By Edward Weinman

They might seem invisible, but they are out there. Hundreds of children whose parents are incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary here in Walla Walla live and go to school in the local community.

Three Whitman students wanted to find out if the college was doing enough to support this group. So Andrea Horwege ’15, Cristela Delgado-Daniel ’15 and Satinder Haer ’15 organized the “Youth with Incarcerated Parents Workshop,” a full-day event that brought experts, officials, academics and community organizers together to discuss the problems these families face and what Whitman can do to facilitate support for them.

“It wasn't until I took [Senior Lecturer of Philosophy and General Studies] Mitch Clearfield's Punishment and Responsibility class and joined Whitman's Prison Research Group that I even realized youth with incarcerated parents was a population in need of support,” said Horwege, a psychology major from The Woodlands, Texas, who moderated a panel on Law and Policy.

George Bridges“I think that speaks to the fact that this really is an invisible population.”

The Washington State Penitentiary currently incarcerates nearly 2,000 prisoners. Some of these prisoners have family members who relocate to Walla Walla while their loved ones serve out their sentences. Based upon the interests of students and the staff of the Student Engagement Center, Whitman is studying the social supports and services for these families in the community. President George Bridges kicked off a workshop on this issue by addressing panelists and participants from across state.

“We live and work in a prison town with families of those incarcerated for crimes,” Bridges said.  

“The students and staff at Whitman see these families, and particularly their children, as a potential focus of outreach. We have convened this workshop to gain a better understanding of how many children in our community have an incarcerated parent, to learn from local and statewide experts about the challenges these children face, and as part of our commitment to Walla Walla, to assist local service agencies in addressing the needs of these children in ways that also advance the learning and development of our students."

Gaining an understanding of the population of children whose parents are incarcerated is one reason Delgado-Daniel moderated a panel full of local organizations committed to supporting these children, organizations like the Star Project, whose mission it is to “successfully re-integrate ex-offenders into the community as contributing members of society.”

“The ultimate goal of our project is to create some kind of sustainable program or support system that would help these kids,” said Delgado-Daniel, a sociology major from Seattle. “This is a population that is only recently gained more national attention. There are currently few specific resources targeting this population in Walla Walla, and we hope to change that.”

Delgado-Daniel was clear that she didn’t think Whitman could fix the problems that these children face, but she clearly feels the college and its students have an important role to play.

“In researching this topic, we have accepted that we are not trying to necessarily solve the entire problem, but instead attempting to support and supplement it with the resources we have available to us.”

One resource Whitman can bring to the equation is data research to help find out exactly how many families there are in Walla Walla who have incarcerated relatives, said Noah Leavitt, Assistant Dean for Student Engagement.

meeting“It was clear from these workshops that many data and research questions are out there, the answers to which could help local agencies better support and serve these families. Whitman as a liberal arts college can bring our research expertise to make a huge positive impact in our community," Leavitt said.

Columbia County Prosecuting Attorney Rea L. Culwell ’94 believes the workshop was an important event, because students and panelists examined what is taking place in the community, in terms of children with incarcerated parents.

“The first step in correcting a perceived problem is taking stock of what is actually occurring in a community. This workshop was a thorough and productive first step,” said Culwell.

“The students involved were extraordinary. I cannot wait to hear from them again, and I hope I can work with them and other Whitman students, faculty and staff in the future.”

The workshop proved to be a success in answering numerous questions about these disaffected children, such as what type of support they might need. It also created more questions that Satinder Haer ’15 hopes will be answered by future Whitman students who can follow up on her team’s research.

“We hope that our summer research will generate a sustainable way for Whitman to continue supporting kids who have incarcerated parents. The literature we've read and the field work we’ve done in the community have all helped us figure out what the needs of this previously invisible population are,” said Haer, a psychology and rhetoric major from Seattle.

“Our hope is to take our knowledge and make Walla Walla a better community and engage students through the projects or programs in which we ultimately decide to invest our resources.”