Video Calling as an Effective Alternative to In-Person Visitation for Children with Incarcerated Parents

by Parker Jorenby

The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded struggles for children with incarcerated parents, leading to even greater suffering within these families. Children with incarcerated parents tend to live in marginalized communities facing poverty, severe mental disorders, and stigmatization by their society. Despite the relationship strain that results from a parent’s incarceration, children previously have had the opportunity to pursue a relationship with their incarcerated parent through regular in-person visits. Because of the pandemic, prisons around the United States have shut down all forms of visitation, depriving children of a relationship with their incarcerated parent, but they did not present an alternative outside of phone-calls to make up for this loss of contact between parent and child. The deprivation of this relationship has led to compounding negative effects and poses the question of how family visiting systems in prisons should be reformed.

In recent years, studies have been conducted to identify the traumatic effects experienced by witnessing the arrest of a parent. On top of the already adverse experiences of having an incarcerated parent, the observation of police officers arresting a parent places immense stress on children of all ages. Younger children especially do not understand the reasoning behind the imprisonment of their parents or why they may not return in the foreseeable future. The lack of parental involvement and the subsequent consequences following the imprisonment increase the number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). However, visitation with incarcerated parents helps mitigate the negative effects of a high ACE score as well as helping incarcerated parents maintain an important relationship with their children. When considering crime as an infraction on a relationship, whether it is familial or community, developing prosocial and a support network outside of prison may help reduce the recidivism rate.

Seven to eight million children, or 7% of children in the United States, experience the incarceration of at least one parent. This is more than the amount of children suffering from autism and the amount of children suffering from Type 1 Diabetes. With the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons stalled all in-person visitation as a safety measure to protect the prisoners, staff, and outsiders. 

COVID-19 presents a public health risk to the whole nation, however, a balance needs to be reached to ensure children have the opportunity to maintain a relationship with their imprisoned parents. Phone calls have been the main alternative to in-person visitation, but challenges have risen  with this method. The infrastructure in place for phone calls requires expenditures on the family’s end. Since some incarcerated parents are the main money-makers for the family, families with imprisoned providers already have financial hardships and may not be able to afford the cost of phone calls. Additionally, phone calls are a difficult medium of communication for young children to establish a meaningful relationship over. An alternative medium of communication needs to be established during the pandemic to ensure children maintain a healthy relationship with their imprisoned parent.   

With the rise of video-calling and the new infrastructure in place from the pandemic, video-calling is one alternative that is economically friendly for families and prisons. People pay for phone calls by the minute or get limited to only two phone calls with an inmate twice a week. That regularity is only in prisons prioritizing this relationship with the outside while the majority of prisons do not offer this service to inmates. 

Another reason to implement video-calling as the main alternative is the ease of usage for children and caretakers. With almost every student in the United States experiencing online classes in the last year, studies have shown that video-calling is a developmentally appropriate means of communication for children of all ages. Parents and children can see each other, play games over the call, and share stories. The interactions over video-calling provides immense flexibility not offered by a traditional phone call. 

The pandemic will be temporary, but the stress of seeing parents in prison and the important need for a parent-child relationship will always exist. Already children experience adverse effects from witnessing the arrest of their parent, but another stressor can be visiting the prison holding their parent. The drive to the prison, going through security checkpoints, and being in the cold room with other inmates outside their parents all present immense stressors for a child. Utilizing video-calling as the main alternative to in-person visitation may help reduce the strain placed on a child. Beyond the pandemic, video-calling can continue to be used by parents and children to maintain a positive relationship when in-person visits become too difficult for a child.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges for everyone in the United States, especially children of incarcerated parents. The pandemic has shut down prison visitations, depriving children of the essential parent-child relationship. This relationship can reduce the negative effects of ACEs and the recidivism rate for parents. Prisons across the country should offer video-calling as an alternative means of communication between parent and child. It is a solution that benefits society by saving families money, being developmentally appropriate for children, and helping inmates gain pro-social skills to return to society.

Also published on Medium.