“William Koger lives in Washington, D.C., with his mother, Sandra, and three boys: Isaiah, 11, Demetri, 10, and Deshawn, 8. But it is the absence of their mother, Sherrie Harris — who is serving a long-term sentence at Hazelton Penitentiary, in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia — that looms over the household. William took on the unexpected role of primary caregiver to all three children, including one stepchild, but he has been in and out of jobs and in and out of prison himself. After being injured in a serious car accident, he is now unemployed and often in severe pain. The family is stretched financially and often unable to afford food or medicine. The children are emotionally scarred by their mother’s absence and sometimes withdraw into their shells or act out. Only when pressed do they express their intense yearning for their mother to come home, rejoin the family, and provide them with the maternal love they are missing. Sherrie Harris has been incarcerated since 2006 and is scheduled to be released in 2017.
This piece is part of a much larger multimedia project, titled Locked Apart, that includes multiple families in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. I believe it is appropriate to acknowledge that family members of offenders are among those who are victimized when a crime occurs. Like the voices of crime victims and their families, the voices of offenders’ family members should be heard.”
Last Thursday, I organized an event at the Hull House Museum as part of the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth. On any given day in 2013, almost 55,000 juveniles were held in custody across the U.S. In Illinois, about 700 children and youth are held in our 6 juvenile prisons on any given day. Sending Kites brought together people of all ages to bridge the divide between those inside and those of us in the outside world.
photo by Bobby Biedrzycki (5/21/15)
The event included some basic facts about juvenile incarceration in Illinois. We were also graced with the presence of a wonderful young person who shared his incarceration experience. Finally, led by my friend, writer and artist Bobby Biedrzycki, the assembled group wrote letters and poetry to incarcerated children. The writing produced in just a few minutes was poignant and beautiful. It will be compiled into a zine that we will mail to incarcerated children through a new program called Liberation Library.
There were many wonderful pieces written and I’ll share one below.
I am imagining what it might be like for your inside.
I’m making a space inside of myself where your voice could be heard.
The voice that is locked in a cage.
It can slip through the bars, under the doors, out of the windows and into the world.
You are in the world too.
There are many of us making spaces for you.
We see you.
We hear the voice that you have not yet released.
We will be here when you do.
photo by Frances Herrera-Lim (5/21/15)
All available research about juvenile incarceration suggests that it doesn’t work and worse that it is actually counterproductive. Yet we still lock up thousands of children each year. Those children are overwhelmingly Black, they are poor, they are mostly male, they suffer from mental illness and trauma, and they are under-educated. We can do so much better. For information about where your state stands in terms of juvenile incarceration, take a look at this interactive map by the ACLU.
For those in Chicago, Liberation Library is recruiting volunteers who can help to pack and mail books and write to incarcerated children starting this July. You can sign up to volunteer here. We are also collecting books and funds here.
I am very happy to publish this poem by Ebony Delaney. Ebony is a woman who is currently incarcerated in a California men’s prison. Her poem came to me via a reader of this blog named Tyler who corresponds with Ebony. They share poetry, books, and short stories with each other. I am honored to share Ebony’s work here.