The Long Journey to Albion: My experience accompanying kids to visit their incarcerated mothers

20 May 2016

Twice a year, the Osborne Association’s Family Ties program facilitates a visit to Albion Correctional Facility for children to visit their incarcerated mothers. Previous accounts of the visit describe the day to day events of the trip. For the recent April visit, our Communications Assistant Melissa Tanis volunteered to be a chaperone on the trip. She offered her insights about how the trip felt for her and the kids she was supporting.

Five hours.

If you ran an 11:27 minute mile you could complete a marathon in five hours. If you hopped on a plane in New York City you could be in San Salvador, El Salvador in five hours. Or if you started in New York City and drove for five hours, depending on traffic, you could either still be in the city or you could be in Boston or Washington D.C.

In some contexts, especially ones that involve running, five hours may seem like a long time. But imagine if five hours is all you had to spend with someone you love whom you have not seen for months, maybe years. Imagine making up for lost time in five hours, not knowing when you will see them again because visiting is so costly and difficult. Five hours. That’s the amount of time I and a group of 34 kids and 13 volunteers spent inside the visiting room at Albion Correctional Facility the weekend before Mother’s Day.

Osborne’s Family Ties program offers parenting skills courses and visiting support to incarcerated mothers at Albion Correctional Facility, which is 400 miles from New York City. The program also provides support for children ages 3 months to 21 years while their mothers simultaneously participate in a 12-session parenting program. At the completion of the program, through partnerships with St. James Church and Temple Beth Elohim, the women receive a visit from their children who are able to spend five hours playing, laughing, crying, and catching up on life. A brief ceremony is held to acknowledge the women’s accomplishments in the program and their strength in maintaining their relationship with their kids. There’s a catered lunch with outside food—a rare treat for people who are in prison—and dancing and music afterwards.

What this description leaves out are the the emotions, sacrifices, and energy exerted by the kids during the two-day trip. As a volunteer and photographer for the trip, I saw all of it first hand, attempting to capture the breadth of emotions through my camera lens.

Every step of the trip presented the kids with opportunities to be courageous and vulnerable. For some, it was their first time on a plane. For others, they didn’t know a single person when they arrived at the Osborne office in Brooklyn. For many, they arrived after a sleepless night of nervous excitement. We started the morning with a play time and breakfast—building community among the children, volunteers, and staff—and then boarded the bus to JFK airport. The bus ride seemed to make it all a bit more real; the increased anticipation, excitement, and nervousness was evident through the kid’s behaviors.

The flight itself was a quick 45 minutes, which was comforting to those who had limited flying experience. When we landed in Rochester, we were greeted by a bus that took us to Brighton Presbyterian Church where we ate dinner and made Mother’s Day cards for the moms. This is a tradition on every visit, and the cards, complete with a smiling picture of the child, are approved to be brought into the facility to be given to the moms as a takeaway from the visit.

After a low-key night of swimming and eating leftovers at the hotel, we went to bed early to ensure we would be ready for our 5 a.m. wake up call. That morning, all seemed tired, anxious, and ready to finally be at Albion. We boarded a bus that would take us the last leg—45 more minutes—from the hotel to the prison. The nerves built as we got closer, as did the question: “Ma’am how much longer do we have?”

When we arrived, we were joined by other families who either lived in the area or took another form of transportation. After being cleared by security, we took a 15-passenger van complete with crisscrossed metal bars on the windows that made it difficult to look out. One of the older girls on the trip looked around the van and out the window at the obscured view of the barbed wire around the prison. She shook her head and said, “this is something I can never get used to.”

The kids entered the visiting room in groups to find their moms sitting at a table, eagerly peeking at the door to see if their son or daughter was coming through. The reunions were just how you would imagine a family reuniting after months or years apart. One mother of three was greeted by her 11 year old daughter who ran to her in tears, almost knocking her down. The mom reached her arms around to include her other two children in a group hug.

I did not anticipate being so emotional as I captured these moments through a camera lens. Almost everyone in the room had to gather themselves at some point during the visit. As I watched the kids interact with their moms, I thought about a phrase I read recently about why visiting is important for incarcerated parents and their children. “Parents can talk with children during visits in ways that can reduce children’s feelings of guilt, responsibility, and concern for their parent’s safety.” I felt relief thinking of the potentially difficult but affirming conversations happening at that moment.

After a couple hours, the moms started getting ready for the graduation. During the ceremony, we were joined by a large number of corrections staff including Superintendent Sheryl Zenzen who began the event with a short speech. A couple of graduates then shared their experience of the program. One of the moms beautifully expressed how she wants her kids to remember her:

"When my kids look back and think of their mother I want them to remember that she did not always get it right. But she tried her hardest to teach them about kindness, love, compassion, and honesty, even if she had to learn it from her own mistakes. She loved them enough to keep going even when things seemed hopeless. When life knocked her down, I want them to remember me as the woman who always got back up."

A former program graduate was the guest speaker for the afternoon. She walked to the podium hand in hand with her teenage daughter who beamed as her mom spoke about the difference the Family Ties program made in their relationship.

"Since graduating from the Osborne parenting class I have a renewed sense of purpose. This is because I have shifted my focus away from failure and difficulty and on to who I am as a mother. Sometimes in the storms of life we lose sight of our goals, our dreams, and our purpose. But the Osborne parenting program has been helpful in centering my focus where it always should have been—on my children.”

As an adult working to maintain a long distance relationship with an incarcerated parent, I was in awe of these kids much younger than me going through the same experiences with such strength. I was brought to tears thinking of how the kids had gone through bus ride after bus ride traveling such a long distance in a short amount of time to visit their parents in the midst of still feeling hurt by their incarceration, confused by the decisions their parent made, and some directly affected by their mother’s crime. I tried to hide my emotions behind my camera as I witnessed the outpouring of love and commitment that flowed through that visiting room.

Before the event, Osborne’s Director of Children, Youth, and Family Services, Katharine Nephew, asked me if I would like to share some thoughts at the end of the ceremony. As I spoke, I could barely hold it together long enough to express myself. I looked to the side where the mothers were sitting and they were crying with me. I then turned to the children to affirm the strength I saw in them and was also met with tears. I had just met these kids and their moms but because of our common experiences, they felt like family. 

As the graduation and celebration wound down, we all dreaded the impending goodbyes. The looks on the faces of the kids and moms told the story—they knew their time was coming to an end. Osborne’s CYFS Coordinator Diana Archer had the heartbreaking task of rounding up all the kids to leave so we did not miss our flight. As we ensured all the kids made it out, I looked back into the visiting room one last time to see the women embracing and supporting each other as they grieved their goodbyes.

We arrived back to the hospitality center where some of the kids would be picked up by their caregivers. Looking at the kids standing in the cold with tears running down their face, I was speechless. I share their common experience and yet even I did not know what to say to them to ease the pain of being separated from a parent. Five hours passes far too fast when you have not seen your parent in years.

For the rest of the trip one thought kept resonating with me: If only everyone could see and not just hear about the benefits of visiting, maybe it wouldn’t be this hard. The demeanor of the kids was noticeably different when they were with their mothers than when we met them the day before. Some kids expressed their emotions about the trip through rowdiness or toughness, but the second they were with their mothers their worries were calmed and their behaviors changed. They could let their guard down and just be a kid again. They could be the kid that needed their mom, needed to be held, to be told they are loved, that mom is here for them no matter what, and her incarceration is not their fault.

Although so much was sacrificed for such a short visit, those five hours showed just how important and crucial visiting is for parents and children. And yet every step of the process felt like another hurdle. In New York State, proximity to family is not considered when placing a parent in a facility, and parents can be placed hundreds of miles from their children. In order to maintain the kind of relationship that most kids have with their parents, many children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers would have to spend thousands of dollars and hours to maintain supportive relationships that other families may take for granted. Witnessing the sacrifices these children and families made to maintain their relationships during this trip, I am inspired to continue to do my part not only to honor their resiliency but to ease their burdens.

Osborne extends special thanks to the St. James' Church staff and volunteers: Elaine Connelly, Holly Milburn, Cathy McAleer, and Anne Strassner; Albion Correctional Facility staff: Superintendent Sheryl Zenzen, Deputy Superintendent of Programs Patricia Assel, Deputy Superintendent of Security Simmons, Deputy Superintendent of Administration Artus, Captain Goodman, Captain Collins, and Osborne Staff Advisor Kristine Hydock; Rochester volunteers from Brighton Presbyterian Church: Jan Zaccardo, Michael Peace, Julia Peace, and Kim Tunnel; as well as the NY State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and our donors for their support of the mothers and their children who participate in the Family Ties program.

We also thank Jet Blue's group booking program and Osborne Association volunteer chaperones and staff: Diana Archer, Rachel Arbor, Kate Axelrod, Press Canady, Kelsey DeAvila, Katharine Nephew, Rachel Smith, Melissa Tanis, Haley Tillage, and Chelsea Wakeham.