Life with Gracie: Making prison visitations more family-friendly

Natasha Searcy had been looking forward to this moment.

For weeks since moving into the Metro Transitional Center, she had been telling her children they’d enjoy the same visitation here as they did at Arrendale State Prison, where Searcy had spent the past six years.

“They were thinking we wouldn’t have the children’s center anymore,” Searcy said.

Until two weeks ago, they didn’t.

That changed recently when HeartBound Ministries opened the One Hundred Shares Children’s Visitation Center at the Department of Corrections facility and Searcy and her children joined other inmate moms and their children for the grand opening.

“It’s awesome,” Searcy said of their new meeting place.

If you’ve never been confined to prison, having a place to be with your children, to talk to them away from the glare and earshot of strangers and guards, might sound like a small thing. It isn’t.

The atmosphere inside prisons is often inhospitable, especially to children. Visitation areas lack privacy or only allow contact through glass barriers, making it difficult to have honest, important conversations about personal issues, negative or positive.

As you might imagine, the separation and stress take their toll, said Andrea Shelton, founder of HeartBound Ministries and the brains behind the center. Studies have shown that children of prisoners suffer from higher levels of depression, anxiety and poor academic performance than other children. They are also at higher risk of landing in prison themselves, and that is what Shelton hopes to avert.

She hopes the center will be a place of normalcy and, if they’re lucky, visitors will forget that they’re inside prison walls.

In many ways, the transitional center looks like any other Georgia correctional facility with locking doors and correctional officers keeping watch. A child’s visit usually begins with a long wait in the visitors’ line. Contact between mother and child is restricted to sitting across from each other at a table that is bolted to the concrete floor.

That always bothered Shelton.

“It was awkward because you literally sat across the table from your parent,” Shelton said. “It was discouraged to even cuddle, which was really sad to me.”

Shelton knows what it’s like. She used to visit her brother in prison, but watching the children with their parents, seeing them eat unhealthy food from vending machines, didn’t seem right.

In 2010, HeartBound Ministries applied for a grant from the One Hundred Shares Foundation to start a literacy program at Metro State Prison called the Little Readers Program.

That application was unsuccessful, but they tried again last year and were awarded $50,000, money they used to start the literacy program at Metro T.C. and open the visitation center.

Shelton had seen what had been done in the children’s center at Pulaski Women’s Prison in Hawkinsville and at Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, where incarcerated fathers are reunited with their kids for a day of games, crafts and inspirational messages through a program called Returning Hearts Celebration, which HeartBound sponsors each April.

“It’s had a tremendous impact on the inmates, reconciling them to their children,” Shelton said.

For her, it was a picture of God, who declares in the Book of Malachi that he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.

“God is a God of reconciliation,” Shelton said. “That is his model, so we started asking, ‘How can we facilitate reconciliation here for these women?’”

With the grant, ministry volunteers went to work restoring a drab 483-square-foot storage room into a bright room stocked with a comfy sofa, table and chairs, books, toys and a piano. They call it the One Hundred Shares Children’s Visitation Center.

“HeartBound had the vision and we followed,” Metro Superintendent Pamela Wiggins said of the ministry.

“Once you’re inside this room, you can’t even tell you’re inside a Department of Corrections facility,” she said. “The guardians can leave the children with their moms, who then have the latitude to be mom and not mom the offender. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

But the goal is much bigger than just providing a meeting place. They also want to provide inmates with the tools they need to, absent their physical presence, be moms.

That means offering parenting seminars and literacy resources, including the Little Readers Program, which last year recorded 669 inmate parents reading to their kids and then mailed the DVD recordings, books and Bibles to over 1,200 children.

“Not only does this promote literacy, we hear from caregivers that it eases children’s anxiety about their parent’s absence,” she said.

There are some 72,000 children with at least one parent in prison in the state of Georgia, and that doesn’t include kids whose parents are in county jails or detention centers.

“This is our pandemic,” Shelton said. “Among African-Americans, 1 in 9 children has a parent in prison; 1 in 28 Hispanic children and 1 in 57 white children.”

About 75 percent of the 234 women at Metro are mothers, who range in age from 21 to 67.

Searcy, 29, is serving a 14 ½-year sentence for vehicular homicide.

Days before the opening of the visitation center, she was looking forward to visiting with her children ages 12 and 8.

The opening, she said, is right on time.

“Having alone time with them makes me feel more like a mother,” she said. “It’s 100 times better than a supervised visit.”

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