A Shot at Redemption
When Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced that Blanche Carney, M.S.S. ’97, was his pick to lead the city’s prison system, he told CBS News, “I do believe that we need to set a tone with some of the people in our custody that it’s not just about punishment,” he said. “It’s about redemption, and it’s about moving forward in their lives.”
Darlyne Bailey, dean of the Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, completely understands the mayor’s reasoning: “As we watch our children rapidly, constantly, and increasingly become part of what many are calling ‘the prison industrial complex,’ Philadelphia needs a leader whose well-informed decisions are also courageous and compassionate,” she says. “Blanche Carney’s professional education and record reflect all of these.”
In recent years, the nation has begun some soul-searching about the impact of mass incarceration. President Obama has captured headlines by commuting the sentences of scores of prisoners—348 at last count. Less publicized but no less significant are the Department of Justice re-entry programs designed to help the 600,000 people released from prison each year. In Obama’s words, “We need to ensure that they are prepared to re-enter society and become productive, contributing members of their families and communities—and maybe even role models.”
Philadelphia is very much in line with that vision, as Carney points out. Working with criminal justice partners, private and public agencies, the corrections system she leads gives high priority to diversion and re-entry programs. When Carney talks about the city’s goals for prison reform, she sounds many of the same notes as the president does: “These folks will be coming back into their communities, and we need to help them make the transition.”
The first woman to serve as Philadelphia’s prisons commissioner, Carney makes note of the toll prison takes on the children of the incarcerated. There are approximately 5.1 million of those children in the U.S., and a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation paints an alarming picture: “Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce, with a potentially lasting negative impact on a child’s well-being.” These children are more prone to depression and anxiety, lowered educational achievement, and higher drop-out rates. Children of incarcerated women, who generally land in foster care or with extended family, experience even greater disruption and instability.
Carney knows this scenario all too well. She started out as a social worker and points to her GSSWSR experience as formative. It was, she explains, her work with children in foster care that shaped her career path. Some of her charges had parents in prison, and as she observed their visits, she began to see a link between helping incarcerated parents and helping their children.
What she calls “the collateral consequence of incarceration” was brought home during her first visit to jail. As a foster care worker, she was accompanying a little girl on a visit to her incarcerated mother. “It was heart-breaking,” she recalls. “That little girl’s excitement and anxiety was eye-opening. Both mother and child cried as we were leaving. And that child was in a good foster placement, but she still longed for her mother.”
The Casey Foundation report offers recommendations as well, and many of them look a lot like initiatives Carney has championed in Philadelphia: maintaining strong connections between child and parent, providing job training for incarcerated parents, and offering parenting courses for inmates.
A 21-year veteran of the prison system, most recently as deputy commissioner for restorative and transitional services, Carney has on-the-ground knowledge of what’s needed to make a difference for inmates. In Philadelphia’s six prisons, she’s developed classes and training opportunities in vocational work, literacy, parenting, anger management, and life skills. She managed a treatment program for inmates with substance abuse needs. And she helped open the city’s first women’s prison, where she introduced programming designed for a female population (services focused on domestic violence and pregnancy) and worked to ensure that parents know their visitation options.
The goal, says Carney, is to have people leave prison better and stronger than when they entered—because prison should be about more than incarceration.
It should also be a shot at redemption.