Sitting at a metal cafeteria table with her brother and parents, a girl paints a beach scene onto a small canvas. She decides the sun should be pink, like the ribbons in her hair. The tables behind her are covered in toys and art supplies. Outside, yard games cover a small lawn. A boy in neon orange shorts tosses cornhole bags, stifling curses when he misses his mark. His father smiles.
Families are everywhere, laughing with each other or feasting on large sub sandwiches and cookies. It’s a joyful day at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin, but the tall barbed wire fence surrounding the afternoon’s activities prevents any illusions.
Ordinary moments of lunch and playtime are precious to the parents who are part of the Family Connections Center’s annual Family Fun Day. For a few hours, some of the parents serving time in New Hampshire’s state prisons can spend time with their children without supervision by a guardian or the abrupt end typical of regular, timed visits. They can hug or pick up their kids, actions sometimes prohibited during visits.
“The camp that we did last year, the Family Fun Day this year, are the first times that I’ve been able to be with [my son] alone without [his grandma] and to be able to be like that full parent,” said Samantha, an incarcerated mother enrolled in the Family Connections Center program at the New Hampshire Department of Corrections. “And that has just been so amazing. So I’m like, so grateful for those little chances that I get through this program.”
This year, the Family Fun Day event took place statewide at both state prisons for men, as well as the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women in Concord, where Samantha is a resident. It’s a culminating event for the Family Connections Center program at the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, which works to foster relationships between children and their incarcerated parents.
To protect the privacy of their children and the victims involved, only first names of incarcerated individuals will be used in this story.
The FCC was formed in 1998, as a partnership between the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and the University of New Hampshire Family Studies Department. It started with one employee in the now-closed Lakes Region Facility in Laconia, and was the first of its kind in the country. Today, its programming extends to the Berlin and Concord facilities, as well as to those on parole.
Data suggests that programs like the FCC decrease recidivism rates, improve resident behavior, and help prevent the cycle of incarceration. A 2014 study published by authors from the University of Delaware and RTI International Research Institute found that women with stronger family connections are less likely to recidivate. For the children of incarcerated parents, there is a higher risk for developmental issues and their own incarceration. However, studies generally find maintaining a positive relationship with their incarcerated parent can help improve child behavior and create a sense of secure attachment.
The Department of Corrections tries to identify individuals who are parents during their initial processing, though eligibility for FCC depends on the crime committed. Negative behavior can also disqualify an individual from participating. Parents who choose to take part in the FCC program must complete an 18-hour parenting class and a 10-hour healthy relationships class. In addition, parents can attend ongoing support groups and participate in other FCC parenting programs, like video visits and family day events.
“It really is just a place of belonging. When somebody comes into the program, they might be more of a fixed mindset,” said Tiffani Arsenault, administrator of the FCC. “Once they realize that the Family Connection Center is a safe place for them to talk about their kids and their challenges … then we see some of those walls come down and we see them listen more.”
Amber, who is also incarcerated at the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women, said FCC has been key to navigating parenting challenges.
“When I’m overwhelmed, [our counselor] is the person I go to when things are wrong,” she said. “Support group is the highlight of my week.”
‘I am very nervous of the impacts this is gonna have’
Through the FCC program, Samantha and Amber both remain active in their sons’ lives while they’re being raised by their grandparents. Both women will serve time throughout their child’s adolescence, so routine visits are an important source of bonding. Samantha sees her son, who is 8, in person every other week. Amber sees her son, 15, weekly, but she says they’ve switched to video visits since the pandemic.
“He hates it here; it’s this building,” Amber said. “He wants nothing to do with it.”
Both worry about the long-term emotional effects of their incarceration on their sons.
“They question, why did you leave me? Why was this more important? Why did this happen? And it’s such a struggle for them,” Amber said. “I feel like that makes you feel really alone, and we try the best we can. But at that point, you can’t really take the feeling away.”
She said her son is very supportive of her, but that she is prepared for things to change as he grows older.
“Both Samantha and I have been incarcerated their entire life … he learned how to walk at a correctional facility,” Amber said. “Eventually he might be mad at me for being here, but that’s a conversation I had to have with my mom. If he gets mad at me for being here, he’s allowed to be mad.”
Despite her worries, Amber beams while talking about her 15-year-old.
“Just for growing up in the situation he grew up in he is absolutely incredible. He’s very empathetic, he’s very forgiving, he’s very intelligent,” she said. “He’s had a lot of people be nasty toward him and to be as forgiving as he is, is an accomplishment in itself. Because it’s hard.”
Samantha’s experience has been different. Her son is only in the fourth grade, and understands less about their situation. She says deciding when to give him more information and how is difficult, because she shares his parenting with his grandmother and incarcerated father.
“He knows that they call it my house,” Samantha said. “And he’s just starting to . . . understand it a little bit more. Like I just went through a thing where he doesn’t want anybody at school to know about me.”
Both mothers also expressed concern about the impacts of social stigma on their child. Amber says her son has struggled with bullying and behavioral issues throughout his life.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of things involving [my son’s] schools, and his teachers being mean to him or putting him in a box of, ‘Hey, you’ll never succeed, you won’t be able to do this,’” said Amber.
She said English is his best subject, but despite doing well he hates being at school.
“We’re putting him in online schooling now because it’s easier,” she said.
Samantha said that while her son has not run into major issues, he has started to express some shame about their circumstances.
“I am very nervous of the impacts this is gonna have to . . . his self esteem or with his friends at school,” Samantha said. “I don’t want him to, like, have this big giant secret that he holds in and doesn’t want anybody to know.”
Decades of research demonstrate a general negative effect of parental incarceration on children’s health and well-being.
“For kids, to maintain a connection to their identity . . . comes with knowing who your parent is, where your parent is,” said Sheri Simmons-Horton, assistant professor of social work at the University of New Hampshire. “But that’s interrupted when a parent has been incarcerated.”
She added that this interruption can have long-term impacts on a child’s development. It can affect their ability to build healthy relationships and increase the likelihood that they will engage in risky behaviors as an adolescent.
Parental incarceration during the early years of a child’s life, often labeled the most important in their development, can impact performance in school. A child whose parent is incarcerated from birth to 6 are more likely to have attentional problems, worse preparation in school, and increased likelihood of repeating grades, according to a 2023 research review from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
However, factors like the child’s continued relationship with their parents and outside support systems can positively impact outcomes and reduce problematic behavior.
Samantha says she is hopeful for her son’s future. She’s grateful his grandmother has included her in parenting decisions, while opening doors for her son that she can’t. He is enrolled in basketball and soccer, and will travel to Europe later this year.
“He likes science and math . . . he wants to be an engineer right now, which I think is huge as an 8-year-old,” she said.
‘You can’t help a child without helping their parent’
The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Survey of Prison Inmates data from 2016 finds that nearly half of the individuals in state prison are parents of minor children. In New Hampshire, 2011-2012 data, the most recent available, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates that 15,000 children are affected by parental incarceration.
“What I think we need to do is be more open to, one, recognizing that incarceration is, although it’s not great, it’s incredibly common. . . . This might be something that is a reality for a student that you’re working with, or a child that you know,” said Arsenault.
According to Simmons-Horton, maintaining contact with an incarcerated individual can be emotionally, financially, and logistically difficult for families. Incarcerated individuals can be placed or transferred to a facility hours away from their family, and access to phone or video calls is limited. If a child is placed in foster care, or adopted by a family member who does not wish to maintain contact, their relationship with their parent could be cut off.
“If I’m a parent, having to be faced with two or three times a month, driving for hours a day, for a 30 minute to an hour … visit – it’s not necessarily going to look like something I want to do,” she said.
Because of the impacts a parent-child bond can have on childhood, some states have passed caregiver mitigation or diversion laws. A mitigation law requires judges to consider a person’s status as a caregiver in sentencing, while a diversion law provides priority access to diversion programs as an alternative to incarceration, like electric monitoring.
Simmons-Horton emphasized that it is important to note incarceration disproportionately impacts families of color, and that factors such as poverty and racism can play a role in who is affected by incarceration.
“Most of who we’re talking about are going to be these marginalized groups,” she said.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Survey of Prison Inmates 2016 data reveals that many people who are incarcerated in state and federal prisons are from a background of hardship. Nationwide, nearly a third had or have their own incarcerated parent, and 43 percent came from families that received public assistance.
“For those who have found their place in prison, it’s been a long road . . . so what we see often are adults, moms, and dads who are coming to us having lived a very difficult life to that point,” said Arsenault. “So we try to teach them . . . this is who you are and where you came from and why, here’s what your child is experiencing or could experience.”
After working with the Department of Corrections for over a decade as both a correctional counselor and administrator, Arsenault has seen the FCC program evolve. It now offers resources for grandparents, and those released on parole. In addition, the Family Ties program offers free counseling to the children of incarcerated parents. The program also allows FCC participants the opportunity to join counseling sessions via video with their child and the child’s caregiver.
Arsenault said that while some people assume her work is unsavory, she “loves” it. She emphasizes that her work ultimately supports those who can easily become victims of their family’s circumstances: children.
“We’re trying to help children, but you can’t help a child without helping their parent,” she said. “And like it or not, the person who is in this program is their parent, that’s part of their story.”
A lack of data on families exposed to the criminal justice system and the complex web of factors influencing childhood outcomes has resulted in limited findings on the impact of parental incarceration. However, intergenerational exposure to the justice system – when family members of more than one generation enter the justice system – is common. Children with incarcerated parents are also at greater risk for antisocial behaviors. Often seen in children who experience trauma, these are behaviors that go against social norms, like lying, stealing, or aggression.
“I can’t fix the mental health challenges, I can’t fix substance use,” said Arsenault. “But what I think that we can do as the Family Connections Center is build on the relationships . . . so that we can lessen the likelihood of the child becoming part of that cycle, too.”
She added that it’s important to remember that most incarcerated individuals will return to the communities they came from.
“If we don’t invest . . . in those who have gone to prison . . . we’re still getting individuals back into our communities,” she said. “We’re all part of one big system, and if we think that we don’t impact each other, you know, that’s not really helpful. We all are part of it – individuals, families, neighborhoods, schools, communities. Everybody’s connected, and family is what we all have in common. So we need to invest in that.”