Unsilenced Voices: Fighting for Family Connections Behind Bars

By, Jamila Small and Jaiden Valentin, Osborne Association’s Youth Action Council

Growing up with an incarcerated parent is like carrying a silent burden that no child should bear. For us and over 105,000 kids and young adults across New York—and one in 14 children nationally—it’s a daily struggle. But our voices won’t stay silent any longer, especially when there’s a chance to make a real change.

Imagine the heartbreak of not being able to hug your mom or dad, especially when they’re just a few miles away in a local jail. That’s the reality many of us face as jails across the country reduce or replace in-person visiting hours with pricey video calls. And let’s be real—it’s not just about the convenience of using video calls, it’s about greed. One of us had no choice but to pay $15 for a 30-minute video call during the pandemic that was disrupted by technical difficulties. For low-income families like our own, that’s an extra expense that we cannot afford. Companies are profiting off our pain, making it impossible for too many families to stay connected. Video can be a great option, but it should not be the only option. We need to be able to see our parents in person.

We are part of Osborne Association‘s Youth Action Council, a group of young changemakers who have all experienced the incarceration of a parent. That’s why we are fighting for the passage of the Protect In-Person Visits Bill (S3318A/A6488A) in New York State. This bill would proactively ensure that New York’s jails and prisons cannot reduce or eliminate in-person visits with our parents and replace them with video conferencing, a scary practice adopted by jails in other states. Most county jails only offer two hours of visits a week and for these visiting hours to be further reduced is unthinkable. To be clear, this bill would not be an inconvenience for correctional facilities. It would simply preserve existing in-person visiting in New York State prisons and jails, and require facilities to offer accessible visiting hours during evenings and/or weekends.

This bill isn’t just about visits; it’s about preserving our right to love and support our incarcerated parents. It’s about ensuring that no child has to sacrifice school or work just to share a moment with their family. We can’t emphasize enough how crucial in-person visits are. They’re not just moments; they’re lifelines. They are the hugs, the eye contact, the connection and bonding, and the shared laughter that remind us we’re loved and valued. They are opportunities to learn about our family histories, traditions, and language. And in communities like ours, where systemic racism and poverty stack the odds against us, these visits are even more vital. They’re a beacon of hope in a system that too often tries to crush us.

But it’s not just about us—it’s about our parents, too. Research shows that strong family bonds reduce the chances of returning to prison. Visits motivate our parents to pursue goals and transform their lives so they can be the parents we need them to be. By passing this bill, New York State can be a national leader in supporting families and creating safe communities where people returning from prison can succeed, thrive, and be present for their children.

We have been calling for the passage of this bill for four years and we cannot wait any longer worrying that our next visit will be our last. So, to leaders and legislators, we say this: listen to our stories, feel our pain, and take action now. Pass the Protect In-Person Visits Bill and show us that our voices, our families, and our futures truly matter.

Jamila Small and
Jaiden Valentin are high school students and members of Osborne Association’s Youth Action Council