Devastated Families: Life Without Incarcerated Parents

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Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to go to prison than to graduate from high school, and between 30 and 50 percent of children placed in juvenile detention centers have at least one parent who’s been to prison.
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“Locked Down, Locked Out,” by Maya Schenwar, looks at how prison tears families and communities apart, creating a rippling effect that touches every corner of our society, and looks toward a future beyond imprisonment, relying more on connection rather than isolation.

Locked Down, Locked Out(Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014), by Maya Schenwar, dismantles the mentality of forcible disconnection that props up the prison-industrial complex. Schenwar demonstrates that isolation does not rehabilitate people, disappearance does not deter harm and prison does not keep the public safe. She then shows us how society can do better. The following excerpt, from Chapter 3, “On the Homefront,” gives us one real-life example of a family dealing with an incarcerated parent serving life in prison.

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I remember Judge McBryde saying “life,” and Mom screaming over and over, “You can’t do that! You’re not God! You can’t take someone’s life.”

—Billy Jackson, son of federal prisoner Joe Jackson

In the classic game Monopoly, the square called “Jail” sits ominously in a corner of the board. It’s a hole into which an unsuspecting player might fall after an unlucky roll of the die, or the drawing of a bad card, or simply stumbling upon a space marked “GO TO JAIL” while ambling along the path to riches or ruin. Once you’ve been “sentenced,” you’ve got just three possible routes out of your lonesome confinement: luck (rolling doubles), privilege (a Get Out of Jail Free card), or money.

But once in a while, players stuck inside the jail square have company. A pale green space clings to its outward-facing perimeter: a kind of dry, liminal moat between Jail and the edge of the board, inscribed with the words, “Just Visiting.” A player who happens upon Jail without being mandated there isn’t punished, but must merely spend a brief turn in the square, then get along on her way to other squares and other ventures, as if it had never happened.

However, in real life the vision of prison isn’t over for family members after they exit the visiting room, or hang up the phone, or put the letter back in its envelope. The fact of a loved one’s incarceration can take on a vacuous life of its own, rambling along invisibly, parallel to yours, inhabiting your sleep, your daydreams, and your minute-to-minute fears and imaginings. It’s sometimes difficult to whisk your mind back to your own reality and live visibly in the present while they are—as Wisconsin prisoner Miguel Segarra puts it in a letter—“stuck in the past.”

“Life Has Never Been the Same”

In talking to families of incarcerated people—and then trying to write about them—a hard-to-shake anxiety tugs at my brain and my fingertips: “What’s the ending?” One author I spoke with when I began working on this book advised me, “Keep in mind that you’re writing a book for Americans, and Americans like a happy ending…. Or, at least, a hopeful ending.” But for a lot of people embroiled in the system, there’s no narrative arc, no reassurance of a liberated tomorrow. The very nature of incarceration ordains an impediment to forward movement—and that impediment is frustratingly vivid to family members on the outside, who witness the rest of the world rushing forward firsthand.

This dissonance bubbles to the surface when I speak with Yvonne, ex-wife of Joe Jackson, a pen pal of mine who is serving life for a meth distribution scheme undertaken to raise the $250,000 to pay for his son Cole’s life-saving bone marrow transplant. Joe divorced Yvonne three years into his imprisonment, telling her he wanted to set her free—but she still holds on. “They took the one person that had my back no matter what…. They took my best friend, and life has never been the same,” she tells me. “We live in our own prison out here, one that never ends.”

Joe has been in prison for more than eighteen years.

Joe’s daughter, April, describes to me how the saga began, during an early-morning breakfast when she was in ninth grade. It was still dark outside, the house hushed, and she had just seated herself at the table to eat a bowl of cereal. Then came a blaring loudspeaker-voice from outside the front door: “Come out with your hands up!” April yelled for Yvonne, who lay asleep in her room with baby Cole; he slept curled up next to her so she could tend to the protruding catheter in his heart when he woke in the night.

There was no slowing down the SWAT team: Two hundred officers swarmed everywhere in the house, in the woods outside, all down the road. They burst through the doors, searching futilely for April’s absent dad, tearing through papers and pulling Yvonne onto the porch. “One of them gripped me like a sack of potatoes and carried me to the driveway,” she says. “They told me to shut the dog up or they would shoot him…. From that day forward, my kids have had a fear that someone was watching them, and they all slept with me til they were older. It takes away all the security in your own home.”

In this small Texas town of fewer than 1,500 people, the scandal was big news. Rumors took flight immediately … and they never quite landed. “I learned we had elevators leading to an underground drug lab with an elaborate network of tunnels that went from our home down to my grandmother’s…. Trust me, I would have found that had it ever existed,” April recounts, recalling some of the worst items of gossip. “Apparently, there were also four dead bodies uncovered in our backyard.”

At the age of fourteen—for many of us, the height of caring what people think—April watched as long-standing friendships evaporated within days. Parents barred their kids from coming over to her house, and some even told their children not to talk to April or her middle brother, Billy. Yvonne got the cold eye, too—fellow parents wouldn’t sit next to her at the kids’ basketball games, and she was voted off the PTA in a closed-door meeting. She says, “There was rumors about me and the kids, always.”

The word “stigma” originally referred to a brand, a mark burned into human skin with a hot iron, commonly imprinted on the skin of enslaved people or “criminals.” The word hasn’t evolved much in the 400 or so years since its first usage, though the mark is now social instead of physical. And in the current era, at least when it comes to incarceration, the “branding” can be contagious, smudging off on families in ways that shift both their public image and their personal sense of self.

“The Bills Never Stopped”

Joe Jackson was handed the maximum possible sentence for his offense: three “lifetimes,” plus an extra thirty years piled on top. As they wobbled back into their own lives after the sentencing, Yvonne, April, and her two little brothers struggled for footing. Financially, things were a mess.

It’s not like the Jacksons had been living large in past years; April grew up in a trailer for the first ten years of her life, and says, “Dad barely made enough to get by.” But Joe’s imprisonment threw the family into a deeper, shakier pit of financial unpredictability. Their car was repossessed, Cole’s medical bills piled up to the ceiling, and Yvonne waged a constant battle to keep their house while working overtime at multiple jobs: a deli, house cleaning, construction. “Joe made our living so I could take care of Cole,” Yvonne says. “Without him it was me trying, and some days the bills never stopped.”

It’s a common turn of events: While prisoners are “stuck in the past,” family members are often left floundering to make up lost income. Most incarcerated parents were employed prior to their arrest, according to a 2005 study by the Urban Institute. (And that doesn’t count money the incarcerated person was bringing in by “illegitimate” means—also often used to put food on the table.) Sometimes, the family has lost its only income source and must start from scratch.

Amid money troubles and the strain of separation, family tension continued to tighten for the Jacksons. Yvonne and Joe divorced, with Joe insisting that it wasn’t fair for him to keep Yvonne tethered to him while he waited out the long years to die in prison. April pulled away from her mom, and, desperately seeking closeness, plummeted into a relationship with a controlling boyfriend who rapidly turned abusive. It took two and a half years to disentangle herself.

Meanwhile, April’s brother Billy slid toward violence himself. Crushed and confused by the loss of his dad—and angered by his classmates’ derision of his family—he got into frequent fights. Frantic at the possibility of another family member straying down a troubled path, Yvonne yanked him from school, homeschooling him on top of her other jobs (including, of course, caring for her chronically ill younger son).

Yvonne’s concern was no delusion. Boys with incarcerated parents are five times more likely to become incarcerated themselves, and kids of prisoners are more likely to go to prison than to graduate from high school. The effects often hit early on: Between 30 and 50 percent of children placed in juvenile detention centers have at least one parent who’s been to prison. According to a report by The Sentencing Project, “The arrest and incarceration of parents … takes an emotional toll on children, leaving some psychologically traumatized, fearful, anxious, withdrawn, socially isolated, grieving, or possibly acting out their feelings in disruptive ways.”

Of his dad’s incarceration, Billy says, “I think it caused me to grow up way too fast. I was twelve when I started working full time, started dating a girl when I was fourteen and was married to her at nineteen. I never really had a chance to be a kid, so when I was twenty, I started acting like one, and got in a lot of trouble and pretty much lost everything, including my now ex-wife, by the time I was twenty-one.” As for April, she fled her small town as soon as she could. These days, she completely avoids it. She doesn’t want to respond to the persistent “how’s your dad doing?” inquiry. It always has the same answer.

April hasn’t given up hope, though: She channels her frustrated energy into fighting for her dad’s release, applying for commutations, reaching out to public figures, connecting with activists. Meanwhile, Joe mails me a family picture taken on July 14, 2013. Like every photo for the past eighteen years, it’s set in a visiting room. Joe’s in his prison khakis, flanked by his children, including Cole, who, thanks to his lifesaving transplant, is alive, healthy, and smiling at twenty-three. A city skyline—a faux backdrop made available for visiting-room snapshots—sparkles behind the huddled group. “If I didn’t have my family, I’d just curl up and go to the next level,” Joe writes, signing off with his usual closing: “Your friend in a cage.”

Reprinted with permission from Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, by Maya Schenwar, and published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014.

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