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When Prisons Privilege Family Ties, Who Gets Left Behind?
When Prisons Privilege Family Ties, Who Gets Left Behind?
Prisons sometimes temper their isolating nature by connecting prisoners to family, but State Raised individuals are still excluded.
Raymond Williams

“I wish you could have been there. It was cool.” Those were the words my cellmate shared with me in July after he got back from a “family friendly” event held by the Washington Corrections Center—the prison where we are confined. During the event, prisoners got to spend time with their families. They played games together and ate food; there was a raffle, and families won prizes. For prisoners who attended, this event was a necessary respite from the grind of daily life. For visitors, it was a much-needed change from the distance imposed on those with a loved one in prison.

I wish I could have been there too. But having entered the foster care system as a young adult, I have no family besides the state, so I was not allowed to participate.

Prisons are designed to create and maintain separation, reducing a prisoner’s opportunity to connect with people outside. Exorbitant communication costs make relationships expensive, while the rural locations of most prisons make visits burdensome for those with loved ones inside. “Family friendly events” are rare instances where prisons grudgingly work against their nature by opening up opportunities for connection between prisoners and the outside world—an exception they make for legally-recognized family. This is because carceral institutions are designed to work alongside the institution of the family; Where the prison isolates us and keeps us destitute, the family—by sending us resources when we are inside and providing a place for us to land when released—is supposed to mitigate incarceration’s gravest harms. But for people who lack what prisons define as “family,” the world outside can be an ocean too deep to swim in, leaving us marooned on a carceral island.

These dynamics are especially acute for the large subset of incarcerated people who grew up in foster or group care, a demographic I refer to as State Raised individuals. In prison, State Raised people live as second class citizens who are denied the resources afforded to those with “family.” The greater the privilege associated with a policy, the more stringent is the definition of family the prison uses to limit it. For example, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) currently allows friends or unmarried partners to join the Family Council, where loved ones provide input on issues related to prison conditions. But certain special visitation allowances remain restricted to a spouse or immediate family member. During my incarceration, friends and surrogate family have been turned away from visits, and I have even been denied the money, food packages, clothing packages, and books they tried to send me because they are not my “immediate family.”

Seeing people with family experience love and support while not ever receiving it myself has compromised my self-esteem and left me feeling as if I were worth less than the incarcerated person next to me. My fellow State Raised prisoners have also suffered from this emphasis on family. Brian Michael Robertson, who grew up in foster homes and has been in prison for 20 years, told me that he feels excluded when family-friendly events take place. He recounted that seeing fliers for events that cater only to those with family makes him feel like he does not belong: feeling he has battled ever since the state took him from his birth family.

Biases towards incarcerated people with family not only make prison harder for the State Raised—they also harm our chances of successfully reentering society. In 2018, the Washington State DOC rolled out a new risk assessment tool they call Washington One. The assessment is used in clemency and parole hearings to determine whether to recommend a prisoner’s release as well as to decide the stringency of supervision to recommend upon release (or the kinds of programs to require during continued incarceration). One of the factors considered in the Washington One assessment is the support prisoners get from family. If a person has received regular visits from family, they are deemed less likely to reoffend and presumed to pose a lower risk to society if released. Conversely, if a person receives no visits, they are deemed more likely to return to prison. This metric is not unique to Washington One. Similar assessments are made in clemency and parole proceedings across the nation, with boards giving significant weight to the strength of support networks in determining the potential release of a prisoner.

But although the criminal legal system recognizes family support as an indicator of future criminal activity, nothing is done to help State Raised individuals—those least likely to have support networks—to build the kinds of surrogate relationships that would substitute for family. Instead, the prison sometimes actively sabotages those connections. Four years into his incarceration, Brian made contact with his biological mother for the first time and started building a relationship; they even filled out the application requesting visitation. But the application was rejected because the DOC could not verify that she was indeed his mother, and she died months later without Brian ever getting to meet her.

Without a sense of community outside these fences, Brian says, “I have nobody,” especially since he finds relationships within prison “mostly toxic,” strained as they are by the prison environment itself. Connection with people outside of prison is thus the most desired resource. To cultivate such relationships, State Raised individuals need the support of the state, especially since our ties to society are rarely as strong as familial links and our relationships are often more vulnerable to the divisive forces inherent in the carceral experience. But the state denies us such support, placing us in a negative feedback loop where our distance from community becomes the excuse for more distance from community, until we become wholly irrelevant to the world outside of prison.

Over the years, State Raised individuals have successfully fought against some of these policies. At our facility, food and clothing packages no longer need to come from immediate family. The prison has also started allowing loved ones other than immediate family to visit those in solitary confinement. These new policies, which have been spurred by the activism of State Raised prisoners, are a game-changer. Once I was allowed people to receive money and food from friends and surrogate family, my quality of life inside prison increased. These changes also ensure that the next generation of State Raised prisoners will not share the shame and hardship of indigence endured by those who came before them.

State Raised individuals are continuing to push for more, because while we may have been raised in these institutions, that does not mean we want to die here. Brian has petitioned the DOC to build programs that specifically speak to the needs of State Raised people. He has suggested that the DOC put on State Raised events inside the prison to help people from our community find each other; he has also asked the prison to partner with organizations that help former foster youth reconnect with their biological families. (So far, the prison has been unreceptive to these requests.) The DOC could go further and create opportunities for State Raised individuals to meet community members. It could also remove current policies that bar prisoners from forming and maintaining relationships through correspondence and phone. Opening up access to communication and connection with people in the free world is sure to ease reentry efforts for those getting out of prison—for prisoners who have family, and especially those who do not.