Thoughts from a volunteer: Dr. Breanna (Bree) Boppre shares the importance of empathy and in-prison volunteering

Dr. Boppre and her students

The U.S. is the world leader in incarceration and the social consequences of that status extend beyond prison walls and into the community. Each of the 1.4 million people incarcerated in the U.S. leaves behind a family system. Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic/Latiné families face increased risks due to racial disparities and overrepresentation in the U.S. carceral system. Recent reports indicate that nearly half of state prisoners (47%) and more than half of federal prisoners (58%) are parents to an estimated 1.5 million children.

The impacts of incarceration are even greater for women as the majority are caretakers and mothers. Sixty-two percent of women in U.S. state prisons and 80% of women in jails are mothers to young children. Incarcerated women are significantly more likely to be the sole or custodial parent compared to men:  64% of women compared to 47% of men. Parental incarceration, especially maternal incarceration, has adverse impacts on children, including mental health issues, lower educational performance, and increased likelihood for system-involvement. In fact, one study found that children with an incarcerated parent were nearly two times as likely to become incarcerated in comparison to children without an incarcerated parent and the odds are slightly higher if the mother is incarcerated.

As mothers are often the primary caregivers, children may not have access to visit them in prison. Research indicates that two-thirds of mothers do not visit receive visits with their children. Only 54% of mothers communicate monthly by phone and 66% have monthly contact by mail. These low percentages likely reflect the myriad of financial, emotional, and physical barriers to visitation that families are forced to overcome, especially related to transportation as there are fewer women’s prisons than men’s across the U.S. That is also the case here in Texas. Families must travel to rural locations outside Houston, Austin, and Dallas to visit women in prison.

Through my own research interviewing formerly incarcerated women and  families with incarcerated loved ones, I’ve seen the struggles parents face to maintain bonds with their children. My research area is important to me personally as both my parents were incarcerated throughout my childhood and young adulthood. I wonder how my experiences would have been different with access to a program like Women’s Storybook Project (WSP).

Now as a tenure-track professor in the Department of Victim Studies at Sam Houston State University, I am able to help students understand the realities of people impacted by the criminal legal system and develop solutions. I teach courses on Violence Against Women and Family Violence. We discuss how women’s pathways are often shaped by trauma and abuse and how the carceral system often neglects women’s needs, especially related to mothering and reproductive health.

One of my main teaching strategies is service-learning. I want to connect students with real-world experiences that help benefit the local community. Service-learning helps students build empathy, build their social awareness and advocacy, and can lead to connections with potential careers and internships. When I learned about WSP, which I stumbled across on social media, I knew I wanted to partner with them for service-learning. So far, students have created social media content for WSP and two honors students also came with me to volunteer at the Plane Unit in Dayton, TX. It was a powerful experience for all of us!

Dr. Boppre and her son Ayden

As a new(ish) mom to a 15-month-old, I value my time with the mothers and enjoy helping them pick out books to read to their children. I reassure them how much their children will appreciate the recordings and hearing their voices. I love when moms read a chapter or two and then tell their kids to keep reading. It gives families the opportunity to share an experience together as a family. This is important as mothers may not be able to see or talk to their children often. The mothers are always very polite and thank us for spending time to help them.

I know this is only the beginning of my involvement with WSP and I am very excited for our future collaborations! Happy 20th anniversary to WSP and thank you to all the volunteers!!