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'Good for the Kids': A California Bill Would Place Incarcerated Parents in Prisons Close to Home

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A Latina woman standing and smiling with an African American man sitting next to her giving two thumbs up and wearing blue, and a young girl smiling
Ameerah Rogers, 9, poses with her parents Bernice and Deandre Rogers, on a visit to her dad at Salinas Valley State Prison on Nov. 23, 2022. (Courtesy Bernice Rogers)

Ameerah Rogers is 9. Her father, Deandre, has been incarcerated for most of her life. So every chance she has to spend time with him feels like a special treat.

One Saturday a month, her mother drives Ameerah and her siblings from their home in Sacramento to visit their dad at Salinas Valley State Prison. Ameerah says she’s excited on the ride there, thinking about what they’ll do together.

“We like to read, we color, we play games. I normally win Uno,” she said. “And every time we go, I tell him everything about school.”

Ameerah is one of nearly 200,000 California children who have a parent in state prison, advocates estimate. And in a state the size of California, those parents are often hundreds of miles from their kids.

But a bill introduced this week in the state Assembly would require the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to house incarcerated people with minor children as close to their child’s home as possible.

The bill’s author, Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco), says long distances can lead to long separations, and that can have a devastating impact on children’s psychological health.

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“There's a lot of research on the mental or emotional toll that incarcerating a parent has on a child,” he said. “If we incarcerate a mother or father all the way on the other side from where a child lives, it makes it a lot harder for that child to visit the parent, to maintain a relationship with them, and to keep connected with them when they come out.”

The kids of incarcerated parents are at risk of withdrawing emotionally, failing in school and becoming incarcerated themselves (PDF), research indicates, a pattern of trauma that can span generations.

Officials with CDCR, the state prison system, say they don’t comment on pending legislation. But Haney said he has met with prison officials and incorporated some of their feedback on the bill language.

In a statement, prison spokesperson Alia Cruz said, “CDCR recognizes visiting is an important way to maintain family and community ties and works hard to ensure people are able to see their incarcerated loved ones.”

Cruz noted the department allows for overnight family visits and free bus transportation for visitors.

Incarcerated far from home

Ameerah’s mom, Bernice Rogers, says she wishes she could take the kids to see their dad more often. But he’s 200 miles away, which means it’s a seven-hour round-trip drive — for a couple of hours in the visiting room. And the expense of gas and feeding three hungry children on the road takes a big bite out of her salary as a staff member for a homeless shelter.

An African American man gives a young girl a piggy back ride as they smile for the camera.
Ameerah Rogers, 9, gets a piggyback ride from her dad, Deandre Rogers, for a photo at Salinas Valley State Prison on Jan. 28, 2023. (Courtesy Bernice Rogers)

“It just costs a lot as a single mother — I mean not a single mother, because we're married — but me by myself out here, with rent and bills and food,” she said. “It just costs, with him being that far.”

Rogers said she participates in CDCR’s Get on the Bus program, an annual event that provides free transportation for children to visit their incarcerated parents. And at least in Salinas Valley, her husband is closer than he was before the pandemic, when he was at Calipatria State Prison, nearly 600 miles away, near the Mexican border.

The Rogers family is not alone with this struggle. The vast majority — 75% — of California's incarcerated people are incarcerated 100 miles or more from their home communities, according to 2019 data from CDCR (PDF).

And the further from home a person is locked up, the less likely they are to get regular visitors, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a prison reform research organization. Nationwide, half of those incarcerated in prisons less than 50 miles from home had received a visit in the past month, whereas only 15% of people housed more than 500 miles from home had received a visit.

Kids benefit when parents are closer

For Nico Arzate, 16, the distance from his father has had a direct influence on how often they can visit — and on Nico’s well-being, according to his mother.

Kari Arzate was pregnant when Nico’s father, David, was arrested. For the first 10 years of Nico’s life, his dad was living in prisons that were hundreds of miles away, and they rarely saw each other, she said.

Then, in 2016, David was transferred to a prison just two hours from their home in Modesto, and Arzate took her son to see him every weekend. That lasted about five years.

“Nico would spend time with Mom and Dad as a family,” she said, “and then still be able to go out like a normal teenager, when he got home from a visit, and go to the movies with his friends.”

A montage of four photos, top left with woman, boy and man smiling; top right with man and boy smiling at camera; bottom left with boy and man smiling; bottom right with a woman holding a baby as a man from behind a window with a phone receiver to his ear looks on.
Nico Arzate got to visit every weekend when his father was housed in prisons near their Modesto home. But in 2021 David Arzate was moved to a prison 10 hours away, and their visits have become rare. Here they are also pictured with Nico's mother, Kari Arzate. (Courtesy Kari Arzate)

She said her son was noticeably happier and his grades improved during that time. But in 2021 her husband was transferred again, Arzate said, this time to a prison in Susanville, 300 miles away, and they’ve only been able to make the trip a handful of times in the past year. She said she has seen her son struggle with feelings of depression, and the visits to his father are a balm.

“He's able to talk to him about things that he normally wouldn't talk to Mom about … because he's built a connection with his dad over the years,” she said. “Nico looks forward to taking pictures every time he goes to visit Dad because that's all he has as a memory.”

Arzate says if the bill, AB 1226, known as the Keep Families Close Act, becomes law, she expects that David would be transferred closer to home and that her son could have a stronger relationship with his father.

'This is good for the kids'

Haney, the bill’s author, notes that it would not trigger an automatic relocation of every incarcerated parent. Instead it would apply when a person is newly incarcerated or being transferred for another reason, such as a change in their security level.

“This is good for the kids. It's also good for rehabilitation and reentry,” Haney said. “A huge part of rehabilitation is keeping people connected to loved ones outside.”

He said the Keep Families Close Act is modeled on a 2020 law in New York state, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

Haney is a Democrat, but the bill is co-authored by Assemblymember Marie Waldron, a Republican, and it passed out of the Assembly Public Safety Committee on Monday, March 27, with unanimous bipartisan support.

When it’s time to leave her father after their monthly visit, Ameerah Rogers says she and her sister typically cry on the ride home.

“Because we barely get to see him,” she said. “And he was gone all my life. So we don't get to see him a lot.”

But despite the fact that her father is serving a third-strike sentence of 30 years, Ameerah is keeping a running list of the places she’d like to travel with her dad one day.

“I’m waiting to go to Canada, Super Nintendo World, Tokyo and … oh yeah, Las Vegas,” she said.

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