York County has a decades-old, "unwritten policy" that allows incarcerated mothers contact visits with their children, but keeps fathers and their kids separated by a Plexiglass partition.
Seems county officials don't have a good reason — which itself is a very good reason to do away with it.
The York County Prison Board is mulling contact visits, spurred by a recent statewide roundtable held to discuss children and youth-related issues. The group found children benefit when parental roles are maintained during incarcerations.
"We see generations of families that have been involved in the criminal justice system, and it's all about bonding," said Bev Mackereth, the former executive director of the county's Human Services Department who now heads the state Department of Public Welfare and co-chairs the state roundtable.
"How is a child supposed to bond with a parent if they're not allowed to touch them?" she asked. "We've got to break down those barriers that keep children from being with their parents whenever possible."
We agree, and we wonder why those barriers only exist for fathers.
While Mackereth said many Pennsylvania institutions stopped the visits after a father in a state prison molested his daughter during a visit, York County Prison's warden said contact visits have never been routine during her 15 years there.
The visits can be ordered by Common Pleas judges, but they have only done so for mothers.
"This is an unwritten policy," said York County family court Judge Maria Musti Cook, who took part in the roundtable.
"Fathers are always stuck behind the glass ... sitting on a hard chair, looking through Plexiglas," she said. "I have often wondered ... for years why no father took that up as a cause."
While the prison board is considering contact visits for lower-level offenders and men with biological children, meaning parents would be able to touch and hold their children, Warden Mary Sabol said she sees "all kinds of security concerns."
Of course. But, as Musti Cook noted, precautions can be taken to ensure the safety of children and prevent contraband from being smuggled into the prison.
We have to assume those steps already are taken when mothers are granted contact visits with sons and daughters.
Children should not be punished for their parents' actions; they deserve some measure of stability during trying times.
If prison visits can be arranged, they should be — with either parent.