Loving Through Bars : Children with Parents in Prison

Loving Through Bars : Children with Parents in Prison
Cynthia Martone
Janaury 2005
Reference & Social Sciences
6 x 9

There Are 2.3 Million Children with a Parent in Prison. It's Time for Their Voices to Be Heard.

An estimated 2.3 million children in the United States have a parent in prison-children whose lives are filled with a unique kind of instability and uncertainty.

These children are themselves victims of their parents' crimes, members of a neglected segment of our population who are potentially damaged by stigma and shame and who are at risk of being pulled into a vicious cycle of future criminality and deviant social behavior. Such children are child prisoners-kids who must learn to understand living and loving through bars.

In Loving Through Bars: Children with Parents in Prison, Cynthia Martone offers a searing and poignant view of these unfortunate kids, presenting their particular plights through a series of stories.

Among the people readers will meet are a little girl who chats with murderers at Attica Prison while visiting her father, the recently released prisoner who has seven children by five different mothers, and the second-grader whose dad regularly calls him from jail and encourages him to put a pillow over his mother's head at night in order to kill her.

Written by an experienced public school administrator-Martone has been awarded the Outstanding Educator Award for the State of New York-this examination of the instability and uncertainty that plague children of prisoners chronicles their attempts to cope and presents a possible starting place for societal response.

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I used to write poetry
But haven’t lately
Who would I show it to…?
About him in prison
About shame, About waiting
About loving someone

More than 2.3 million children in the United States have a parent in prison. These children are innocent victims, their lives filled with instability and uncertainty and damaged by stigma and shame. Children with an incarcerated parent comprise a neglected segment of our society lost in a vicious cycle that often leads to future criminality and deviant social behavior. They are child prisoners-children who must learn to understand living and loving through bars.

For me, the discovery began when I learned of the circumstances surrounding two students-a second-grade girl and her first-grade brother. When I realized the children were going to be spending the weekend with their incarcerated father at the infamous Attica State Prison, and I read a letter in their file from their father asking that he be allowed to participate in his children’s education, I found myself determined to understand all aspects of the situation: what the children would experience, what their father was trying to accomplish, how the nature of their relationship had been affected by the incarceration of the father. . . .

The very word “prison” evokes a sense of doom, of a dark pit for the soul. Prisons are bleak places, but to children with someone they love behind those bars, the surroundings become secondary to the stolen moments of being loved-of loving-that can occur within prison walls. For the sake of these children, I chose to enter the prison world through their eyes. Thus began my journey into thoughts, feelings, and experiences I had never encountered. It was a decision that changed my life.

There is a devastating effect on children whose parents do not, for whatever reason, fulfill their roles. These children have been deprived of the most important factor to their growth and development: parental love. Parental love begins with parental presence. In Between Parents and Child, Dr. Haim G. Ginnott underscores the fact that “a child’s greatest fear is of being unloved and abandoned by his parents.” And this same belief was echoed and immortalized by John Steinbeck in his novel, East of Eden: “The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears . . . And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge.”

In my role as a school principal, I have learned of homeless children, HIV positive children, and children abandoned by parents who are so self-absorbed that the only alternative for their children is a foster home. And yet children who have a parent in prison did not hit my radar until relatively late in my career in education. These children are most certainly a neglected segment of our society, and the impact on all of our lives cannot be underestimated. We can no longer ignore them.

Children do not comprehend the mechanism and the principles of incarceration. What appears obvious and understandable to them is that their parent is gone; that they have been abandoned and rejected, and are therefore not loved. Among the children of incarcerated parents I have worked with, the most significant feelings I’ve encountered are those of rejection. When a parent is taken away, the children feel abandoned. The reason as to why a parent has left doesn’t matter; it is beyond a child’s understanding and takes a back seat to the simple fact that the parent is gone and will no longer be involved in the child’s day-to-day life.

The emotions that surround an abandoned and rejected child are overwhelming. The child feels guilt for something he or she had no control over- simply because it is a child’s nature to be egocentric. These children believe they are to blame. A lack of trust and the loss they feel at being left behind bring on instability and feelings of betrayal. And, of course, shame. When a parent is convicted of a crime, a child is left without a parent. They are alone: alone at their school play, alone at their birthday party, and alone when they go to bed at night.

But regardless of where the parent is in a child’s life, the child loves that parent. In situation after situation, I witnessed the incredible strength of that bond. And yet, at the same time, while I certainly expected that a relationship between incarcerated parents and their children would be complicated, what surprised me was the level of heartbreak that existed, the tremendous hidden pain of imprisonment. It seems to me that our society should start by attempting to understand the complex bond between children and their incarcerated parents as we work to be conscious of what these children are facing.

It is well known that children suffer most in their lives from failed or failing relationships, from isolation and alienation. “Who is the best person to care for my child?” asked Dr. Lee Salk in his 1972 book What Every Child Would Like His Parents to Know. Dr. Salk answered his question by writing, “The best person to care for any child is his parent. Regardless of how well-trained or how well-meaning other people may be, they are not likely to have the deep attachment you have for your own children. The protective feelings that biological parents have for their children are essential for the propagation of the species. Undoubtedly, they have been crucial to the survival of the human race…”

While I still believe that a healthy, biological parent-child relationship is the ideal family dynamic, Dr. Salk’s early-1970’s enthusiasm for it has certainly been given a reality check in the 21st century. Today, the issue is not so black and white. After all, there are plenty of stepparents and adoptive parents out there who are doing a much better job raising their children than their biological counterparts. Not to mention grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents. . . . Regardless, there is certainly no doubt that while many children of imprisoned parents form strong family bonds with other parents and caregivers, absentee parents-imprisoned, unavailable, or unidentified-remain undeniably important to the children they leave behind.

I want to share a letter I received after an article I wrote about my visit to Attica Prison was published. It offers another perspective on the complexities of the issue:

Dear Ms. Martone,

Recently a friend of mine sent me a copy of the article/essay which you wrote for the Democrat and Chronicle that was published on Sunday, July 8th. As an “incarcerated co-parent,” the article touched me deeply. I don’t know if you will ever be able to fully understand just what it was you did, and how much it meant to the incarcerated father and his child. Your generosity, kindness and desire to understand the issues that affect your charges development are extremely rare in today’s society. To call you a “hero” would be like calling Babe Ruth “just another baseball player”.

Do you have any idea what you did for us as incarcerated parents? You showed society something we inside can’t. That being that we love our children, that we care, that we didn’t come to jail to “escape the responsibilities of parenting/fatherhood.” Personally, I can never thank you enough for that alone, for showing us as “Humans.”

On July 4, 1995 I was arrested for burglaries I committed to sustain a cocaine addiction. I had a daughter who was just over 2 yrs old at the time. Was getting arrested my “rock bottom?” No, that came a year later.

My daughter’s mother took her for studio pictures. When I received a copy, Sara looked like she was pouting. In the letter that came with the photo was an explanation. “We kept saying smile for daddy, this is for daddy, smile Sara, smile for daddy!” Her response was, “I no smile, daddy not here!!” and with that she proceeded to pout for the camera.

Since that day I have been involved with “parenting issues.” Eventually I developed an “Incarcerated Co-Parenting” program at Elmira Correction facility through their Veterans Self Help Development program. I was overwhelmed with the response I got from those who were interested in taking it. That was in ’97. Now I am at Livingston Correction Facility (still serving my 8-16 year sentence from ’95) and with the help of a very caring counselor here I am setting up my 4th Incarcerated Co-Parenting program. I urge the fathers in my seminar to do as your students father did, write to the schools for information and assistance in regards to growth, health, welfare and development of the child, and what areas he can assist in/increase involvement in. Fortunately, as a result of my commitment to being the best dad I can be for myself first and my daughter second, Sara and I share a depth of love understanding, acceptance and forgiveness that even fathers who are physically present don’t share.

But the letter isn’t about me. It is about recognizing you for the beautiful gift you gave to a father and child, the gift of time together. Do you know how a child measures love? Love equals time. I can say with certainty that that little girl (and her father) “love you.” My love and respect go out to you as well, from one human recognizing the kindness and selflessness of another. Congratulations Ms. Martone, you’ve crossed a boundary where few if any dare to tread.


When I first read this letter, I could feel the depth of the father’s regret for the mistakes he had made. Any potential he may have to be a productive parent is for the time being dormant, as far as his child is concerned. For this prisoner, the completion of his sentence offers the possibility of beginning a journey that could save the child from the sins of the father.

The children depicted in these pages are already displaying “personality distortions” which are being manifested insidiously, e.g., poor performance in school, lack of interest in class activities, becoming more difficult to handle in class, etc. These cries for help are muted in our current educational system by the lack of teachers with the time and expertise to deal with their problems.

Is there hope for these children? I believe that parent-child contact and the services society can provide to strengthen the unexplainable yet fascinating bond that even bars can’t weaken may one day help to break the predictable cycle of imprisonment that is all too often the end result for children whose parents are in prison. Together we can foster these bonds between parent and child, ties that can play a crucial role in keeping a parent from returning to prison once they’ve been released. Even more importantly, fostering this bond can decrease the statistics of these children following in their parents’ footsteps.

Thomas Lewis calls humans the “fragile species.” The most fragile among us are our children, whom we must protect, guard, and guide for the preservation of our species. That is why, as Jacob Bronowski explains in The Ascent of Man, “In our evolutionary ascent, humans are the only species that developed a ‘long childhood.’ For the Man is the product of the Child.” You could not get a human being to build anything unless the child had put together a set of bricks. That is the beginning of the Parthenon and the Taj Mahal, of the Dome at Sultaniyeh and the Watts Towers, of Machu Picchu and the Golden Gate Bridge.

And so it is my hope that the stories of the children in this book will give you a glimpse into their world. I hope I can show you the stigma, shame, and fear that the children feel, and a look into the soul of the prisoners since one cannot be separated from the other. The stories will give a searing and poignant view of what it means to love through bars, and will hopefully present an objective view of the problems as well as a starting place for societal response. Please enter the world of children with parents in prison through the pages of this book with an open mind. What you do after you get to know them is up to you.

©2005 Cynthia Martone