December 2, 2021

Drawing a picture

Picture books can help children of incarcerated

Catherine Wilde/contributing photographer

Clockwise from bottom left: Breeanna Dexter, Nicolette McKeon, Emily Urias, Breanna Washington and Rhiannon Maton. A group of SUNY Cortland students, together with Maton, an assistant professor in the Foundations and Social Advocacy Department, critique a picture book that features incarcerated family members. The critique is part of a project that will result in a paper on the topic of normalizing incarceration in schools.

A group of SUNY Cortland students sat in a classroom in Cornish Hall early this week, flipping through a picture book, pointing out the illustrations and critiquing the book’s depiction of inmates.

Stereotypical images of African-Americans, or the assumption that all inmates are of color or illiterate, stood out to them.

The study session is part of a project led by Rhiannon Maton, an assistant professor in the Foundations and Social Advocacy Department. The group’s goal is to give elementary school teachers the tools to help kids who have a parent imprisoned feel the same as their peers, and take away the stigma.

Teachers often lack professional training in dealing with a child with an imprisoned loved one, Maton said, and she wants that to change.

According to a 2014 Rutgers University study, more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent: 1 in 9 African-American children, 1 in 28 Hispanic children and 1 in 57 white children.

The experience can leave young children feeling anxiety or traumatic stress and can reduce their ability to overcome future trauma, according to

Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms has no statistics on the number of county jail inmates who are parents. Helms doesn’t keep those numbers, but the average age of the inmate is between 23 and 27 and he said children sometimes visit a parent.

America incarcerates about 600 people per 100,000, a rate that has been dropping since about 2010, reports the Vera Institute of Justice. Cortland County’s pre-conviction incarceration rate is about 95.3 per 100,000. At least some of those inmates have children.

“Whenever one (a child) comes in we try and minimize it as much as we can, as far as any of the impacts on children because it is hard, they come in and see a parent or a loved on in an orange jumpsuit,” Helms said. “And we try and be as mindful of their (the inmate’s) dignity as much as we can.”

To help children cope, particularly at school, the student research team is studying the use of picture books as a tool for teachers. The team meets weekly and critiques picture books, usually geared for kids before the fourth grade.

Book list

Books that handle the subject of familial incarceration well:
• “Visiting Day” — By Jacqueline Woodson
• “Mama Loves Me from Away” — By Pat Brisson
• “When Dad was Away” — By Liz Weir and Karin Littlewood
• “What Will Happen to Me?” — By Howard Zehr and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz
• “A Terrible Thing Happened” — By Margaret M. Holmes
• “Far Apart, Close in Heart” — By Becky Birtha
• “Knock Knock” — By Daniel Beaty
Source: Rhiannon Maton, SUNY Cortland associate professor in the Foundations & Social Advocacy Department

The project will result in a paper, Maton said, and the goal is to help teachers learn which books are helpful for students who may have loved ones behind bars, and which perpetuate stereotypes.

The group includes Nicolette McKeon, a sophomore inclusive education major, Emily Urias, a freshman early childhood education major, Breeanna Dexter, a graduate student specializiing in students with disabilities in grades one to six, and Breanna Washington, a senior inclusive education major.

Washington said harmful images in picture books are racially stereotypical images of black men with tight cornrows, or messages that inmates are illiterate, or only evil people are behind bars.

“Some picture books can make it seem incarceration doesn’t exist unless among people of color,” Dexter said.

More helpful, Maton said, are books that address the stigma and give an accurate portrayal of the experience of a family when someone is incarcerated.

What the students hope to accomplish is a shift in perception. As schools have begun to adjust to shifting social norms, teaching about changing family structures — single parent or same-sex parent homes — the group also wants to see the topic of familial incarceration be included.

“We all can speak to the power of story,” Maton said. “Picture books are one way to reach children at that age and they play on the imagination.”

This article was first published in print in the Cortland Standard on March 8, 2019. For subscription information click here. Back issues may be available at request.