By Gregg Fishman.
Prison is no picnic. And let’s face it; it’s not supposed to be. I recently visited the Federal Correctional Institution in Herlong, California—up in Lassen County—and while the program we were there to learn about is truly remarkable, my next biggest takeaway from the experience was that there are many good reasons to remain a law-abiding citizen.
FCI Herlong is clean, orderly, well-run and surrounded by walls, gates, fences, razor wire and guards with some serious firepower and no apparent sense of humor. People from all over the nation are sentenced to this medium security prison. Most of the inmates will serve their terms and eventually be released. And that’s why the Lassen County Child Support program at Herlong is so important.
Inmates sentenced to federal prison often lose track of their children. Even if the custodial parent is willing to allow contact, it’s easy to lose touch. In many cases, the inmate has an outstanding child support case, brought either by the custodial parent or the state—which can try to collect repayment from the inmate for government support to the custodial parent.
Imagine trying to restart your life after five or 10 years away with limited skills and a felony record? It’s already hard to find a job or a place to live. Now pile on $10,000, $50,000 maybe $100,000 in child support debt. Some inmates return to crime simply because it’s the only way they see to pay off what they owe. In many cases, the inmates don’t even know how much they owe. They are afraid to ask because they think a big debt like that will land them right back in prison.
Enter Lassen County Child Support. They began offering seminars to groups of inmates. And they provide one-on-one counseling to help inmates with their child support issues. Even for someone from out of state, they can do the research and help establish parental rights and obligations, tell that inmate how much he owes and if he is eligible for programs that can reduce or eliminate the debt.
Why is that a good thing? Because in some cases the “child” is now well past 18. The debt may be owed to the state for support paid many years ago. If the inmate has the means, he should repay the state—but most do not, and saddling them with debt increases the likelihood they’ll return to crime to pay it off. In other cases, reestablishing child support payments is the first step back into their child’s life.
In short, the partnership between Lassen County Child Support unit and FCI Herlong gives the inmates the information they need to manage their child support situation. They are more likely to make it on the outside when they leave. The program is working so well, two state prisons in Lassen County are looking to see if they can incorporate it into their facilities.