Not all stories about children with parents in jail involve recounts of glass barriers, letters or collect calls. And sadly, many don’t end with reunions and redemption, but with pain and shame; some stories end way too soon.
On Oct. 18, 2007, my father died from a pulmonary fungal infection contracted inside of an environmentally-hazardous prison facility. His non-violent offense cost him 3 to 5 years inside of a death trap as a means of meeting the terms of a contractual “70 to 100 percent inmate occupancy” requirement, and ultimately, he paid with his life.
I wish my story was an isolated incident. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that one in 9 black children in the United States has had a parent in prison at some point in their life. Exposure to these dehumanizing experiences have real-life implications for all involved, but especially for children, those ages nine to 16.
I didn’t know my father was in prison until months before his release date, and I only spent two weeks with him inside of a hospital room before he was gone. I don’t remember much about this time. I spent much of it confused, asking myself questions that a 13-year-old would never have the answers to. Why didn’t he tell us he was in prison? Am I going to lose him all over again? He didn’t even hurt anybody … why does he deserve this?
I spent those two weeks reeling with questions, but I also spent them dreaming; dreaming of the things we would do together with his second chance at life. He would come to watch me play basketball, take me fishing, we would argue about sports and play video games. It seemed perfect. I felt a deep sense of gratefulness for his return, and I felt like a normal kid. For a short time, both of my parents were in the same room and even in the thick of sickness and uncertainty, I was engulfed in love, and so was he.
I didn’t experience prison with my father, but his death sentenced me to what felt like depression without parole; to an anger that evaded forgiveness and understanding; to boundless anxiety. I didn’t talk about my experience with people at school, but the implications of the emotional trauma were physical: the weight loss, the hair loss, the palpable disinterest in everything around me. I didn’t feel resilient like children are so often told they are, nor did I have a desire to be.
What does this mean for our children? How can we be in service to, and in community with, our most vulnerable? What helped me, aside from the unwavering love from my mother, family and friends, was information, conversation and community.
Author, professor and activist Shawn Ginwright calls for black folks to shift from trauma-informed care to healing-centered engagement. This means that we address the issues that created the trauma; the lockup quotas, state-sanctioned violence and the long list of practices that criminalize black and brown people. It also means that we untether ourselves from society’s characterization of blackness, and reclaim our own narrative.
If my father would have been encouraged to walk in the world this way, maybe he would have felt less ashamed to tell me about his situation. Maybe I could have had the strength to tell my childhood friend that we had the shared experience of growing up with an incarcerated parent. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken until now, at 25-years-old, to feel empowered to share my story, to hopefully inoculate a child from the shame and the dehumanizing effects of mass incarceration.
Thank you, Patrisse Cullors, for so candidly telling your story, and for giving me the courage to tell mine. I hope that your story-telling—that inspires healing—is continually paid forward.
Takara Robinson is an educator and blogger based in Columbus, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @TakaraRob