Youth Action Council Advocates for Proximity Legislation in Albany

18 April 2016

“I have the right to speak with, see, and touch my parent.”

The Children of Incarcerated Parent’s Bill of Rights includes as Right #5

Most children want and need to see their incarcerated parent, and in most cases in-person visiting is beneficial to children’s well-being in the following ways:

  • Visiting can benefit children’s psychological well-being, including decreased emotional distress and fewer problematic behaviors. 
  • 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.
  • Visiting can provide the forum for children to process the trauma surrounding the separation.
  • Visiting is a positive predictor for a parent’s attachment with a child post-release. 
  • Visits are essential for reunification for child welfare involved families. 

And yet, 70% of incarcerated individuals are in a prison over 100 miles from their homes. 

Despite research that supports restoring and maintaining healthy family relationships while a family member is incarcerated, there are significant barriers to visiting. In New York, the largest barrier is often distance. Many prisons are in isolated rural areas that are inaccessible by direct bus or train routes, requiring families without a car to rely on a costly combination of public transportation and taxis. Once you combine these travel costs, lost earnings and food, visiting costs can prevent families from visiting. Currently, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) does not consider proximity to children or the cost of visiting when assigning a person to a prison.

This past month Osborne’s Youth Action Council advocated in Albany to change this.

The Youth Action Council (YAC) is part of the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents within Osborne’s Center for Justice Policy and Practice. Made up of young people ages 14 to 18 who have experienced a parent’s incarceration, the dynamic group works to raise awareness about the effects of parental incarceration through youth-led advocacy rooted in their personal experiences. Each year, the Youth Action Council chooses an issue to focus on and their advocacy includes a day trip to Albany with back to back meetings with State Senators and Assemblymembers. This year, the YAC members chose to advocate for increased access of children to their incarcerated parents, including for the passage of the Proximity Pilot Bill and the introduction of email communication between children and their parents in state prisons.

The Youth Action Council with Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda in the State Capitol Building where the members were in session. 

 

Originally introduced by Senator Montgomery as a systemwide bill years ago, the Proximity Pilot Bill is sponsored by Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymember Marcus Crespo. The bill would allow 100 parents to apply to be moved to a prison closer to their children. The impact of the pilot program would be studied with the goal of taking this practice to scale to benefit all incarcerated parents whose children desire to visit them. Along with sharing the proposals and impact of the bill, the Youth Action Council bravely spoke of their experiences with parental incarceration and why proximity to their parents matters to them. The youth shared the Children of Incarcerated Parent’s Bill of Rights with each legislator. YAC member, Lianna poignantly conveyed that “these rights means nothing to us if we do not first have access to our parents.”

 

YAC members after spending lunch with and being inspired by Senator Gustavo Rivera, sponsor of the Proximity Pilot Bill and dedicated champion for children of incarcerated parents. 

 

In addition to advocating for proximity, the youth expressed their desire to hear their parents referred to with humanizing language rather than as “felons” or “convicts”. One YAC member, Aniyah, reminded the legislators that “People who are in prison are also someone’s parent, brother, or friend.” Some of the legislators and their staff expressed how important it was for them to hear directly from the youth. One legislative staff member commented, “Most people come in here with kids, but the adults speak for them. It’s great to hear from the youth themselves why this matters to them.” They expressed how easy it can be to forget who is impacted by the bills they pass. Hearing the stories of the Youth Action Council helped them to put a face and a name to an issue. Each legislative staff committed to hanging the Children of Incarcerated Parent’s Bill of Rights in their office and Assemblyman Felix W. Ortiz tweeted a picture of the one in his office.

Assemblyman Felix W. Ortiz with the Children of Incarcerated Parent’s Bill of Rights given to him by YAC member Wilese, seated next to him.

 

As the day went on and the impact of their advocacy was noticed, the youth became more comfortable with sharing their stories. A volunteer on the trip and the daughter of an incarcerated parent, Melissa Tanis, expressed that “It was great to watch the YAC members become more comfortable after each meeting and by the end of the day, they exuded even more confidence and strength than they had walked in with. They saw how they could turn a difficult situation into a cause they are passionate about.”

The Youth Action Council and the NY Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents will continue to advocate for the passage of the Proximity Pilot Bill. To follow the progress of the bill and read more about the pilot program, visit the NY State Senate website. To find resources for ways to support children who wish to visit their incarcerated parent visit www.osborneny.org/susu.

Special thanks to Senator Gustavo Rivera, Assemblymember Marcus Crespo, Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda, Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, Senator Tony Avella, Senator Patrick Gallivan, Senator N. Nick Perry, Raymond Rodriguez, and Senator Kevin Parker for meeting with the Youth Action Council and listening to the experiences of those impacted by parental incarceration.

YAC members celebrate their successful day in Albany advocating for the passing of the Proximity Pilot Bill.