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Going to Jail to Connect Families

ALBANY, N.Y. (Nov. 3, 2017) – When a parent is incarcerated, the effects on his or her child can be sobering, including elevated risks of behavioral problems, substance abuse and higher school dropout rates.

A group of UAlbany students is working with the Albany County Jail to help mitigate some of these risks.

“Reading for a Change” is a project of Assistant Professor David Hureau’s Public Criminology Seminar, a new course offered at the School of Criminal Justice.

The organizing idea is simple: A participating inmate is recorded while reading a children’s book, then the audio recording is burned to a CD and mailed with the book to the child’s home. The aim is a bit more pointed: to connect children to their incarcerated parents with an aim toward alleviating some of the emotional burden of losing connection with a parent serving time.

“When a parent goes to jail, it’s very stressful for the child,” said Andrew Thompson, a first-semester Ph.D. student at the University who is spearheading the project, along with classmates Kyle Maksuta and Tyler Bellick. “We want to preserve meaningful communication between the parents and children.”

Hureau, who studied under renowned incarceration scholar Bruce Western while at Harvard, said the course advances scholarly understanding of criminal justice issues while deepening relationships with members of the Albany community who have real-life experience with the criminal justice system. The seminar engages former inmates, Albany Police Department officers, gang outreach specialists, legal and social service advocates, and family members who have experienced the incarceration of a loved one.

UAlbany students in Albany County Jail
First year Ph.D. students Tyler Bellick, left, and Andrew Thompson stand outside Albany County Jail. Along with fellow student Kyle Maksuta, they are leading the ‘Reading for Change’ project. (Photos by Paul Miller)

“The intellectual heart of this course examines how criminal justice scholarship has influenced public policy and public discourse, and our seminar discussions are enriched and complicated by the voices of those that have given over significant periods of their lives to the criminal justice system,” Hureau said. “For the university students in the course, the seminar challenges them to consider their commitments to the people, places, and institutions that they study.”

But it’s not all talk. The seminar challenges students to go out and engage with the complexities of the criminal justice system they study, which is what the “Reading for a Change” project does.

Recordings began earlier this month at the Albany County Jail, which has a daily population of 800 inmates, according to its website.

“Ultimately, [this project] is about keeping families together and letting kids know that maybe their parents aren’t with them, but they love them and they’ll be home soon,” said Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple.

More than 100,000 children have a parent serving time in prison or jail in New York, according to the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). Nationally, the same is true for about 2.7 million children, according to a 2010 Pew Charitable Trust study.

“I hope that the research I do makes a difference,” said Bellick. “I’m very thankful to be at the University, where we are open to these innovative opportunities to actually engage the public.”

Class-Wide Collaboration

Hureau said the course is an opportunity to give back to the community, as well as provide students with vital hands-on learning experiences.

“I’ve seen early-on during my time [at UAlbany] that we are physically, very clearly embedded in the community, and that’s there’s more that we could do to better engage with our community,” he said.

Other projects included as part of the course include volunteering at Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Capital Region, a mentoring program for children, and mentoring at Bethlehem Youth Court, a non-profit organization that adjudicates low-level, minor offenses.

Hureau has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in sociology and social policy. He joined the faculty at UAlbany in the fall of 2016.

Though the public criminology course is only for a semester, projects initiated as part of the course will continue beyond the fall-semester, according to Bellick, a graduate student in sociology enrolled in the class.

Those who wish to donate children’s books or to cover postage costs can contact Andrew Thompson at ajthompson@albany.edu. For more information about the Public Criminology Seminar and the various projects students are working on, contact Tyler Bellick at tbellick@albany.edu.

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A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.