According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, more than 7 million children in the U.S. have at least one parent in jail or prison. Studies show many of the children get stuck in a cycle of intergenerational crime and incarceration.
Several programs in Texas jails are trying to break that cycle.
This month marked 30 years for Bexar County’s Mothers and Their Children (MATCH) Program, which works to make things better for kids whose mothers are spending time behind bars.
A support network for real change
Behind the doors at the Bexar County Jail, a handful of women participating in MATCH sit together at a table, talking, perhaps sharing stories of their children. At other times, they may be reading to each other or alone on one of their e-readers from Bibliotech.
Pamela Rios is the mother of three boys -- ages 15, nine and one. She is reading her own books and children’s books to prepare for her next visit with her children, who are welcomed into the jail and into their mother’s arms every other Thursday.
“I’ve never liked reading," Rios said. "I’ve always hated it and now I love it."
“My one year old sits on my lap and he’ll be touching the screen, poking the buttons, and it will say the words for him,” she said. “With my nine year old he’ll read the word and then say, ‘OK, Mom, ask me some questions so I can show you that I read it.’ And my 15 year old will be there helping me out with both of the kids.”
The e-reader program is another part of the MATCH initiative that has been copied in Austin and other cities since it was started here in 1984. Bexar County recently made a change in the program they believe will increase its efficacy.
Jail Programs Manager Aida Negron said last fall MATCH participants were removed from the general population and placed together their own dorm.
“They needed to support one another because they were all mothers and they were all going through the same program,” Negron said.
Officials said placing the MATCH participants in separate quarters removes them from some of the influences of other inmates who will stay in jail longer, or who may have ongoing drug problems or other issues.
“But it’s also accountability,” Negron said. “They don’t know what each other’s doing if they’re separated. So when they come together and they say, ‘Hey, you know, you’re talking like this, you’re saying that you did this, you’re saying you’re being honest but look what you’re doing in the unit.' ”
Making a difference in generations
Sheriff Susan Pamerleau, speaking at the recent celebration marking the 30th year of MATCH, said: “The average age of a child with an incarcerated parent is eight years old and 22 percent of these children are under the age of three.”
Pamerleau cited a cost-benefits analysis that shows MATCH graduates had a 13.5 percent lower re-arrest rate than those who dropped out. Pamerleau believes the introduction of e-readers will thrust the program into a higher level of success.
“We’ve seen it in just that way," Pamerleau said. "We’re in an electronic world. The interactive e-readers and smart phones; this is a way that a parent can help their children to not fall behind."
Like the other mothers, Rios has been assigned to read “Scream-free Parenting” for her parenting skills class. She said she’s already seen improvements in her nine year old’s reading skills, but her long-term goal with MATCH is to change her life.
“I’m thankful I got into it because it has been nice. I don’t like jail -- I don’t -- but this program I would recommend to any mom that comes in here because if you need to change your life, it’ll help you,” Rios said.
Bexar County has a similar program for men, called Papas and Their Children. But officials say the nature of women going to jail is more disruptive for the children who may have to stay with relatives or go to foster homes.