By ninth grade, he’d dropped out of school.
“I was out there wilding,” he said.
Mom comes home
The great fear is that these kids will follow their parents into crime.
“They get swept up in that cycle — being away from their parents, poverty issues, having to move and getting separated from their community,” said Rebecca Rice of the Georgia Family Connection Partnership. “All those are risk factors for becoming incarcerated later in life.”
Chartisia Griffin was released from prison in 2014. She’s thankful she was able to live in a transitional housing program for a year. After 15 years in prison, she said, “I didn’t even know how to do a cell phone.”
She’s back home now, living with her family in Decatur. She and the children’s father, who is also out of prison, have married. Jeremy is 17 now and lives with them.
Griffin has been re-asserting her maternal authority over her son, teaching him that “my no, is no.”
That’s required some serious mother-son talks. Jeremy sometimes throws the blame back in her face. There’s been some yelling arguments. Several times, his mother has broken down in tears talking about her own failures, begging him not to go that way.
“The world expects you to fail,” she tells him. “The world expects you to be another statistic. You don’t have to be.”
It seems to be working. The mother has set boundaries for his behavior. A 10 p.m. curfew. Restrictions on who he associates with. Work remains. Jeremy still hangs around with some of his gang friends, despite what his mother says.
Still, last month he started GED classes four days a week at Atlanta Technical College.
“I’m trying to grow up,” he said.
‘The hard sell’
There’s a Catch-22 inherent in helping the children of prisoners. To help the kids, you often have to help the parents. And the parents — convicted murderers, thieves, drug addicts — don’t engender a lot of public sympathy.
“That’s the hard sell,” said Rice of the Georgia Family Connection Partnership.
The Casey study, which tallied the number of children who had a parent incarcerated, found African American children were seven times more likely to have a parent incarcerated in the U.S. compared to white children. Latino kids are two times as likely. Poverty is a common thread through the lives of these children.
The great majority of parents in prison are fathers. Many of them are the primary earners for their families. When they go away, that often leaves the family struggling economically. Families already receiving government assistance become increasingly dependent on it, said the report, which drew from 2011-12 data.
When a mother is incarcerated, the disruption to a child’s life can be worse. Without their caregivers, kids often have to move in with grandparents or family friends. Some end up in a foster home.
The prison visit
Prison is no place for a child. That’s why the children’s visiting room at Pulaski State women’s prison is decorated to look like an elementary school art class.
The prison moms have adorned the cheerful yellow walls with all manner of construction paper creations. There’s a different theme every month. This month it’s the Olympics, so there’s big colorful construction paper Olympic rings hanging from the ceiling and an array of posters with upbeat sayings.
Fresh off a 2 1/2-hour bus ride from Atlanta, the children rush in and there’s a flurry of mother-and-child reunions. Each family tries to squeeze a month’s worth of loving into a few hours. Mothers and kids color together at their table. They catch up on school. They go play with Hula hoops, jump ropes and other toys in a little outdoor play area, still within the prison fences.
The 7-year-old, who was such a clown walking into the prison, is in full-tilt, little-boy mode. He can’t seem to stop doing cartwheels and speedy runs around the room, showing off for his mom, Shakiethia “Keke” Wheeler.
“It does make me feel like me,” Wheeler said.
The mother’s sweet demeanor stands in stark contrast to her rap sheet. Wheeler was convicted two years ago of shooting and killing a 28-year-old man in southwest Atlanta. It made the news, mainly because she used the stand-your-ground defense.
The moms work hard for the privilege of getting in this room, which has no guards. They have to remain trouble-free for a year in the prison and go through an 15-week parenting class. There’s a waiting list a year long.
Before it’s time to go, Wheeler reflects on the life she’s made for herself and her son and daughter. He’s looking taller and his appetite has grown, she says. Her daughter is more aware of why they’re here; her son not so much.
“They know I am mother,” she said. “They know I didn’t leave them willingly.”
When it’s time to leave, the hugs go on forever.
Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article. Digital presentation by Pete Corson.