2. We spend a lot of money to incarcerate young people.
3. “The youth incarceration rate in the nation dropped 37 percent from 1995 to 2010. In 1995, 107,637 young people were held in correctional facilities on a single reference day, while in 2010, this number had dropped to 70,792, the lowest in 35 years. The rate of youth in confinement dropped from 381 per 100,000 to 225 per 100,000 over the same period. But the United States still incarcerates a higher percentage of its young people than any other industrialized country — in 2002 the nation’s youth incarceration rate was almost five times that of South Africa, the nation with the next highest rate. Most of the young people incarcerated do not pose a clear public safety threat: almost 40 percent are incarcerated for nonviolent reasons such as status offenses, public order offenses, low-level property offenses, drug possession, or technical probation violations, while only about one quarter are incarcerated for a Violent Crime Index offense (homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, sexual assault). (Source).”
4. According to the ACLU, “In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) held a record-breaking 429,000 immigrants in over 250 facilities across the country, and currently maintains a daily capacity of 33,400 beds—even though, in the overwhelming majority of cases, detention is not necessary to effect deportations and does not make us any safer.”
7. The PIC is very costly. Preliminary data from the Census Bureau’s annual State Government Finance Census indicate states spent $48.5 billion on corrections in 2010, about 6% less than in 2009. Between 1982 and 2001, total state corrections expenditures increased each year, rising from $15.0 billion to $53.5 billion in real dollars.
Stop and Frisk is a policing tactic that is used across the U.S. but particularly in New York City. The practice criminalizes mostly young Black and Latino people.
Several months ago, I contributed to artist Katie Yamasaki’s Kickstarter project “If Walls Could Talk.” Katie describes the project below:
Children from the East Harlem Community and the greater NYC area worked to design a mural that I painted with the mothers inside of the women’s jail in Rikers Island. The women also created an image and message dedicated to their children and the East Harlem community. Last month, I worked with their children and other members of the East Harlem community to bring their message to life.
Below is the first video that I saw of Katie describing the project in her own words.
The project is now complete and there was a mural dedication celebration on September 14. Since I no longer live in NYC, I was unfortunately unable to attend. But thanks to the magic of technology, Katie shared photographs and regular updates about the progress of this project. Below are some photographs of the East Harlem mural:
I have received many e-mails over the past couple of years as I have been writing here. Several of these have been from the children of incarcerated parents. I have never published their e-mails because they have been so personal and often emotionally raw. I have also not wanted ask for permission to share them on the blog. The e-mails have felt private.
Some children of the incarcerated (at least the ones who have reached out to me) seem to live difficult lives. One particular young woman and I have struck up an e-mail pen pal relationship. She has struggled to move past the hurt and harm caused by her father’s estrangement. He has been locked up for most of her life. She is dealing with unresolved anger and grief from his absence. Yet at the same time, it seems to me that he actually occupies an outsized space in her world too. She thinks of him constantly. She feels a lot of rage. This idea of the gaping hole that can be left in a child’s life when he or she has an incarcerated parent is well illustrated by Tupac’s “Papa’s Song.” The accompanying video paints a searing portrait of how the absence of a father through incarceration can negatively impact a child’s life.
The following is from my pen pal, Randy, who is incarcerated at Indiana State Prison. Randy loves to write and has been using his words to reach out to young people for the past few months.
Our Children and Prison
by Randy Miller
One of the most difficult aspects of prison life is the knowledge that our children are doing time with us. Our children did not choose to do our time. They were forced into it by our poor decisions and actions. They were left on their own to wonder why they don’t have a daddy to care for them. Wondering what they did wrong to cause their daddy to go away, and often face severe hardships in trying to establish a positive relationship with their incarcerated father.
Prisons are not designed to promote an environment for healthy family interactions. Prisons are designed to warehouse some violent, dangerous men and keep us as isolated from society as they can, so society can continue existing as if we didn’t. “Out of sight, out of mind,” should be the motto for the Department of Corruption. Little do lawmakers and prison officials care that the main people being hurt by their policies and regulations are our children.
Prisoners do care! I have seen hardened, defiant men, reduced to tears over their children. I’ve seen men who had otherwise lost their will to fight their own case, still fight everyday to see their kids. I’ve seen some of the hardest and meanest men in here, smile like kids when they talk about their children. Children are the most precious and sacred part of any prisoners life, and unfortunately, it’s the most difficult part of our lives to get straightened out.
Prison officials don’t care who gets hurt outside these walls. The only thing they care about is controlling the population of the prison, in such a way that it goes as efficiently and smoothly as possible. The smoother it runs, the more beds they can open up and the more men they can lock-up. Prisons were designed to be not-for-profit institutions, to rehabilitate men and integrate them back into society as productive citizens. Prisons have become a business, and like any business, the more beds they fill, the more money they make, and they don’t care who gets hurt in the process.
Just like us, our children have become nothing more than statistics, to the home-wrecking machine known as the Department of Corruption. How much longer will our children have to pay the price for our mistakes? How much longer will society carry on acting like they don’t know about the problems that exist within our prisons? How much longer will we have to wait for those in power to realize they are crippling society by continuously releasing institutionalized, traumatized men back into society? Someone needs to take notice, before it’s too late.
(Dropping Daddy Off At Jail)
by Danna Botwick
Good-bye at the gate
We hugged & kissed like families do
He held his youngest daughter,
She wanted to see where he would sleep.
The guard, a black woman
with sunglasses & white uniform,
scooped up his belongings with
long red nails.
It’s just a camp,
no bars, she made light
of our darkness and I hated her
long red nails.
Lucy did not cry
for almost two hours.
When it folded over her,
she was trying to spell
and decided she could not do her work
so she beat the couch
with small angry fists
“I want my daddy, NOW!”
Until she could not breathe,
face flushed she raged,
“I wish daddy didn’t do that bad
thing in the first place!”
I paused inside my hurt
“He didn’t know…”
Too smart for me
she smashed her face into a pillow,
“I’ll bet all mothers say that to their children.”
“Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture. — Salman Rushdie
I received a letter from a reader of this blog about three weeks ago. I am still processing it and so I am moved to write today about shame. Specifically, I want to write about shame and silence as it relates to prison. I have a good friend whose father has been incarcerated for most of her life. She hardly speaks of him. She says that she doesn’t miss him. I believe her.
“When I look in the mirror, I see his face and I feel debilitating disgust,” she once told me.
She was 10 when he went to prison. She is now 37. He will likely never be released.
It is rare when she will bring her father up with me. Though one day, about five years ago, she mused:
“What does it say about me that this man is my father?”
Lewis Smedes has written that:
“the difference between guilt and shame is very clear—in theory. We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.”
My friend is and will always be the daughter of a man sentenced to spend his natural life in prison. This is a fact. This is not the end all and be all of her identity though. Yet I fear that she is ‘doing time’ with her father even though she has no contact with him. She is trapped in her identity as the daughter of a ‘lifer’. Worse she is trapped in her “secret” identity as the daughter of a prisoner. This is something to be whispered and to be shared only with those who are blessed to become part of the inner circle of her life.
My friend has struggled with substance abuse. About five years ago, I asked her mother if I could write a letter to my friend’s father. She was taken aback at first but gave me her blessing. I sent him a letter introducing myself as a friend of his daughter and asked if he would answer the following question in writing: “What was the best day that you ever had?” I asked him to be as descriptive as possible in the letter. About two weeks later, I received a response from him and it was 10 pages long. That letter almost ended my friendship with his daughter. But that is a story for another day.
I had hoped that my friend would read that letter and that perhaps she might begin to see her father beyond his fixed identity as a “prisoner.” If she could move away from seeing him as a one dimensional figure, then perhaps (I thought) she could also begin to embrace other parts of her own self beyond the “daughter of a prisoner” identity. While I thought I was being helpful and loving, my actions were not received as such and I almost lost a very good friend.
But five years later, if you wonder if I would still reach out to her father in the way that I did, the answer is yes. For while there is no happily ever after to this story yet, I have seen small changes in my friend. It took her over 18 months but she eventually did read her father’s letter. Last year, she was in Chicago and over dinner she said: “You know he isn’t a monster. It makes a difference to know that somehow.” What difference does it make? I can’t tell yet. But I know that as she begins to humanize her father, my friend will begin to embrace her own humanity as well.
As I said, there is no happily ever after to this story. And that’s OK.
I am in a reflective mood since celebrating a milestone birthday last week. I have been thinking about the fact that I am blessed to have the best parents on the planet. I assume that some of you might take issue with this characterization and want to put up your own parents as contestants in the “best on the planet” category. That’s OK, I give you permission.
As I have been reflecting on my childhood, I can’t help but think of the millions of children and youth in America who are living without a parent because of mass incarceration. A year ago, the Pew Charitable Trust published a report that found that 2.7 million children in the U.S. now have an incarcerated parent.
2.7 million is a number that is almost impossible to fathom. Yet here we are. I have a friend who runs a program that offers free transportation to children to visit their incarcerated mothers. She always mentions the resilience of the children. However she also underscores how sad they always are when they have to leave their mothers behind. I can’t even imagine the pain of that. We rarely hear the voices of these children in the public square. One exception to this can be found in the book "What Will Happen to Me?", a publication that I wrote about a few months ago. A young boy named Kevin is quoted in the book speaking about the losses that he experiences because his stepmother is behind bars:
“If my stepmom were here, we would see her every day, and it would be happy and everything. She missed my honors assembly. Missed a lot of parent-teacher conferences — some parent things where they go to the school and talk to them about how good or bad we’ve been in school.”
Years ago, I remember seeing Daniel Beaty perform this poem “Knock, Knock” at Def Poetry Jam. I could not stop watching this clip of his performance for several weeks. He does a terrific job drawing on his own experience to paint a picture of what a child loses when his parent is imprisoned. If you’ve never seen this performance, do yourself a favor and do so today.
So many children cannot articulate their feelings of longing for their incarcerated parent and so they keep their anger, sadness, and fear bottled up. This can sometimes lead to emotional implosions and explosions.
I am happy to announce that I am currently working on a project that will address (in part) the concept of what the children of incarcerated parents “miss” when their parent(s) is locked up. I can’t wait to share more about this in the coming months.
By age 17, one in four African-American youth has a father who has been sent to prison. Source: Western, 2011
I received an e-mail from a young man who was a stranger to me about a month ago. I haven’t written about it until today because I have been trying to address some issues that arose from the communication.
The young man is 14 years old and he came across this blog by doing a google search about boys with incarcerated fathers. He wrote to me to tell me his story. I have his permission to share some of it with you. I promised that I wouldn’t quote directly from the first e-mail that I received from him. I want to honor the trust that he has bestowed. I will call him Darius.
Darius has been raised for the past 4 years by his paternal grandmother. Both of his parents were addicts and he never really knew his mother who died of AIDS when Darius was only 3 years old. The two constants in his life have been his father and his grandmother. Four years ago, Darius’s father caught another drug charge and he is currently serving a 10 year prison sentence. There is some hope that his father might be paroled within the next couple of years but Darius is not getting his hopes up.
Darius reached out to me because he wanted to let me know that he feels alone even though his grandmother is doing her best by him. He wanted me to know that he never talks to any of his friends about his father. He doesn’t talk to anyone about his father. He is unable to visit his father regularly because he is incarcerated over 100 miles from where Darius lives. His grandmother has no means of transportation. Even if she did, she works as a nurse’s aide and has very inflexible hours. Darius confided in me that he is struggling a great deal right now. He wrote that he feels like he might “explode.” He doesn’t understand why he feels so angry all of the time. He said that he doesn’t want to cause any “trouble” for his grandmother. I can understand that.
I wrote back to Darius and asked if he had any other trusted adults in his life who he might turn to. I offered a list of possibilities (a pastor, a coach, a neighbor, a teacher). He replied that there is no one who he can turn to. He apologized for “bothering me.” He didn’t know why he had written to me in the first place. He said that he had read a blog post that I had written about another young man who I know named Jamal. He said that perhaps I would also understand his situation.
I wrote back to Darius to tell him that he was not “bothering” me and that I was honored that he would reach out to me. I told him that I would be privileged to be his e-mail pen pal and that he could write to me whenever he felt that he needed an ear. Over the past 4 weeks, we have e-mailed each other quite a bit and I am so incredibly impressed by Darius’s intelligence, his resilience, and his courage. Since Darius lives in a city where I happen to know several people, I asked him if he would be willing to receive a call from a male friend of mine who might be a good ally for him. A couple of weeks ago, the two had a phone call and this weekend, they met for the first time. I am happy to report that they have hit it off famously as I suspected they might. My friend is an attorney and he is also someone who has quite a bit in common with Darius.
Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Darius who wanted to give me the 411 on his lunch with my friend on Saturday. He told me that my friend was “funny.” Apparently, they found quite a bit to laugh about together. He was excited because my friend offered to give him and his grandmother a ride to see his father when they wanted. Darius says that he can’t believe that a person like my friend would take any interest in him. I know that this reflects the sense of apprehension that he feels about having been let down a lot. We will all have to take great care not be disappointments to him. We have a lot to live up to but I think that we will be equal to the task. This is not a happily ever after story. None of us knows where any of this will lead. However, for the time being, a young man has a couple of people who he can talk to. We will listen. That’s easy to do.
I wanted to share Darius’s story here because I think that the individual stories of the impact of incarceration provide the fuel that is needed to incite all of us to greater action. There are millions of young people like Darius across the U.S. They are the orphans of this mass incarceration scourge. Many, many of these young people are in pain and they don’t have the voice to express what it is that they are even feeling. How are we going to address this as a society? These are all of our children. Darius had the motivation to go to his local library to use a computer to research resources to help himself. He did that at 14. That is extraordinary and we should not expect children to have to do this. I also honestly don’t know if I am the only stranger who he wrote to. I haven’t asked. Perhaps he sent a number of e-mails out into the interwebs… I just happened to respond. Yet I know that I can’t respond to the millions of other voiceless children and youth who also need an ear, some encouragement, and important resources. So unfortunately this is an incomplete story; one to be continued…