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A Kansas prison helps kids bond with their mothers and grandmothers outside prison walls

Jordan Fuller with her two kids
Jordan Fuller with her two kids

Women at the Topeka Correctional Facility play with their children at the Children’s Discovery Center. And inmates say it encourages them to stay out of trouble.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Maureen Mulally’s grandson was born when she was in prison. Her grandchild calls the prison her home because that’s the only place he’s ever seen her live.

Mulally isn’t known as the prison grandmother, though, she’s known as the fun grandmother “because we do the fun things.”

Mulally is in a program called Play Free. That’s where women at the prison are allowed to visit the Children’s Discovery Center with a child or grandchild. Mulally and her grandson have painted, splashed around in ponds during hot summer days and played soccer and baseball.

“I pitch to him for hours on end,” she said. “And he’s a really good batter.”

The program is only available at the women’s prison in Topeka. Inmates become eligible if they have good behavior and complete a parenting class. For inmates, it’s a chance to make memories with loved ones and build bonds that will last when they are released.

“The worst part of being locked up is not having access to friends and family,” Mulally said, adding that she’d be much more depressed without the program.

A 2017 study published in the National Institute of Justice Journal estimated that up to 11% of kids, between 1.7 million to 2.7 million, have had a parent incarcerated during their childhood. That study also found those kids are more likely to have poorer outcomes like “psychological strain, antisocial behavior, suspension or expulsion from school, economic hardship and criminal activity.”

But not all prison visits are equal.

Another 2015 article by the National Institute of Justice, said about 66% of kids who did visit family had emotional outbursts and were angry, afraid or depressed after visiting family inside. Some had problems in school.

That could be because a prison settings are not a great place for kids and “make family members feel like ‘quasi-inmates.’” The article also said kids with a weaker bond to that family member didn’t connect as well.

Dené Mosier, president and CEO of the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center, said the program is all about building bonds.

“It’s a truly normalizing experience,” she said. “A child who comes here … and spent the day here will be in school and say, ‘Yeah, I was at the Discovery Center with my mom,’ just like any other child may have been.”

She said children, through no fault of their own, are also punished as part of their parents' arrest.

The Play Free program holds meetings about six times a year, once every quarter and once every summer month. The mothers and grandmothers arrive before 9 a.m. and leave just before 4 p.m. Children leave around 3 p.m. but the inmates stay longer for yoga. Breakfast and lunch is provided, but Mosier said the families can spend the day doing what they please.

The program is currently only available for women in the Topeka prison. Mosier said that’s because it was the closest prison and made logistical sense, but she does expect it to expand to the male prisons in the coming year. The Discovery Center offers a mobile museum, and she hopes she can set up Play Free events at community centers near other prisons in the state.

The Discovery Center also surveys parents after the visits, and some surveys have shown that 100% of mothers said they are staying out of trouble so this privilege isn’t taken away.

Inmate Jordan Fuller said this program was the reason she saw one of her kids for the first time in two years. She likes that she can just be a mom and play with children, and she’s happy her kids can see her smile and know she is doing alright.

Fuller only has a few more years left on her sentence. But she’s already made memories with her kids that will last a lifetime.

“This program gives me something to look forward to every other month,” she said. “Without this program my relationship with my kids would not be as strong as it is today.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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