Marcus and Jasson Jr. can’t wait to wrestle with their dad.
The brothers sat with their grandmother, Kim Howell, on July 3 inside the family’s living room in Portage. It was a fairly normal evening, and just earlier that week, they had spoken to their father, Jasson Howell Sr.
Their dad is finishing the last year of a 10-year federal prison sentence, Kim Howell said.
Jasson Sr., now 37, was sentenced for distributing heroin between November 2006 and October 2009. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he was the source of heroin that resulted in a 17-year-old girl’s near-fatal overdose in November 2008.
Despite the serious crime, the family stays in contact a couple times every week using Corrlinks online video chats and during occasional face-to-face visits to Milan federal prison in eastern Michigan.
Sauk County Human Services Peer Support Specialist Ryan Ramnarace, a father himself who served 14 years in federal prison in Oxford, knows the struggle of being a dad from a distance. Ramnarace was charged in 2001 with conspiring to distribute and possession with intent to distribute powdered cocaine and marijuana.
But behind the charges and sentences, both father figures prioritized their children and sought positive change through self-improvement along the way in hopes of reuniting with their families upon release.
The Howell and Ramnarace families are among many that have found ways to preserve family connections and retain a sense of parenthood despite the distance and isolation that comes with incarceration.
About 7% of children in Wisconsin and 7% of children in the U.S. have had either one or both biological parents serving prison time, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which in 2016 published a report citing 2011-2012 data titled “Children of Incarcerated Parents, a Shared Sentence.”
An estimated 88,000 Wisconsin children have found themselves in this situation, according to the foundation’s 2016 report.
The nation’s highest rate of children with an incarcerated parent is in Kentucky, at 13%, according to the study. In Illinois, that estimate is about 6%. Wisconsin’s neighbor Minnesota, 5%. Nearby Michigan, 10%. The lowest was in New Jersey, at 3%.
About 42 percent of male inmates and 48 percent of female inmates in Wisconsin’s state-run prisons reported having a dependent child, according to a 2016 Wisconsin Department of Corrections report.
This 2016 document comprises data gathered between 1990 and 2016.
In the year 2016 alone, 21,665 men and 1,459 women were held at Wisconsin’s state correctional institutions.
Prior to transfer or final placement, many male inmates pass through Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun and Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fond du Lac County orients many female inmates.
All inmates are offered tips designed to help them adjust to a prison environment. That includes information about phone calls, visitation hours and how parents can stay connected with their children.
Some children with an incarcerated parent are placed into out-of-home foster care. Others live with extended family such as grandparents, uncles and aunts.
Amanda Chestnut, a licensed foster parent and a student at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County, has researched the topic of children with incarcerated parents in Sauk County. Chestnut worked with anthropology/sociology professor Annette Kuhlmann, who has taught classes to inmates at the federal prison in Oxford.
Chestnut said in many situations when a father is incarcerated, the mother of the children will take care of them. But when a mother serves time, more often than not the father does not retain custody.
She found in her research that in Sauk County, 22% of children are placed in out-of-home foster care when their father is incarcerated. That compares to a national average of 12%.
When a child’s mother is incarcerated in Sauk County, 67% of the time those children end up in out of home care, whereas that national average is 63%.
Columbia County Division of Children and Families Administrator Katie Day said extended relatives can receive kinship care aid of up to $244 a month per child.
Another Columbia County resource offered through the National Caregiver Support Program allocates additional funding for relatives age 55 or older who help raise another family member’s child, Day said.
Columbia County Foster Care Coordinator Kelsi Bauer said no foster parent she’s met has done it for money, because it all goes back to caring for and securing a good future for the child.
“We don’t want them to feel like they’re in foster care. We want them to feel like that’s their family,” Bauer said. “It takes someone with a huge heart and a good support system.”
Kuhlmann said four or five generations in a single family can end up in the criminal justice system through a cycle that gets harder to break with each turn.
Chestnut said on average, 30 percent of children follow into their parents’ footsteps if they face charges in court or struggle with drug addiction.
One way to gauge risk factors among children is to identify their Adverse Childhood Experiences score and analyze childhood traumas.
A child who has a higher score is more likely to struggle in school or be labeled as a juvenile offender, Chestnut said.
The scores are measured based on 10 issues: Sexual abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse, divorce, if the mother was treated violently, substance abuse in the household, mental illness in the household and if a relative was incarcerated.
Ramnarace said he had a score of eight.
From an early age, he adopted a narrative of being a “bad kid” to display a hard exterior and ward off feeling defeated by the world.
While held in solitary confinement after fighting another Oxford inmate, Ramnarace wondered if that’s all his life was meant to be and the example he wanted to set for his children. He wanted positive change.
That change came years later, after Kuhlmann visited the prison and inspired several inmates to study convict criminology and guide their peers toward better life choices.
Kim Howell said she’s proud of her grandchildren for doing well in school and making good decisions despite peer pressure and trauma they experienced.
When she and her four grandchildren all drove to Michigan to visit Jasson Sr. in prison for the first time, she said it was an emotional moment.
They cried and embraced in a group hug. Jasson Sr. promised to make things right and said investment in his kids’ future meant everything in the world. He wants to see them all go to college.
Howell remembers seeing how costly and mentally taxing drug addiction was for their family.
“They just got wrapped up in it,” she said. “We’d bail em’ out, trying to help the situation, cause now there’s kids involved. You just do. You try to do what’s best for the kids.”
Howell works for Go Riteway, a Portage school bus company. Her husband, Dale, drives semitrailers to help support their grandchildren.
At the Columbia County Jail, inmates have access to a voluntary program called Parenting Wisely, which offers tips about how to stay in contact with their families and maintain parental relationships, said Jail Sgt. Brian Kjorlie.
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Drug addiction recovery programs and social workers can also help inmates get back on track. Some court orders require inmates to utilize those programs. Kjorlie said as many as eight people a month participate.
“If it helps even one person, we’re good with that,” Kjorlie said. “Whenever parents can improve their own circumstances, it benefits the whole family.”
Kjorlie said parents feel compounding stress if they miss one more birthday, another holiday or a high school graduation ceremony.
Jails generally are intended to be a temporary stay for inmates awaiting court proceedings or serving shorter sentences. But some criminal cases can drag on for several years.
To help inmates still make the big moments, Kjorlie said the Columbia County Jail’s recently upgraded online video visitation makes it easier for families to stay in close contact from the comfort of their own homes.
Jail and prison environments can be intimidating to children, Kjorlie said, and the online system helps alleviate a sense of uneasiness.
Community members have donated stuffed animals and books for officers to give away to children as extra sources of comfort.
“The staff really likes being able to give a kid a book, even though it’s something really simple,” Kjorlie said.
Ramnarace was 27 years old when he began his sentence at the federal prison in Oxford.
His children were all 5 years old or younger, and his girlfriend at the time was expecting a fifth child of Ryan’s own namesake.
Ramnarace realized he’d be incarcerated for much of their childhoods and didn’t believe he could serve as a father figure from prison.
“I told her that I would not push her away, but I understood that when the time came if she needed to move on. I didn’t expect her to serve this sentence with me,” Ramnarace said. “I did this to myself.”
He arrived in Oxford on Sept. 10, 2001.
“At the moment while my whole world was changing, the whole world outside of that was changing as well,” Ramnarace said.
Ryan’s five biological children − Isaiah, Jazmyn, Xavier, Amira and Ryan Jr. − and their three respective mothers would visit him in prison when they could. The hardest part was dividing his attention and affection evenly during short visits.
Strict security checks posed another challenge. He watched as some inmates’ families stopped visiting because of how draining and costly it can be to be in contact with the justice system in any capacity.
His kids would sometimes ask if they could stay there with him, or if he could just come home.
“The end of visitation was always hard,” Ramnarace said.
‘There is no manual’
Every day was the same thing for more than 14 straight years, he recalled. Meanwhile, his children were constantly growing and changing outside of his daily routine.
Ramnarace said he was fortunate that all three mothers kept in close contact and organized visits so their children could see him.
On March 5, 2015, Ryan’s daughter Jazmyn, his brother Derek and father Raj came to pick him up upon his release, three days before his 41st birthday.
Derek drove Ryan to a halfway house in Janesville. Ryan later lived with Derek in their hometown of Baraboo while Ryan was under house arrest. At one point, Jazmyn drove to Minnesota to pick up Isaiah, and they drove together to visit their dad.
Ramnarace said he struggled to find his balance as a parental figure after his release.
“There is no manual,” he said.
Kuhlmann inspired him to reinvent himself outside of prison, and Ramnarace made it his mission to make amends. He graduated from UW-Baraboo with honors and now offers guidance to other former inmates.
He rekindled a relationship with Tricia Harris. They had been old friends and graduated from Baraboo High School together in 1992.
Ramnarace and Harris share a blended family unit with nine children in total, ranging from ages 16 to 24. He bounced ideas off her and learned from her parenting style after his release.
Ryan said was lucky to have a second chance at being a father to his and Tricia’s children alike.
Hope for future
Marcus Howell, 16, and Jasson Howell Sr. enjoy sharing art with each other. It’s a way for them to connect from afar while visualizing their feelings.
“It’s nice to be able to express yourself,” Marcus Howell said.
One of the drawings Marcus created for a class project was displayed at the Zona Gale House in Portage earlier this year.
Marcus knows a close friend whose father also is serving time. He knows he’s not alone in that regard.
Jasson Jr., 13, enjoys all things football: The NFL, local sports and Madden video games. He looks forward to playing catch in the yard with Jasson Sr.
“He’s funny, loving, nice,” Jasson Jr. said about his dad.
Do families of prison inmates have enough opportunities to remain close with loved ones who are locked up?
On occasional face-to-face visits, Marcus said he and his three siblings pitch in to buy their dad his favorite soda: Mountain Dew Code Red.
While no one could replace his dad, Marcus said living day-to-day in the care of extended family members feels normal.
“It’s like they’re our parents. They take care of us,” Marcus said.
At the root of keeping a family close during incarceration is communication, Howell said.
“God has been good to us,” Kim Howell said. “He (Jasson Sr.) sees the end now. I know they can’t wait to wrestle with their dad.”
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