Dear Friends, In l989 when Mary House opened, there were just under 150,000 children with a parent in jail or prison in the United States. Now that number has grown to a heartbreaking 2.7 million children. This Advent one in every 28, or 3.6% of children in the United States has a parent behind bars. At least one half of these children are under the age of 10. None of them were ever tried, or convicted, or sentenced. They didn’t have lawyers. They never saw a judge, and there was no evidence against them. They have committed no crimes, and had no voice in crafting the policy that drives our criminal justice system. But they are nonetheless paying a price that will last a lifetime.
Throughout the last 29 years, while the number of families impacted by incarceration has steadily grown, I’ve sat down every year at this time to write to you about the work of prison hospitality at Mary House, and to ask you for your help in providing a safe place to stay for the children who visit family here in rural Wisconsin at the Federal Correctional Facility at Oxford. We are so grateful to every one of you for helping Mary House remain open to our young guests, year after year, season after season.
This year I’m writing again, because this problem continues to get worse instead of better. Your support is more crucial each year to our work to provide hospitality to these children who long to visit someone inside the Oxford Federal Correctional Institution, and for whom the cost of travel and lodging stands as a roadblock to preserving family ties. These are children who very much deserve the basic decency of a clean, safe space while they are far from home. They and their families are all facing tough choices, and the holidays are no break from those. But the children we see here during the holidays and throughout the year all share a determination to maintain relationships within their families, despite the fact that that burden falls unfairly on their own young shoulders. Some of them have traveled a long way to get here and we are so grateful for your kindness and generosity in helping to be sure they will find a warm and brightly lit welcome when they get to our door.
Here in the United States we account for only 5% of the world’s population, but we hold nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners. If all our inmates were counted as a single city, it would be the fifth-largest in the country, with a population between Phoenix and Houston’s. Our criminal justice system incarcerates more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, prisons in the U.S. territories, and a growing number of immigration detention facilities. One in 110 adults are incarcerated in prison or jail in the United States, making our current incarceration rate the highest in our history.
54% of them are parents. 120,000 mothers and 1.1million fathers.
According to “Shared Sentence,” a recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child health and welfare organization, the impact on children of having a parent incarcerated is similar in severity to that of domestic violence. These children have a greater chance of experiencing physical and mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Their families are less likely to be financially stable and more likely to be homeless. At school, they are more likely to be suspended or expelled or drop out. More than 5 million U.S. children have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their lives.
For many of these children of incarcerated parents the trauma they are experiencing is the result of our country’s tough-on-crime policies and mandatory minimum sentencing policies, which have helped to drive a four-fold increase in our overall jail and prison population since 1980. While these children have been growing up, our elected officials have used a raging “war on crime” to build successful careers, and have been unstinting in funding incarceration: Our nation spends about $80 billion a year on imprisonment. But for every public dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional $10 in social costs, more than half of which are borne by families, children and community members who have committed no crime.
None of these children have had a chance to vote, but all of them are experiencing first-hand the terrible dysfunction of our so-called criminal justice policy. We need to recognize the cost to these families imposed by the need to travel in order to maintain the family ties that are the greatest single factor in a released inmate’s chances of remaining free.
Today as I write to you, some of these children are packing snacks and games and pillows and favorite shoes and t-shirts as they get ready to travel to Oxford this Christmas. The financial impact of incarceration on their families may have limited the Christmas presents purchased and waiting under trees in their own households, but without a doubt these children are carrying the most precious gift in the universe to the dads and brothers and uncles and grandfathers they’re traveling to visit – the gift of their own determined, forgiving and enduring love.
As always at Mary House during Advent these children stop being numbers and statistics and become real. They are eight and five and sixteen years old. They have big brothers and baby sisters. They are traveling with tired mothers and aunts and grandparents. They are excited to see snow, and some of them are cold and cranky. They like oranges and pancakes. They arrived with only one mitten. They might have been carsick on the long ride here from Detroit or Indianapolis. They forgot socks. They remembered love.
As a nation, this Advent finds us in a terrible mess. We’re divided and angry. We’re distracted by our own fears and uncertainty. We long to know what to do to make our world safer, but we don’t remember how to talk to one another with civility, what’s more love or forgive one another. We would do well to pay attention to these children this Advent, because they are navigating the troubled emotional landscape of our unhappy and divided nation much better than their leaders. They are just plain willing to try.
This is Advent, and while we might not guess it from the furious advertising and frantic news cycle on our phones and screens, these weeks remain a time to honor those who wait, who are determined, who endure, who can envision a brighter day, whose love is steadfast, and who don’t give up. I know that some of the children I’ve met during the past year are waiting now to make the trip back here, bringing the gift that has the power to change.
While it is undeniably true that hatred and greed and fear have found a new loud voice in our country, the undiminished generosity and courage of these children and their families is a mighty challenge to discouragement and hatred, and if their spunk and determination is any indication, kindness and love will win. If we are longing to know as we face the new year that decency is still within us and that change is possible, we need look no further than the determined belief of these children that the fractured love in their own families can and will find a new and sustainable way to flourish.
Our calendar is filling up now with the names of the families, both strangers and returning friends, who will join us for a small part of their Christmas school vacation. By the time you read this some of them will be here, and others will be climbing into cars. Their willingness to make this trip — getting up early on cold mornings and driving late into the night, packing not for ski trips, or Disney, but for a few days in a stranger’s house and a concrete visiting room beyond locked doors and a metal detector, marks all of them as the season’s most generous angels.
We are so grateful for your help as we get ready to welcome these families, and we ask you now to help us meet the costs of keeping Mary House’s doors open this holiday season and into the coming year.
We’re grateful to you for recognizing the bravery of these children embody as they do their best to remain connected to all the members of their families. And we’re grateful to you for supporting Mary House financially during the busy and challenging holiday season. Without you, we would never have been able to open the doors here 29 years ago, and without your continued support they would certainly close.
The longer I’m here at Mary House, the more astounded I am at the resilience of the children and families we serve. Nothing is getting easier in their lives: the costs of traveling to visit continues to rise, and households surviving on a minimum wage job are struggling every day. But these families are making the trip anyway. This old farmhouse, surrounded by frozen farm fields in rural Wisconsin may not be the season’s most coveted winter getaway destination, but these children are packing up love and getting in cars just so they can get up early and hurry through breakfast, then sit in a car on the side of a county road outside the prison until their moms are allowed to drive into the prison parking lot, stand in a line until they can take off their sneakers and empty their pockets to get through a metal detector, wait in another line, walk down a long hallway, and finally see the person they came all this way to visit.
These children and their familiesare an example to us all of the optimism and determination we will need if we want to make the changes we want to see in our country in the coming months and years . We are so grateful to all of you for helping us to welcome them.
For many of us, travel to see family and loved ones is an expected part of the Christmas season. But for some of our guests it is nearly impossible, and it is your help that tips the balance. Mary House receives no state or federal funding. We rely upon your financial contributions to continue providing warmth and safety, oranges and oatmeal, to the families who stay with us during the holidays and throughout the year. Will you help us once again to keep this old farmhouse warm, and make sure the doors are open as the New Year arrives?
I know that we have asked you before. We have asked you over and over for 29 years to help us keep responding to the needs of these families. Now, this year, I am asking again that you hold our guests in your hearts. And because the challenges faced by prison families are not about to go away, I’m asking you also to help us prepare for the coming years by sharing the work of Mary House and the needs of these families with your own family and friends this year, so that Mary House’s small but vital family of supporters can grow and sustain this work in the years to come.
Our heartfelt thanks to you for all of your support. May your own holidays be filled with the joys of family and loved ones gathered together, and may your new year arrive with courage and hope.
With deepest gratitude, Cassandra Dixon, for Mary House
P.S.: Please know that each dollar donated to Mary House goes directly to providing hospitality to these children and their families. Your contribution to Mary House, in any amount, is tax deductible. Please use the enclosed envelope to mail a check, or to donate online using PayPal or a credit card, please visit our website at www.themaryhouse.org. or use our PayPal link at https://www.paypal.me/MaryHouseHospitality