by Maya Luney
Right now in the United States, 2.3 million people are locked in prisons, and 99 percent of them are fathers. Go back to the earliest memory of you and your dad from your childhood.
When I think back to the earliest memory that I have of me with my dad, I think of three things: dancing to DMX, him saving me from the monster dog that I thought was under my bed, and him disappearing.
Early on, I had a pretty normal childhood. My parents were married, I had an older sister, we lived in this apartment building right next to a playground – arguably every young child’s dream. Everything was pretty normal until around the time I turned 4.
I remember my fourth birthday being a very weird day for me. I say it was weird, not only because my mom had just given birth to my little sister days before or because I didn’t have this grand gathering of family and friends, but because my dad wasn’t there. There was a very small “birthday party” for me and my sisters, my mom and an aunt who lived right next door. They were the only people who were there.
At 4 years old, I had so many things to be happy and excited about. I had this new baby sister, it was my birthday, my mom was back from the hospital. All the things, right?
But I remember the only thing that consumed my brain that entire day was: Where’s my daddy? When you’re 4 years old, you don’t really consider things like work, church, safety or a traffic jam. All I knew was that my dad was gone, and at that time, for me, him being gone was the worst thing in the world. That was my reality for a long time.
Then – just six weeks after my little sister was born – not only my dad, but my entire immediate family was on the run from local police as well as the FBI, who had been following us for some time. I remember being left at my grandmother’s house in southern Indiana with my mom and my sisters, and we had no idea where my father was.
A few months after being on the run, my dad was eventually arrested and charged with armed robbery and use of a firearm during an act of violence. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison, five of them to run concurrently.
At 4 years old, I saw the inside of a correctional facility for the first time during a warden-authorized visit, with police presence everywhere. There was this blue carpet that covered the floor and I walked in and saw him sitting there (which I think made me a little hesitant) and in my head I was like, “Whoa …” I don’t remember much of what happened during that day, but I do remember THROWING A FIT when our time was up and we had to leave.
Even now, halfway through this sentence, in a more subtle way, that little 4-year-old girl who lives inside of me throws a fit each and every time I leave from seeing my dad. It is heartbreaking to visit him, because I know that when I leave and continue my life out here, he has to stay there.
Today, I live as a person who hates being confused. It’s actually one of my biggest pet peeves, especially when I have to depend on other people to provide any type of clarity. There is a reason for this. When I think back on my childhood years, I just remember being extremely confused and no one in my life – not my grandparents, great-grandparents, mom or older sister, no one – provided any type of clarity in any way as to what was going on regarding my dad’s situation.
Prison was not something my small child brain could comprehend in a way that I could conceive for myself. And if we’re being honest, confused is an understatement.
Every day was a new opportunity to be confused about something. “When is my dad coming home? Why has he been gone so long? Why does mom sleep so much? Why doesn’t she come out of her room? Why does dad call only sometimes and not all the time? Actually, why isn’t he back yet? Why do we have to go to Nanna’s when it’s time to see dad? WHAT IS WRONG WITH MY FAMILY?!”
Most of these questions would not be answered for me until I was not only old enough but bold enough to start asking them myself. Even then, at the age of 15, I was met with reluctance and hesitation by my family. I don’t come from a family of talkers. I come from a family of survivors and you ain’t gotta talk to survive.
The first visit with my dad in prison was the last time that both of my parents and I were in the same room with one another. That was 20 years ago. After that initial visit, it was my grandmother who took my sisters and me to see our dad throughout childhood, and most of the time, that was just miserable. Today, I seriously doubt that she had any clue what the effects of taking us to see him were.
Secondary prisonization is what happens when people visit someone in prison. Children are no exception. We experience subtle versions of our parent’s physical confinement, elaborate surveillance and strict guidelines for any and everything. In my experience, from the long rides all the way to small prisons in the middle of nowhere, Kentucky, to my little sister’s severe nosebleeds in the car as we traveled through the mountains of West Virginia, to the amped up security at each facility, to the absurdly cold visitation rooms – all of it was miserable.
It only got worse once we became teenagers. Like other teenage girls, our emotions were all over the place and our bodies were changing uncontrollably.
When I think about the chapter in my life that was my teenage years, I give it the title, “Anger-Masked Sadness.” I was sad about a lot of things: my dad being gone, my mom fighting her own battles, my great-grandpa dying of cancer, being poor, being Black.
Secondary prisonization is what happens when people visit someone in prison. Children are no exception. We experience subtle versions of our parent’s physical confinement, elaborate surveillance and strict guidelines for any and everything.
The list goes on and on and on, and I had no idea how to deal with all of the things that I was feeling. These emotions were present for a very long while, and of course, over time, things were added to the list that made me even sadder, which meant I had to be more angry to hide that sadness.
In terms of physical evolution, could you imagine being in a setting that creates one of the most discomforting feelings in your life, during one of the most uncomfortable stages of your physical growth, and being further victimized by your parent’s incarceration by having to sit in a FREEZING COLD room full of convicted male felons, in a thin, white shirt, with no bra?! That was the reality for my older sister that resulted in her not visiting our dad for years.
When I was 16, very similar to other 16-year-old kids, I got my driver’s license. Funny story: I hardly ever drove. I figured, “Hell, I’ve got my mom, my older sister, my friends, what do I need a driver’s license for?”
Then it dawned on me: If you’ve ever gone to see someone in a secure facility, you know that in order to get through security you need some form of valid identification. The Department of Corrections requires that any visitor over the age of 15 has to present a valid form of ID in order to be granted visitation. So, I had to get my driver’s license.
Not long after getting my license, I made the first trip to see my dad solo. It was spring break of my senior year in high school, and while some people were getting their feet wet driving to the beach with their families, I got mine wet taking the short two-hour trip to Lexington, Kentucky, all on my own.
I’ll be 24 in June of this year, which means that we will be one-half of the way through our 40-year sentence. I’ve graduated high school. I am the second child in a first generation of college graduates (my older sister is the first).
I’ve never been in any type of legal trouble. I have semi-healthy relationships with my family. I’ve made it through not one but two rounds of extremely suicidal thoughts and initial actions. I’ve come to terms with who, what, how and why I am all that I am, despite the very many things that I’ve been through.
I’m one of the lucky ones. Not everyone has the pleasure of coming up with one parent in prison and one who is struggling with her own demons and still coming out OK.
In her book “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir,” Patrisse Khan-Cullors comments, “There’s no rule book to guide you through losing a parent to incarceration.” And she is right.
There really isn’t any way to prepare for that sort of traumatizing experience, and close to 5 million kids in the U.S. have had this experience of a parent going to jail or prison. That breaks down to about 1 in 14 or 7 percent and the rate is higher among poor, rural and Black children, cough cough.
Actually, Black kids are twice as likely to have an incarcerated parent, with close to 14 percent of all Black kids from ages 12-17 having seen a parent go to jail in their lifetimes. In 2008, one in nine Black kids had a parent behind bars, compared to one in 28 Latinx children and one in an amazing 57 white children. In 2016, 11.5 percent of Black children had a parent in prison, compared to only 6 percent of our white peers.
Ironically, out of all 50 states, Kentucky (where I’m from) leads the way in the percentage of children who’ve had a parent behind bars, with 13 percent. Indiana isn’t too far behind, with 11 percent. The lowest in the nation is New York, with 4 percent. In 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics published that 62 percent of women and 51 percent of men in state prisons reported having having children who were minors.
There are also multiple links between childhood health issues and parental incarceration. Parental incarceration has been linked to a higher number of major, potentially traumatic life events, more emotional difficulties, lower school engagement, more problems in school among children aged 6-11, a greater likelihood of problems in school among older youth aged 12-17 and poor or worsening mental and physical health in adulthood.
Parental incarceration leads to specific health issues including but definitely not limited to asthma, depression and anxiety. In their report, “Parents Behind Bars,” Child Trends (MD) states, “The incarceration of a parent is an event included in many lists of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), along with witnessing domestic violence or a parental death,” and having a parent in prison is a great example of a loss that isn’t socially acceptable, adding pressure to children who are already grieving.
For the longest time, no one knew my story – be it for the shame, embarrassment, vulnerability, sadness, anger, the psycho-emotional preparation that it takes to actually tell my story, the pity, whatever. Then, there came a point where I was kinda just like, “If I can help somebody, anybody, by telling my story, then it won’t be in vain. It’s never easy telling this story; even if I break it down one memory or experience at a time, it is never easy for me. But I do it because I know that I’m not alone.”
Me, my sisters and 5 million other kids are all together in this fight that we never saw ourselves becoming a part of. It doesn’t matter if our parents are handed a sentence of four years or 40, we are some way, somehow, involuntarily serving it with them, and we deserve to be recognized for doing so.
Maya Luney is an admissions counselor at Earlham College and a self-taught photographer. As a recent college graduate and the daughter of an imprisoned parent, Maya spends much of her time interrogating how the amerikkkan prison system impacts children with incarcerated parents. Having earned a B.A. in Human Development and Social Relations with a focus on African American Studies from Earlham College in 2017, Maya plans to continue writing and to attend a graduate program centered on human rights in the future. Contact Maya at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about her journey.