When I was just over a year old, my biological father was charged with a 10-year prison sentence related to drug trafficking and subsequent safety implications. During this 10-year period, my mother and I visited him nearly every weekend in whichever prison he was located (he would be transferred between prisons based on behavior, fluctuating between minimum security and maximum security). I rarely share what this experience was like for me; it took years of therapy to validate how it had affected my psycho-social, behavioral and cognitive development. In short, it was tough. At this point, however, I am fortunate enough to have had the time and support to process this element of my upbringing openly and authentically.
I feel it's important for people to get a glimpse of what a prison visitation actually looks like. I see a lot of media portrayals of intense visits across tables or with that whole phone/window set-up. Some of these depictions fit the situation accurately, while others capitalize on the gross dramatization.
The visit begins with a secured check-in during scheduled visitation hours. You go to the front desk and provide proof of identity. For example, my mom always had our birth certificates and social security cards in her purse. From this point, visitors wait to be called in small groups, generally about two to five families at a time. This part of the process was most grueling. As an impatient 7-year-old, it felt like the wait lasted about 300 billion hours. (It probably only lasted up to 2 hours at most.) From here was the thorough security check — I got accustomed to emptying pockets to make them "look like bunny-ears" and waltzing through metal detectors.
The visitation itself varied in environment based on prison location and level of security. When my father was in maximum security, our visits were through that whole phone-booth/window set-up. When he was in "the hole" (seclusion), he was not allowed visitation. When he was in minimum security, we were in a large room with several other families. Visitors were seated across from inmates and were instructed to maintain limited-to-no physical contact. Visits lasted about 30 minutes to an hour. When the visitation period came to a close, nearly every inmate and visitor spent about 20 seconds in each other's arms.
The Pleasant Reflection
I notice now that most of my developmental milestones occurred in prison. I lost my first tooth in a prison and I was proud as hell. I paraded my tooth around to the other families and inmates like it was an Olympic torch. I had the sex talk in a prison (note: this was much less exciting than my missing tooth). I read a book that made me decide on wanting to become a "scuba-diving-glass-blower" in prison (which, I absolutely regret not pursuing). I was an expert at which vending machine sandwiches my parents would prefer. I was always ready to pose for the family photos the security guards would take on the Polaroid cameras. I felt as if I had a cohesive family unit in the prison; there was an element of the prison environment that was almost nurturing overtime. Having an incarcerated parent is very clearly not an ideal situation, but for me, there were moments throughout those years that remain some of the warmest memories.
The Ethical Tug-of-War
At our youngest ages, we're taught how to decipher "good versus evil." This is a narrative that's implanted in nearly every fairy tale or children's story. There are clear, distinct culturally described ideas of who the heroes and villains are within society. In early education, children are often expected to learn about various roles in our communities, more specifically, professions. I recall learning about professions dedicated to public service and being moved by how admirably the police were portrayed. They were the heroes. What this meant for me, however, was that my father was a villain. Learning more about crime, rules and regulations and the law further complicated my understanding of morality. I would spend an unreasonable amount of my time trying to understand what made people the "bad guys" and who "the wrong crowd" was. I tried to figure out what made the world so hostile against prisoners and criminals, especially when I had one as a role model. By about age eight, I recognized that "good versus evil" wasn't really a fight against one another, they intersected one another. From my experience, children of incarcerated parents are pushed to think critically about the world early on.
The Social Barriers
I didn't recognize my father's incarceration as atypical until we had to go around in a circle in elementary school and talk about what our parents did. Quite proudly, I announced that my mom was a cosmetologist and my dad was a barber in his prison. This was the point at which I recall understanding my situation as "abnormal" or "dangerous." Having an incarcerated parent shapes how a child and/or adolescent is able to interact with their peers. I would often worry that I would be too harshly judged or be ridiculed for having a criminal for a parent. Seeking friendships I would be able to deem as safe and accepting struck a significant amount of fear in me. For a while, I worked endlessly to keep this aspect of my upbringing secret. It triggered some near pathological introversion and isolation — interaction in and of itself became stressful.
I was really into statistics as a kid. I knew that it was statistically more likely for me to end up in prison and be barricaded from career and higher education opportunities. I had enough privilege to be raised by a hard-ass mother who would sometimes push me past my limit, but always in the interest of pushing me toward my potential. I had teachers, caregivers, family members and friends who actively told me that they believed in me. It made all the difference and I was lucky to be in that situation. Knowing that people valued me made a difference in how I was able to set goals for myself, my academics and my well-being.
Too often, children of incarcerated parents are not given the social and public support they need to be safe, healthy and feel as though they belong. They are dealing with tremendous stigma and disorganization, and many do not have the privilege of having one stable parent to live with. They are experiencing, what the CDC calls, an adverse childhood experience (meaning the child has an increased probability of impaired health and early death).
If you would like to learn more or send support to children of incarcerated parents, check out Youth.gov. Overall, tell these kids that they're worth it and support policies that will end up enhancing their well-being and quality of life.