Meet the people who are looking out for those left behind when a family member is sent to prison

“I feel better with this new ministry,” says the older woman in Spanish, with Deacon Paulino Juarez translating her soft-spoken words. “I am being supported in my needs now. And I want more people who have the same experience with a child in prison to know of this place, because they will meet their needs, too.”

“It must be very difficult for you?” The deacon, who was the Catholic chaplain at Los Angeles’ Men’s Central Jail for 19 years, already knows the answer. There’s the personal agony a parent feels when a child is incarcerated, and then the aloneness if neighbors, co-workers and even other family members find out.

A mother prays for her imprisoned son. (photo/Victor Alemán)

Angelina (who wants to remain anonymous) says, “My life has been changed since my son went away. He was with me all the time. Now I am isolated. I feel really sad. Because I was thinking my son was going to take care of me in my old age. So living this life without him is very hard. And there is no way to protect him inside the prison. As a mother, I feel so bad.”

“Does your faith help?”

“Now my faith is more strong because I can feel God’s presence in my life,” she confides. “It is the only way I can survive with this situation. It’s a terrible injustice, and I believe God is just. So I believe my son will come back to me.”

The conversation takes place at Holy Family Service Center across the street from St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood. Since Jan. 12, the center has also been home to the Ministry of Assistance to Families of the Incarcerated, which the Los Angeles Archdiocese is offering through its Office of Life, Justice and Peace.

The new ministry’s mission is to support families — especially families of immigrants — with a member in jail or state prison. They face a number of barriers: language, culture, education, housing, medical care and, perhaps most formidable, having hardly any knowledge of the U.S. legal and justice systems.

It’s vision? That these families will experience God’s presence during their journey of sadness, pain and isolation — so that they’re able to change the despair of mothers like Angelina into hope.

Families of the incarcerated are called the “hidden victims” of America’s criminal justice system, according to the National Institute of Justice. While crime victims can sometimes receive financial compensation and other measures of support, these families usually endure alone in silence.

Children often suffer the most. And with the United States embracing mass incarceration around 1980, there are many more of these out-of-sight, out-of-mind vulnerable victims.

Some 340,000 Americans were locked up in the 1970s. Today that figure is about 2.3 million. According to one report, 1.7 million to 2.7 million children have had their fathers or mothers incarcerated at least once during their young lives.

Another way to put it, 50 to 75 percent of inmates have a minor child. And these children face formidable risks, including psychological stress, suspension or expulsion from school, economic hardship, antisocial behavior and criminal activity.

Deacon Paulino Juarez heads up the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Ministry of Assistance to Families of the Incarcerated with fellow deacon Louis Roche.

Breaking the cycle

Breaking this terrible family cycle by hands-on support is why the archdiocese started the ministry. During his nearly two decades at Men’s Central, Deacon Juarez saw firsthand the problems inmates’ families face without a breadwinner. Some didn’t have food. Others got evicted. Most were first- or second-generation Latinos who spoke little or no English. Most didn’t know their legal rights or the services they qualified for.

The deacon from St. Genevieve Church in Panorama City kept telling himself, ‘OK, I can do this.’

He pitched the idea to leaders of the archdiocese, who liked it. So he talked to fellow deacon Louis Roche, who already had a ministry to the homeless at St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood. And on Jan. 11, the two became co-coordinators of the Ministry of Assistance to Families of the Incarcerated.

“These families have been rejected — sometimes by their own parish,” he says. “People who were friends don’t talk to them. They feel isolated in their own community. So I think the most important thing is to create a place where these families can come to share, to release their worries, to pray. Also, if they need food or clothes or financial help, we are going to help them.”

The ministry is now up and running. Referrals for psychological, medical and legal assistance are being made. An email blast has gone out to other deacons and pastors explaining what the center has to offer — ministering to troubled families with members behind bars.

The impact on the children of incarcerated adults has been well-documented. In fact, having incarcerated parents is now labeled an “adverse childhood experience.” Why? Because of its unique combination of trauma, shame and stigma, reports The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated.

Having a parent in jail or prison increases the risk of kids living in poverty and unstable households. But the most common consequence is “antisocial behaviors,” which run the gamut from persistent dishonesty to criminal acts.

“How do you explain to a 5-year-old when he goes to visit his father in prison that he can’t hug him through the glass window? And you only have a few minutes before you have to leave?” asks Deacon Juarez. “That creates a lot of pain and sadness in the kids and with their parents, too.”

Having a parent incarcerated has often been seen by educators as a significant factor in children doing badly in school. One study found that these sons and daughters are more likely to be suspended and expelled.

And when it comes to economic well-being, “the overwhelming majority of children with incarcerated parents have restricted economic resources available for their support,” reported the National Institute of Justice last year.

But maybe the most startling finding cited by the institute in its “Hidden Consequences: The Impact of Incarceration on Dependent Children,” is that on average they are six times more likely than others to become incarcerated themselves.

In January, supporters celebrated the start of the new ministry at the Holy Family Service Center in North Hollywood.  (photo/Victor Alemán)
 

Hidden anger

When Gigi Breland went to prison for second-degree murder, her daughter was only 6 years old. Twenty-nine years later, when she was paroled from the California Institution for Women, Quinta was 32 with three of her own children and a career in the Air Force.

They had kept up a relationship, first through overnight and day visits along with 15-minute daily phone calls, the maximum time allowed. But the visits and calls got more sporadic during her daughter’s high school years. And when she joined the Air Force at the age of 20, direct communication became rare.

“When Qui was young, everything seemed OK between us,” recalls Breland, who lives at Alexandria House, a Koreatown transitional group home in Los Angeles.

“After a visit, when she had to leave, it was really hard for her. But we didn’t talk about that or why I was in prison or how she was feeling about me. I only learned about all the anger she had when I got out in 2009. You know, about me not being present all those years, me not being there.

“And I don’t know if it just hit her when I came home. Or it was all the lies my family had told about me? She was an only child, and she told me that it was hard because she was so lonely. I’m pretty sure she was ashamed, too, because of my family. Because nobody knew I was in prison but the immediate family. So it was like a big secret. My daughter knew, but she wasn’t allowed to say anything. So it was weird,” she pointed out.

Breland’s nearly three decades locked up also took its toll on other family members. There was the divorce while she was in prison. Some relatives simply stopped talking to her. The only positive thing was she and Quinta reconciled before her daughter died in 2013 at 37 of a blood clot that went to her heart.

“I think it’s really important that parents be a part of their children’s lives no matter what,” she explains. “Some don’t feel children should be in places like prisons, but we need that connection. No matter what, you’re still a mom. Just because you made a mistake, it doesn’t matter.”

The Urban Institute agrees about how important it is to keep up relationships when a parent goes to prison, even if it’s for 29 years like Breland experienced.

“Many experts believe that contact visits conducted in supportive, safe and child-friendly environments are likely the best option to help families mitigate the harmful effects of parental incarceration,” the institute notes in its report, “Parent-Child Visiting Practices in Prisons and Jails.”

“Further, a growing body of research supports the use of contact visits, which allow children to see that parents are safe and healthy while in prison or jail. Spending time together as a family through play, conversation or sharing a meal can also help mitigate children’s feelings of abandonment and anxiety.”

A number of studies have also found that inmates who maintain close relationships with family members have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates. One found that a single visitation reduced the risk of recidivism by 13 percent.

Unfortunately, the Prison Policy Initiative found that visits to state prisons, including in California, are the exception instead of the norm, largely because most prisons were built in isolated areas not accessible by buses or trains. Moreover, the paperwork and documentation needed to enter a state prison plus the militarized environment can discourage visits by family members.

In 2000, “Get On The Bus” (GOTB) was started because of California’s far-flung prisons. Every year for Mother’s and Father’s days, the Center for Restorative Justice Works program takes thousands of children, along with their guardians, to state prisons to spend a day with their incarcerated parents. GOTB has grown to some 50 buses starting from different locales in California.

“My mom’s sentence”

José (who didn’t want to give his last name) has kept up a relationship with his incarcerated brother for years, an expensive relationship that includes 25-cent-a-minute collect phone calls with service charges tacked on. But he hasn’t visited him behind bars. “I can’t see him like that,” he explains. “I told him ‘I’ll see you when you get out.’”

His brother’s case is “open,” so he can’t discuss any details. He gets angry when anybody wants to know more. “My colleagues at work don’t know. My neighbors don’t know. It just kills friendships,” he reports.

He believes the Ministry of Assistance to Families of the Incarcerated is a good idea because it has the potential of really helping folks like his mom, who doesn’t speak English.

“When my brother was arrested, it was like her life stopped,” he recalls. “And when my brother went to jail, it was my mom’s sentence as well.”

Jose hopes the ministry can do two things for families with an incarcerated member. First, it will direct them to resources they don’t know about. That could be a pro bono attorney or The Innocents Project at a local law school. Second, the ministry at Holy Family Service Center in North Hollywood will be somewhere they can share their stories that suddenly turned their whole lives around.

“I think having a place where everybody can talk about their situation openly, and not be embarrassed,” he says, “is a great thing.” 

 

To find out more about the Ministry of Assistance to Families of the Incarcerated, call and leave a message for Deacon Paulino Juarez at 213-278-2069 (cell) or 213-637-7532 (office). His email address is [email protected]

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