On the bus to Valapairiso yesterday, we had the opportunity to reflect on our project, putting it into the context of our innovation class and evaluating it from a theoretical perspective. We began to look more critically beyond the individuals and systems we had come across, and to see instead these individuals and systems as they function as and within communities. And we began to think of potential barriers to a change in the visitation process, our ultimate goal, to evaluate if these communities have the will, competency, and environment for change.
Incarcerated mothers have a strong geographic community at the prison – they come to know their fellow inmates in their close living quarters, and for many, at their long days of work. In some “patios” or areas of the prison, this can be a social asset. In others, every woman acts for herself, and fighting and robbery are common. But the women in these communities all have common goals when it comes to visitation: they want a friendlier space with which to meet their children, and they want more realistic security procedures, for example an extra diaper to be allowed in with their child.
Theirs is a repressed community, a controlled community, one where the women do not feel safe. When some women peacefully protested their conditions, they were immediately transferred to another prison. These women have a strong will to change, but not the environment in which to make it. The women we saw interact with their children, both in the focus group and during a visitation (this time of the inmates with the worst behavior in Patio 1), ALL had the desire for a strong connection with their children, and we witnessed a lot of touching, closeness, and intimacy. They certainly displayed a competency to connect with their children.
For the guards, the prison is a community of interest. Theirs also has a power structure, where ideas from the guards are not welcome at higher levels of command. Guards support one another, but their fear of the inmates became clear as they described their desire for self-defense training as the only additional training they would want for their jobs. Their community is also not heard, and their needs not met, as all described issues other than visitation as larger issues, such as schedules and overworking guards. The environment may not yet be in place for a change in visitation at the prison, but the guards may have the will if some of their needs are met as well. As for competency, despite stating that many inmates were undeserving of improved visitation, one guard spoke of feeling shocked his first time seeing a child visit the prison, and describing how if his mother were in prison, he would visit at every opportunity. This suggests an instinctual competency, a connection to the human experience of mothers connecting with children, which most of us can relate to. Our group can capitalize on this instinct to make change.
It has become clear through our meetings with these communities that in our final recommendations to the prison we must include some to help ready the environment for change. Some of our previous research may help us in this, using arguments showing a reduced recidivism (re-conviction and entry to prison after release) for inmates with stronger attachment to their children and families. On Monday we will have the opportunity to more formally review all the information we have collected on mother-child attachment in prisons and to think through potential recommendations and solutions.
Written by Alissa Marchant, Boston College School of Social Work