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Visiting and How to Get There

Visiting and How to Get There: A Survey of Program Models Offering Transportation for Prison Visiting

By Dee Ann Newell Policy Forum Writer and Eva DeLair Special Projects Coordinator, NRCCFI

“at the time of my incarceration […] the receiving prison was located about 2 hours from my home but there was no direct bus transportation to the prison.  Each time my mother attempted to bring my son to prison she had to get a ride and that was not easy, she had to depend on the kindness of others, even when offering to pay their expenses getting to prison was a hassle.” -Anonymous

Strong family ties during imprisonment can have a positive impact on people returning from prison and on their children. Some research suggests that parenting programs in prison reduce recidivism, improving the chances of successful re-entry [1]. People returning home from prison who have access to family support fare better than those who do not on a range of re-entry outcomes. One organization providing a transportation program confirms that these data are still relevant, “We believe regular parental visits are essential to the welfare of children, incarcerated women, and the society as a whole.  Children who have regular parent visits demonstrate better emotional and social adjustment, as well as a lower degree of juvenile delinquency.  Their parents demonstrate lower rates of recidivism and higher rates of family reunification upon release.” [2]

However, maintaining contact via visitation is often a heavy burden for families. For instance, families cannot take public transportation to most prisons due to lack of service there [3]. And most parents are held over 100 miles from their families: 62% in state prisons, and 84% in federal prisons are more than 100 miles away, 43% of incarcerated parents in federal prisons are over 500 miles from their families [4].  Only 25% of mothers and 22% of fathers report receiving visits from their children monthly, [5] while 54% of mothers and 57% of fathers receive no visits from their children at all while incarcerated [6].

“I work fulltime during the week and by the weekend I’m exhausted. Driving six-hundred miles over the weekend to visit my Uncle is even more exhausting. I never really liked the idea of putting that many miles on my car…” -Kaleb [7]

Travelling long distances to visit family members and loved ones is a challenge that is often insurmountable and can interfere with positive impact of community based programs such as mentoring and afterschool support groups.  There are, however, many programs which provide free or lower cost transportation to prisons. These programs are valuable to the families, the communities, and the institutions they serve. Even some Corrections Departments are working to meet the transportation needs of families as part of other programs and services aimed at preparing the parent for homecoming to their family.

Recognizing that prison parenting programs are most effective when participants have an opportunity to visit with their children and practice what they are learning, some programs that provide parenting skills classes also provide transportation to children of participants. Programs such as PATCH and Let’s Start, in Missouri, and ForeverFamily in Georgia and Kentucky assist families with transportation to visits. This gives incarcerated parents an opportunity to practice parenting skills at visits, enabling participation by family members and contributing to re-entry success for the parent and the family. Arkansas Voices for the Children left Behind provides funding for visitations when the family is more than 300 miles from the prison. This includes funds for hotel stay, food expenses, and gas for travel.

“Leaving was hard.  We all knew we wouldn’t be back soon.  We knew that it might have been Mom’s last visit with John.  But memories just fill our heads and we smile when we see the family photo and the John and kids photo we took home.  We also bought the kids a couple of little trinkets from the “craft area.”

There was no going back to the hotel on Sunday.  It was a very long drive home.  This time, however, since it was earlier in the day, we actually saw scenery.  The trip back took about four and a half hours.  We got home, grabbed some sandwiches and fell into bed.  The kids said it was the best present of all time!!!” -Jo [8]

Not all transportation can be provided free of charge. There are also programs which offer transportation at low rates to anyone who wishes to visit an incarcerated person such as VIP Prison Shuttle Service (TX), and Florida Visiting Day.

VIP Prison Shuttle service does offer free transportation to children with incarcerated parents who are active in Amachi-Big Brothers, Big Sisters, located in Irving, Texas. This collaboration between a mentoring agency and a transportation program could serve as a model for the hundreds of MCP programs currently serving children of the incarcerated.

Similarly, Girl Scouts Beyond Bars offers free transportation to its members and their sisters every month to visit their incarcerated mothers. However, if mom has a daughter and a son, the daughter can visit via the Girl Scout program, but not the son.

Some programs provide only transportation related services, such as, Get on the Bus (CA), which serves state institutions each Mothers and Fathers Days with free transportation for children and their caregivers to visit incarcerated parents. Along with free transportation, each child receives a travel bag, a photo with his or her parent, and meals for the day. To lessen the strain, on the trip home, a teddy bear with a letter from their parent and post-event counseling is offered to each child.

This program is affiliated with the Chowchilla Family Express, which is funded entirely by the State of California and runs from different cities to different institutions each weekend; it is entirely free to the families as well.

Since 1994, the Ministries to Incarcerated Women and Their Children (AR) transportation program for children of incarcerated mothers to the 2 state women’s units in Arkansas and the two Department of Community Correction Residential programs have enlisted volunteers throughout the state. These volunteers typically come from the various faith communities, driving the children and sometimes their caregivers, to visit their mothers on the regular visitation days.

The relationships between the volunteers who transport the children become very significant, as the drivers, and sometimes their spouses, become very connected with the children. They often support children by helping them to talk about the visit on the way home. In a sense, they become mentors to the entire family, including the mother who is in prison. It is primarily funded by donations from the faith communities who see this volunteerism as a worthy mission, with benefits to both the child and the volunteer. The parent organization is United Methodist Women in Arkansas.

Some programs offer transportation as one of many services they provide, such as the Pennsylvania Prison Society, Assisting Families of Inmates (VA) and The Osborne Association (NY). These programs offer support groups for children, a family resource center, mentoring, peer-led development, counseling among many other services. Children of Promise of New York City is planning to start a transportation program to complement their very comprehensive mentoring program.

The Osborne Association as well as Get on the Bus (CA) utilizes air travel as part of their programs in order to facilitate longer distance travel for children and families. State Prisons in New York and California as well as in many other states are located far away from the communities of those who live in them making accessibility nearly impossible. These programs are vulnerable to cuts in funding, and losing these programs is truly lamentable.

Many if not most transportation programs rely on volunteers. Share What You’ve Got Prison Ministries is a network of people in multiple states who donate their time and cars to drive families to visit loved ones in prison.

As a result of this survey NRCCFI/FCN received dozens of inquiries about how faith based initiatives, community programs and individuals could donate their time or make vehicles available for transporting children for prison visits. We have attempted to connect them with programs and services in their communities. We have also received some inquiries from programs wanting to start transportation programs. Get on the Bus reports that they have already given advice to 10 states and 2 countries and are willing to give free help to any group that wants to do this kind of work.

In spite of the hopefulness represented in this overview, there is still much work to do. Most children are not able to visit their incarcerated parents in far away state facilities. Even those with parents in local jails report difficulties when there is no public transportation and with much funding to local service providers restricted to serving children and families with loved ones in state or federal institutions. Many states contract with other states to hold incarcerated persons for some or part of their sentence. California, for example, has paid  Arkansas to house difficult prisoners. Such contracts between states can allow for an incarcerated father in Hawaii for example to be sentenced or transferred to a facility in Oklahoma or Mississippi and rarely is the marital status or parent –child relationship considered at the time of sentencing.

“The last time my 13-year-old son saw his father was in 1999, when he was 18 months old.  My ex-husband is in federal custody.  We live in Montana.  There are no federal prisons in Montana.  My ex is currently being held at FCI Sheridan in Oregon.  I am a low-income single mother living in the state that has the distinction of being tied with Arkansas as the worst state, economically, for women.  I have not had the resources to travel to take my son to visit his father.  He has grown up asking me if we can go visit his father.  I have to tell him that I have no way to get there, or to pay for a motel.  I have been unable to find an organization that would help me with this issue.”

Transportation programs serving federal prisons are still scarce. These institutions are usually located farther from the families than state or local institutions, and therefore much harder to visit. Families may have to cross state lines, many have to travel more than 500 miles and have no resources for such journeys. There are also situations that were reported to us where the US Marshalls have moved the prisoners without notifying the journeying families.

Many state Departments of Corrections offer lists of transportation resources on their websites. Some of the states which identify these resources are Pennsylvania, New York, California, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Policy Implications:

Research data compels policymakers, correctional programs, community-based programs, and others to take a close look at providing the needed transportation to keep children and their parents who are incarcerated in physical contact with one another whenever possible. For those prisons where the families are far away and cannot make a visit, such as Alaska, there is reason to turn to video-conferencing to sustain parent-child contact, but the power and meaningfulness of an actual visit with your parent or child is inestimable. As recommended in the Bill of Rights for Children of the Incarcerated, the locations of prisons and the correctional placements of prisoners should definitely take into account the geographical locations of the families and minimization of the travel barriers.

Keep in mind that most parents who are incarcerated will be returning to their children during the childhoods of those children. A successful re-entry, a diminishment of recidivism, and a more motivated, healthier culture within the prison are all positive outcomes of visitations that keep families together. Transportation programs should be included in the service delivery systems models serving these children and families, alongside the expansion of other services such as summer camps, mentoring, support groups, healing circles and other programmatic offerings. The benefits are invaluable for the children, and the communities.



[1] Geas, Gerald G., Sabol, Flangan, Timothy J., 1999, Adult Correctional Treatment in Prisons, Crime and Justice.

[2] Get on the Bus.

[3] Margolies, J.K., Kraft-Stolar, T, Feb. 2006, When “Free” Means Losing Your Mother, A Report of the Women in Prison Project of Correctional Association of New York

[4] Fact Sheet, Women In Prison Project, Correctional Association of NY -

[5] Hairston, Rollins and Jo’s 2004 analysis of the 1997

[6] Mumola, 2000, Incarcerated Parents and Their Children, Bureau of Justice Statistics

[7] Adapted from Testimonials,

[8] A caregiver from Arkansas Voices for the children Left Behind, Inc., a recent grandmother visiting her son along with the grandchildren she cares for. The ninety-year old great-grandmother also was able to visit