Parents in prison: York groups help incarcerated moms and dads


Volunteers and staff with York County's prison ministry and the Lehman Center provide guidance and support to parents incarcerated at York County Prison.

At the prison, 1,395 of 2,221 inmates report having a total of 3,626 children, according to Warden Mary Sabol.

Because inmates don't report their children's ages, there's no way of knowing how many of those children are minors, she said.

Most inmates — about 1,500 — are from York County, she said. But the prison also holds Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees and prisoners channeled from the state Department of Corrections.

Supporting parents: Shari Gordon, volunteer and parent support group coordinator at the Lehman Center, 400 W. Market St., said she leads support groups for both mothers and fathers being held in the prison.

School nurse Colleen Stanley teaches parenting classes through the ministry, which is connected mainly with St. Joseph Parish, a Roman Catholic church in Springettsbury Township.

The ministry also provides prisoners with job readiness training, holiday celebrations and coats for those released in cold weather.

"(The parents) are very receptive, and usually it's very positive," Stanley said.

Stanley holds a parenting class once a month, following a curriculum given to her by the ministry.

"You can tell they miss their kids so much," she said.

It's important for those teaching the classes to avoid condemning parents, she said.

During class discussions, she tries to encourage parents to realize their innate wisdom when it comes to raising children, tapping into and trusting what they already know, she said.

And for the parents, accepting circumstances is crucial. Sometimes, the person raising a prisoner's children has different values, Stanley said.

Children of incarcerated parents might be left with the parent on the outside or grandparents, or they might be put into foster care, Gordon said.

Visits: When children come to visit, they can talk on the phone while looking at their parents through a glass window, Gordon said. No contact is allowed.

"Some parents don't want their kids to know they're in prison — some do," Gordon said.

"Kids might feel like it's their fault, thinking, 'My parent doesn't want to see me,'" Stanley said.

"Some people can't deal with the emotion," Gordon added. "They're storing it for when they're released.

"That's when the real work begins."

Gordon offers the parents handouts that teach lessons, including advice on how to determine one's values and convey them to children.

One handout, from, gives tips for parents and caregivers coping with incarceration.

One tip suggests giving a child a photo of the incarcerated parent to hold while talking on the phone with him or her.

Another suggests, "Give your child a paper heart to keep in her pocket. You might say, 'This is to remind you that I love you and will always be there for you.'"

— Reach Julia Scheib at