Community Works in-custody programs address exigent public health crises of incarceration that are gravely exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. These vital programs must be supported and permitted to continue within the San Francisco County jails, especially during this global public health crisis.
The coronavirus pandemic has cast a glaring spotlight on the dangerously detrimental public health impacts of mass incarceration. Incarcerated people are at a significantly higher risk of contracting the virus, while receiving inadequate medical care and living in conditions that are not conducive to social distancing or maintaining proper hygiene. Several jails in the United States have been pinpointed as hotspots of COVID-19 infections, and those inside are becoming infected far more quickly than the general public -- one prison in Ohio recently found that over 70% of prisoners were already infected.
Due to the grave public health threat posed by COVID-19, there is considerable pressure on officials around the country to reduce incarceration rates and implement rapid re-entry plans. Compassionate release is the best way to protect ill or elderly incarcerated people from becoming heart-wrenching pandemic statistics. But for those left inside who do not meet the criteria for release, in-custody programming and services are a crucial lifeline right now.
Locking people in jails and prisons can destroy family connections, causing generational trauma and perpetuating cycles of violence. Shelter-in-place orders have put domestic violence victims at an increased risk, forcing them into isolation under the intense compounded stressors of staying healthy and navigating unprecedented economic uncertainty. The devastating spread of COVID-19 within carceral facilities has given jails and prisons the leeway to restrict programming and visitation, which are already under constant threat of suspension and elimination. These restrictions interrupt programming that is critical to the support and rehabilitation of incarcerated community members.
Resolve To Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) is a Community Works program that provides anti-violence education for violent offenders incarcerated in the San Francisco County jail. Founded in 1997 in partnership with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, RSVP has documented 82% lower rearrests for violent crimes during the first year after release compared to the general population within the jail system. RSVP is the first program in the country to specifically address violent offenders, the first restorative justice program in a county jail, and the first to bring victims and offenders together in a harm-healing process. RSVP has been featured in innumerable studies, books, magazine and newspaper articles, and was awarded the Innovations in American Government Award from the Ash Institute of Democracy and Innovation at Harvard University.
Over the past 20 years, RSVP has helped over 5,000 violent men examine the roots of their own violent behavior and dismantle male role belief systems in order to work toward healing. The RSVP model is driven by victim restoration, offender accountability, and community involvement. Participants commit to leading a life free of violence upon release, and many men who graduate from the program continue to educate others and engage in anti-violence education work post-release.
In addition to their own rehabilitation and personal transformation, many men in RSVP are simultaneously navigating the challenge of fatherhood. In fact, a majority of people incarcerated in the U.S. have minor children, and 45% were living with their children before becoming incarcerated. Right now, families around the country are experiencing extreme levels of anxiety and worry while trying to stay updated on the wellbeing of their incarcerated loved ones. With prison and jail visitation suspended, children are unable to see their incarcerated parents in person, and most contact is limited to only paid phone calls - which can be even more disorienting and upsetting for young children than the already tense environment of standard in-person visitation.
Community Works’ One Family program provides incarcerated parents the opportunity to participate in parenting classes, individual therapeutic counseling, and in-person parent child visits to practice the skills of openness, accountability, and empowerment in a safe and supportive environment. Under the current COVID-19 restrictions, One Family staff are working to provide alternative forms of visitation for these families and ensure that they can remain connected during this incredibly tumultuous time. One Family helps to mitigate the trauma of parent-child separation that results from incarceration, an adverse childhood experience that can lead to serious life-long health consequences. The program ensures that the parent-child relationship can remain in-tact despite the parent’s incarceration, and that families can be set up for healthy relationships upon the parent’s release.
One Family started as an initiative in September 2008 led by Community Works in partnership with the Sheriff’s Department and the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. SFCIPP was working to provide quality visits for CPS-mandated families, and chose to partner with Community Works to create the One Family Program with funding from the Zellerbach Family Foundation. The program has led to the creation of high quality, child-friendly visiting rooms in the women’s jail and the men’s maximum security jail. In addition to education and visits, One Family provides therapy for parents who are struggling within the environment and works with them to address their traumatic histories to make changes and create new futures for their families.
Community Works recently partnered with the Urban Institute to develop a toolkit for replicating the One Family program in other jail facilities around the nation. The resulting report, Model Practices for Parents in prisons or Jails: Reducing barriers to Family Connections, identifies some ideal practices that can support correctional administrators’ efforts to remove barriers that inhibit children from cultivating or maintaining relationships with their incarcerated parents during and immediately after incarceration.
The One Family program has partnered with many other leading institutions and service-providers, including the Drug Dependency Court, The No Violence Alliance, The Bridging Group, the California Institute of Integral Studies, and Jail Psychiatric Services. Through a contract with the San Francisco Human Services Agency, One Family works with parents in custody in danger of losing their child to the child welfare system. One Family staff members work together with child welfare social workers to support these incarcerated parents and their children. Even in cases where families cannot be reunited, One Family staff are able to assist with finding a relative to care for the child while the parent remains in custody.
RSVP and One Family are vital programs that equip people experiencing incarceration with the skills to repair and maintain healthy relationships with their loved ones, decrease violent behavior and recidivism, and put an end to the cycles of harm caused by crime and our justice system. Now, more than ever, these programs must be preserved and accommodations must be made to allow participants to continue making strides toward personal growth and healing.
In honor of #GivingTuesdayNow, Community Works is calling on our supporters and partners to support the One Family program and #KeepFamilliesConnected. Click here to learn how you can help.