Chicago Tribune

Prison visits with mom help kids most of all

Eric Zorn
August 28, 2001
Chicago Tribune

Mary Alley cordially invites you to visit her on the job in York, Neb., where she is the coordinator of the parenting program at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women. The prison is about an hour west of Lincoln just off Interstate Highway 80 on Recharge Road.

The name of the road fits the mission of her program--emotionally recharging the incarcerated mothers and, more important, their children.

"It's devastating to kids when their mothers are taken away," Alley said. "They miss them, they worry about them." No matter what terrible things the women may have done to others, Alley said, "The kids still need to feel their mom's love."

Not in little moments--fleeting hugs in crowded visiting areas and phone calls--but in the relaxed, even luxuriant hours when parents and children share real life together. Cooking. Reading. Cuddling. Saying good night.

So in 1974, Nebraska instituted a pioneering effort to allow children to spend nights on the prison grounds with their mothers. After operating in obscurity for more than a quarter of a century, the program recently has become the subject of newspaper stories, TV reports and talk-radio segments about whether 6-year-old Jared Faust should have overnight visits with his mother, Kimberley Faust, a double murderer, against the wishes of his father, Faust's ex-husband.

To listen to opponents of the visit, you'd think little Jared was about to be tossed into a Linda Blair movie or shoved into a dank Turkish-style cell to try to survive the night with a psycho-killer and her pet rats to satisfy our society's lust to coddle criminals and disrespect children.

But the needs of children always have been foremost in the Nebraska program, said Alley, 48, who has overseen it for 11 years. Though the visits do seem to help the rehabilitation of the prisoners and ease the transition back to society for those who are getting out (Kimberley Faust almost certainly will not), the main idea is to help children get through the separation from their moms.

"Kids take it hard because they're so egocentric," said Joanne Archibald, advocacy project director of Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcerated Mothers. "They think that what happens in their world happens because of them, so it's their fault when their mom's locked up. Having alone time with her and talking helps them understand."

The overnight visitation area at the Nebraska women's prison is a separate facility and looks a like a dormitory with a large common area, Alley said. Sleeping rooms are modest but clean with a bureau, wardrobe and a view to the outside unobstructed by bars. Windows in the doors allow for added security, though in nearly 27 years, no mother or other inmate has ever harmed a visiting child.

The Illinois Department of Corrections mother-child visiting program also has a perfect safety record, officials say. It's daytime only, though a new program will allow infants to live with their mothers in prison for up to 18 months.

"Anyone who's formed a strong opinion against our program should come see what it's all about and how it works," Alley said. "They'd see the love and warmth that's helping kids to heal."

Where was that maternal love and warmth when the mothers committed the crimes that caused the separation in the first place? A fair question, and if the issue were Kimberly Faust's parental rights, I'd agree that she forfeited them when she killed her estranged husband's girlfriend and a good Samaritan in April 2000.

But the issue is Jared's rights, what will give him the best trajectory in an already tragic life.

"He wanted his mommy. He didn't want to go home," inmate Justine Stovall told Nebraska TV reporter Carol Kloss after witnessing a daytime visit between mother and son. "He needed his mom. He needed the security to know that his mother still loved him."

It may not be as simple as that, either, of course. Few things are, and a judge ruled Monday that the boy's father will get to make his case in a civil trial.

But visitation programs have a great track record, and we should set aside our anger, our fears and our preconceptions when considering them. Disinterested experts--not lawyers, judges, lawmakers, commentators, fellow inmates or program directors--should make decisions based on the interests of the kids, so they're not made victims yet again.

Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune.