Written by: Emily Lane

A year of the COVID-19 pandemic in Louisiana has also meant a year has past since families were allowed to visit their relatives in prison in a state with the highest incarceration rate in the country.

The news is welcomed by children of incarcerated parents – a group whose voice will amplified by a new council housed in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration: the Council of Children of Incarcerated Parents and Caregivers.

Earlier this month the council had its first meeting with Edwards’ Deputy Chief of Staff for Programs and Planning Adren Wilson. Bree Anderson, who was selected as vice-chair of the council, said their goal is to collect data to identify children with a parent in jail or prison.

“So many of us are told that we’re going to drop out of school, we’re going to end up in prison, like our parents, we’re going to be…pregnant teenagers, and it’s not true,” Anderson said. “So to include their voices and implement them into some holistic healing program, so they don’t end up doing something to make them go to prison or, you know, make them go to juvenile centers, because it’s not that they want to do it, but some people don’t have an outlet.”

Making it easier for people in prison to nurture relationships with their children can lead to better outcomes for the parent and the child, she said.

College freshman Aaliyah Allen’s mother has been in prison since she entered high school, yet Aaliyah was class president at George Washington Carver High School, made the honor roll and earned a track scholarship to University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

Statistics show children of incarcerated parents are more likely to get suspended, expelled or jailed, Anderson said. But Allen, 19, tells WDSU she stayed in touch with her mother, who motivated her.

“My success, what I do, gives my mother something to live for. And as long as I’m making my mother happy, I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing and making myself happy because not only is it..a blessing for her, but it is for me,” Allen said.

The Council of Children of Incarcerated Parents or Caregivers is an extension of Gov. Edwards’ push for criminal justice reform, his office said.

“The children of the incarcerated are often forgotten and invisible to policy makers. This council is going to ensure their unique needs are known and understood. My administration is committed to ensuring every child in Louisiana can live out his or her fullest God given potential.”

The ban on in-person family visits that’s been in place because of the pandemic was lifted last week at some state prisons and on Monday at the rest. It’s welcomed news for 14-year-old Brianna Brown, whose father is serving time at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. State juvenile correctional facilities that house males will start accepting visitors again March 20, the Office of Juvenile Justice said Monday.

‘I don’t know when the last time I saw my daddy in person,” Brianna said.

Pandemic brought time-limited free calls

Since the pandemic started, state inmates have been given two free ten-minute phone calls per week. Aaliyah tells WDSU 10 minutes isn’t enough when she has to split it with her younger sisters and grandmother. Her mother contracted COVID-19 in prison early on in the pandemic, Aaliyah said, and it was difficult to manage short conversations when she had so many questions and worries about her well-being.

Prisoners can make longer phone calls, but they have to pay per 21 cents per minute, according to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Agency spokesman Ken Pastorick said the two free calls a week will continue at least through the end of March. As in-person visitation is phased in, he said, “the Department will reevaluate whether to continue the free calls.”

Anderson says her support and advocacy organization, Daughters Beyond Incarceration, which pushed for legislation that resulted in the new council, is making its next push for unlimited free phone calls between family members.

Pastorick said inmates also receive two free “email stamps” a week. Since the pandemic started, video visitation has also been made available for $2.50 per 10-minute call. Charges for the phone calls pay for equipment, monitoring and recording services provided a third-party contractor, which Pastorick said “is in line with other State Departments of Corrections across the country.”

Daughters Beyond Incarceration accepts donations to help their mentees pay for phone calls and other types of communication with their incarcerated parents. Information on how to donate can be found here.

Missing milestones

Missing her mother during milestones like prom and graduation can’t escape her thoughts during those times, Allen said. But hearing on the phone that her mom is proud of her, “it’s just exciting.”

“All I ever wanted to do was make my mother proud,” she said.

Anderson’s father Robert Jones was released from prison in 2015 after decades behind bars, after he was wrongfully convicted in New Orleans. Her hope is that once children, like her, are identified, their schools and communities will have a better understanding of what they’re going through and be better prepared to help them.

“If someone would have knew that my parent was incarcerated when I was in school, I think it would have helped me,” Anderson said. “I was more shy, I didn’t say anything because of the stigma.”

Written by: Emily Lane, WDSU

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