Pa. county jail inmate fathers might get contact visits

Contact visits are currently permitted at York County Prison only by a judge's orders, and for mothers only

By Christina Kauffman
The York Dispatch

YORK COUNTY, Pa. — Hugs and tickles are impossible for most fathers serving time at York County Prison, but county officials are weighing the possible benefits of contact visitation as they mull changes to a decades-old policy that requires a Plexiglas partition when children see their inmate dads.

Contact visits are currently permitted at York County Prison only by a judge's orders, and for mothers only.

But the prison's board is considering expanding availability to lower-level offenders and men with biological children, meaning parents would be able to touch and hold their children instead of talking via a phone on opposite sides of clear partitions, said Warden Mary Sabol.

The issue first came to light during a statewide roundtable held to discuss children and youth-related issues, with family court Judge Maria Musti Cook among those citing studies suggesting benefits to the child from maintaining the parental role, Sabol said.

"As a parent, I completely see why it would be beneficial," Sabol said. "But as a warden, I see all kinds of security concerns."

Old incident: Bev Mackereth, former executive director of the York County Human Services Department, now serves as secretary of the Department of Public Welfare and co-chairs the state roundtable.

She said many institutions across the state stopped the visits after a father in a Pennsylvania state prison molested his daughter in a waiting room during a visit, but Sabol said contact visits haven't been part of the routine in York during her 15-year tenure.

Mackereth said sexual offenders would be prohibited from contact visits, and the changes would only occur for lower-level offenders, such as those convicted of DUI or minor drug charges and those who are accused and awaiting trial on low-level offenses.

Mackereth said the child's safety is paramount, but research conducted by the roundtable's work groups found it doesn't benefit children or their parents when interaction is stopped for a long time. Children are traumatized from the lost bond with the parent, leading to increased truancy and behavioral issues, she said, and parents, with broken bonds to their children and no reason to do better, have a higher recidivism rate.

"A child feels better not looking behind Plexiglas and not being allowed to touch," she said. "We see generations of families that have been involved in the criminal justice system, and it's all about bonding. How is a child supposed to bond with a parent if they're not allowed to touch them? We've got to break down those barriers that keep children from being with their parents whenever possible."

Dad discrimination: Musti Cook said there has been a disparity in York County because judges could write court orders to allow mothers to have contact visits with their children, but the same was never done for fathers.

"This is an unwritten policy," she said. " Fathers are always stuck behind the glass ... sitting on a hard chair, looking through Plexiglas. I have often wondered ... for years why no father took that up as a cause."

Mackereth said the policy is unfair to fathers and needlessly punishes them and their children.

"We treat fathers differently than mothers," she said. "Why? If a father wants to be involved in his child's life, why shouldn't he?"

Musti Cook said some incarcerated parents were very active with their children before being sent to jail, and shutting down that bond can be very traumatic for the child.

"The idea is to maintain the bond, and how are they supposed to do that through Plexiglas?" she asked.

While there are concerns about people sneaking forbidden objects into the prison inside diapers, for example, the county can put safety precautions in place, she said.

A county caseworker would supervise the visitation, and the prison room selected for the visitations has two-way glass and is monitored inside and outside, she said.

Kids 'punished enough': Sabol and other officials recently visited Lehigh County Prison to see how a contact-visitation program works there, including attending a parenting class that county offers as a prerequisite for parents who want contact visits.

But while Musti Cook said she and other county officials will work to re-write the policy at York County Prison, Sabol said she's still researching how the program would work at the 2,000-plus inmate facility.

The security risks need to be resolved before possibly moving forward with the change, said county commissioner Doug Hoke, the prison board's president.

"Obviously, you could have bad people trying to bring things into the prison," he said. "I think that there's probably a good reason for the visitation rules to be possibly changed, but I would like to see the studies."

Commissioner Chris Reilly, another vote on the prison board, said he supports the concept of allowing contact visits, but he'll follow Sabol's lead on the final decision involving security.

The contact visits would be in keeping with York County's objective to help rehabilitate people, "rather than locking them up and throwing out the key," he said.

"In my mind, the kids are already being punished enough through the actions of their parents, and I think (contact visits are) the right thing to do," he said.

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