On more than one occasion during a bus trip to prisons across Pennsylvania, Dorice Mickens has had to make a stop at a nearby store to get supplies for the women visiting their families. She brings scissors to cut out the underwire in their bras so they can make it through the prison’s metal detectors, and has also given them money to buy food for their children.
Mickens serves as a coordinator with Families Outside, a program of Family Services of Western Pennsylvania that operates bus trips for families of incarcerated men and women. On Aug. 16, Families Outside held their first annual celebration, where they honored Mickens and her fellow coordinators for their efforts to connect prisoners and their families.
“There are a lot of emotions that go along with this,” said Mickens, who has been a coordinator for 16 years. “But I get a lot of joy out of it.”
Families Outside provides transportation to 20 Pennsylvania State Correctional Institutions. Through Family Services, they also offer individual and family counseling to help families cope with the stressors of having a loved one incarcerated.
“I’ve been doing this for six or seven years. It’s been a great joy,” said Ruth Todd. “You get to meet a lot of people who are going through things similar to what you’re going through.”
The program is designed to break the cycle of violence, wherein children of prisoners are six times more likely to be imprisoned, by providing children with continuous contact with their incarcerated parents. Several trip coordinators have family members in prison and originally became involved in Families Outside to utilize the program’s support services.
“I didn’t know anything about jail and this has helped me figure out the system,” said Anna Thomas. “Kids need that time with their parents so when you come out you’re not a stranger to them. You have to get the families together.”
“This program means a whole lot to me and my family,” said Darlene Buckner. “To me, this is a ministry. There’s a real need.”
The event also provided Families Outside with the opportunity to celebrate the renewal of their grant with the Department of Justice that funds their program.
The program serves the Department of Justice’s mission of reducing recidivism rates.
This year the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections released a report on recidivism rates aimed at reducing crime by studying re-incarceration and re-arrest rates. The study found that 6 in 10 released inmates are either re-arrested or re-incarcerated within three years of release from prison.
“Everyone’s dropping the ball when these people get out. No one is tracking this and the only time we hear anything is when a woman comes to us to say their loved one is back in jail,” said Lorna Lyons, the Families Outside team leader. “There is a whole lot wrong with the system and there’s not a whole lot we can do to change it, but we can try to help get some of these people out of it.”
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