Deck the prison walls
By James Alan Fox
Friday, December 23, 2005

 'Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the (big) house...

Christmas came early to MCI Framingham, the state's correctional facility for women. Last Friday, the prison's visiting area held a special annual event for incarcerated moms, their young children and the youngsters' substitute caretakers.

The inmates had been anticipating the occasion for weeks, crafting Christmas stockings for their sons and daughters and filling them with small gifts purchased from their canteen accounts. Family Services Director Rhonda Coleman, a 14-year veteran of correctional programming, supplemented the gift assortment with donated books and toys.

The brightly-decorated tree stood in the corner with gifts scattered underneath. The children--dozens of them--played games, including musical chairs and pin the hat on Santa, and munched on cookies and fruit punch. Everything looked pretty typical of any Christmas celebration, except, of course, for the uniformed correction officers standing guard and the barbed-wire fences surrounding the outside perimeter.

This was not so much a party--a dirty word for the law and order crowd--as it was a vital piece of the prison's family reunification program promoting the correctional trifecta: prisoner rehabilitation, child welfare, and behavior incentive.

Maintaining family ties has been shown repeatedly to be one of the strongest factors impacting on post-release success. The Framingham moms attend parental training and support sessions. They know that continued incarceration threatens their fragile relationships with their kids.

Seven-year-old Jameel struggles with the occasional visits to see his mother Sherri Lynn, who is serving 2-3 years for violating probation on drug charges. Having witnessed his mother being cuffed and arrested, Jameel tends to be wary of cops and guards. He hates the drive from Fall River to Framingham; it takes time for him to warm up to his mother and her surroundings.

Sherri's mother Sue insists that her daughter has one last chance. If she messes up again, Sherri will lose Jameel forever...and she knows it.

At 7 O'clock, it is time to open the presents. Most of the children attack the gift paper, eager to see what Santa has brought them.

But not all the children seem to share the merriment, certainly not Deantae, age 7, from Pittsfield whose mother Sherine Hamilton is in her third month of a 3-year stint for distribution of crack. Sherine describes her oldest of three sons as sad much of the time since her imprisonment. It shows clearly on his face, as he slumps in a chair while his brothers excitedly examine their new toys.

There are thousands upon thousands of children who share Jameel's and Deantae's pain. One in 40 children in the United States has a parent behind bars. Fortunately, gone are the days when a mother's incarceration was virtually an instant ticket to foster care. Nowadays, grandparents, and aunts and uncles typically assume the job of interim parent. And programs like Framingham's nourish the parent-child bond until mom gets out.

The Christmas event is most critical, of course, for the children. It helps to dispel their fears and fantasies of prison life when they see mom healthy and doing well. It also helps for them to see they are not the only ones dealing with the social stigma of having mom behind bars.

At 8 O'clock, it is time for the children to leave, for them to make the journey back to Pittsfield, Fall River or wherever. It is hard to describe the collective sadness and frustration as the children cling to their mothers for the final few moments.

Then, with arms full of presents, the children walk away in tears. After all, Santa could not grant their number one wish: to have mom back home.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at