Emory grad: Escorting children to visit their moms in prison changed me

An inmate at Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville prays with her children in August 2016. An Emory graduate writes about escorting children to the prison to visit with their mothers.  (Hyosub Shin / AJC)



An inmate at Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville prays with her children in August 2016. An Emory graduate writes about escorting children to the prison to visit with their mothers. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

I just graduated from Emory University. For the last four years, I have been part of a larger institution that equipped me for a deeply impactful and life-changing career path. My first semester, I declared a neuroscience major and committed to a pre-health track, with the aspiration of being a pediatrician or gynecologist.

As a somewhat naive freshman, I “knew” three things about pursuing a career as a physician: It would require straight A’s in all science classes, experience working in a hospital and a proven history of self-discipline and ambition. I was determined to meet all the challenges.

 Chitra Yarasani


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Three semesters into my college career, I was evaluating my science coursework and the STEM research I was involved with, but I sensed that I needed something more — something … humane.

I craved experiences that would equip me emotionally for a career in medicine. I expressed concern that working in medicine can be characterized as an endurance event: marathon shifts in the hospital, high-stakes decisions based on scientific training, a decade of rigorous education preparing you for decades of rigorous work. But what about the human side? Am I equipping myself with an understanding of the people whom I will treat? Am I developing empathy?

In my humanities research, I better understood how empathy makes a pre-health, STEM education more purposeful, because it reminds us that our work will impact human lives. The human connection is complex and misunderstood. It is more than working with your biology lab group to curate a poster that explains the diversity of microbiomes in our local river. It is about interacting with communities apart from our own and taking the time to acknowledge their existence while using our own privileges to help people who don’t possess those advantages.

As we discussed empathy in the office of English professor Sarah Higinbotham, she told me about her work with an Atlanta-based nonprofit called “Foreverfamily,” an organization that supports children of incarcerated mothers through family-centered advocacy, including regular visits to see their mothers in prison — a practice that positively impacts the emotional, physical, and psychological health of both the mothers and the children. While COVID-19 had mandated visitor restrictions enforced by the prison, Foreverfamily temporarily discontinued their monthly visits.

In May 2023, it was finally time. It was my duty, as a volunteer, to provide emotional and moral support for these young children during the three-hour bus ride to Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville, Georgia, where they would be visiting their mothers for the first time since the start of the pandemic in 2020. I woke up at 4 a.m. excited to meet the kids, eager to witness the beauty of a child and their mother being reunited and a little nervous to see how the visit would conclude. I went to bed 16 hours later humbled, grateful, inspired and with my heart full.

The day I spent helping children reconnect with their incarcerated mothers was the most impactful 12 hours of my life as an undergraduate. At the prison entrance, I handed in my cellphone and traded it for a full day of connecting with my fellow volunteers, the incarcerated women and their children. We all bonded over our shared goal of providing these children with love and empathy during their short but intensive time with their mothers.

An imprisoned mom plays with her children in the Children's Center at Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)


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No internet, no books, no television, it was just us and our open ears and minds that turned us from strangers to friends. I recall being in the children’s center of the prison and thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe the prison hired an artist to paint these detailed images of Disney characters covering every inch of the walls.” Little did I know, it was the mothers who painted the characters over the years. It was the mothers who cooked the food that we ate — they always made sure there was dessert, the children’s favorite part.

I returned for another visit the following fall, this time taking the children to celebrate Thanksgiving with their mothers in prison. The purity and love that filled the room during the November visit was something I had never felt before.

Time was the greatest gift of all. Each minute that passed during these visits was a privilege, which was a hard reality to grapple with when the clock struck 2:30 p.m. and visiting hours were concluding. The shared love and laughter transitioned into difficult, tearful goodbyes. In one of my core neuroscience major classes, I learned that the basic social unit and strongest bond in primates is indeed the mother-infant bond. This visit to the prison humanized this classroom lesson for me. I may never personally experience the feelings felt by a mother and her child as they are being separated, but our shared proximity during their pain fostered my empathy in ways that made all my pre-health education more meaningful.

On our bus ride home with the children, I learned more about empathy and how it can heal. As our bus left the prison parking lot, one of the toddlers whispered “Bye, Mommy” while waving at the barbed wire fence that separated his mother from the rest of the world. My heart sank. But we held hands, played Subway Surfers on the iPad, and shared snacks for the rest of the ride. While I could not fill the presence of his mother, I could be his friend and another woman in his life that cared for and comforted him. I will take this experience with me in my own personal journeys in life and health care.

Now, as a recent graduate of Emory University and aspiring anesthesiologist assistant, I am equipped not only with four years of research and study in neuroscience. As a health care worker, the research, coursework and exams that constituted my bachelor’s degree equipped me for the science of medicine, but Foreverfamily equipped me to see my patients’ pain and to help them feel understood, heard, and cared for.

I am thankful to Foreverfamily and its director of community engagement, Marketa Harris, for allowing me to be a part of their beautiful mission of reuniting incarcerated women with their children. Every prison visit creates lasting bonds between these brave young children and their mothers and inspires volunteers.

It was Emory’s rigorous coursework, research opportunities and remarkable professors that equipped me for a career in medicine. And it’s the communities of Atlanta that molded me into a better human.

Chitra Yarasani graduated Emory University in May with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology.