Special Project, an independent network of artist and advocates, offer children’s activities every Sunday. Here Mari, who does not have an incarcerated parent, works on a project. | Courtesy of Special Project

Kentucky has the second-highest rate of children with incarcerated parents in the nation — 15 percent compared with the 8 percent national average. This disproportionately affects African-American children in Louisville Metro because of racial disparities in mass incarceration, according to a health impact assessment released on Thursday by The Special Project and the Louisville Center for Health Equity.

The Special Project is an independent network of artists and justice reform advocates who offer activities for children every Sunday evening in the visitors’ lobby in the basement of the Hall of Justice at Sixth and Liberty streets. The Louisville Metro Department of Corrections only allows inmates two visitors at a time and one of them must be an adult. Special Project organizes activities to entertain children waiting on parents visiting inmates or checking in with home incarceration officials themselves.

The group serves 60 to 100 people a week.

The Special Project was founded in 2008 by Judith Jennings, former director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women. The idea for the program came from a woman who had to wait two hours in the lobby with her two grandchildren for a video visitation with her son. After seeing the crowded room of bored children, the visitor donated $25,000 to the foundation to start The Special Project.

The Special Project Director Judith Jennings (right) with volunteer Lafayierre Mitchell, who took the photos found in the new report, “Parental Incarceration, Children’s Health, and an Opportunity to Shift the Future.” | Courtesy of Special Project

The new report, “Parental Incarceration, Children’s Health, and an Opportunity to Shift the Future,” grew out of a disturbing trend The Special Project noticed over the years, Jennings said. The program’s artists keep track of how many people are in the lobby, their race and why they are there. In recent years, Jennings said, the group noticed most of the visitors were African-American women with children.

The group decided to gather more data on African-American incarceration rates so it could advocate for policy changes. Jennings partnered with the Center for Health Equity, an office within the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, because of its use of health impact assessments to undercover the systemic roots of health issues. The two group received funding from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Kresge Foundation.

A solution offered in the report is a pilot program that would use Family Responsibility Statements, a series of questions for authorities to consider that can be used to mitigate the impact of incarceration on families and children. The questions would cover things like who is a child’s primary caregiver, is there child support involved, and the closeness of the parent and child bond.

New York and San Francisco are using Family Responsibility Statements, Jennings said. She is hoping these statements will persuade local authorities to increase opportunities for family contact during incarceration by assigning parents to prisons closer to their children and allowing greater parent and child interaction through video conferencing.

Jennings said the Health Impact Project was especially interested in examining the impact of parental incarceration in the South.

The report supported The Special Project’s initial concerns about racial disparities. Black males make up only 9.49 percent of the adult population in Jefferson County, the study says, but this group accounts for 31 percent of bookings and 41 percent of the incarcerated population in Greater Louisville.

“When the jail publishes their data, they say something like 41 percent of the prisoners are black and 41 percent are white. People might think that’s fair, but when you look at it in the context of African-Americans being less than 10 percent of the population and whites being over 80 percent, you can see the disparities,” Jennings said.

The high incarceration of African-American males is troubling, Jennings said, because of what it means for black families. Many studies show that the children of incarcerated parents are at greater risk of developing mental health issues, dropping out of school, becoming homeless and being incarcerated themselves due to issues stemming from parental separation.

“This reverberates beyond the jail. When you look at this big framework, this is impacting our schools, the foster care system, and many other aspects of the community,” Jennings said. “There are things we can do at the local level to change this situation, we don’t have to go through state government. But it will take people at the lower levels of government adopting some innovative practices.”