When parents are jailed,children must suffer through often trying times

(FinalCall.com) – She has never committed a crime, nor physically spent one day in jail, but 31-year-old Tanya King spent her entire childhood in a kind of prison. She was born a child of incarcerated parents and suffered severely.

Isolation, resentment and ridicule were just a few of the burdens she experienced in a life torn from loved ones, with no explanation for why things were this way and why she was not to blame.


“As a child of the incarcerated, I can tell you, it is still an issue for me,” Ms. King admitted to The Final Call in an interview. “I can tell you that growing up, I was embarrassed, angry and ashamed. As a kid, I didn’t know what I was going through and nobody could tell me. Family members and their friends told me I was ugly. I was too dark, or my hair was too coarse, or my parents are convicts. If I had someone there for me, as I now am there for others, it might have been easier to deal with,” she said.

The new movie Antwon Fisher, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, chronicles the struggle, pain and ultimate triumph of a Black man actually born in prison.

Ms. King heads the Maryland-based Project Jamani, which provides mentoring programs for children of the incarcerated and their care-providers. For the last two years, she has mentored more than 60 children and teens, helping them to cope, as she had to learn, with the lives they were given. She helps youth find self-esteem and search out the options to keep them from becoming victims of incarceration themselves.

“One of the greater challenges Project Jamani now faces is helping parents who re-enter society after spending so much time in prison. They have to be taught how to live outside confinement. And oftentimes, it is the child becoming the parent and now instructing the elder,” she said.

According to statistics gathered last summer at the National Summit on Incarceration and Its Impact on African American Families, there are at least 1.6 million children who currently have one or both parents in prison. More than 80 percent of families that are intact at the beginning of an incarceration do not survive the prison experience. If the long absence from the family does not eventually kill the relationship, then the transition back home when the husband or wife returns does.

Dr. Garry Mendez, director of the National Trust for the Development of African American Men, believes the estimates for children with a parent behind bars are modest. He is certain the numbers are more than triple what is commonly reported. Congress must be pressured to give this matter the attention it deserves, Dr. Mendez said.

“Government needs to develop housing, employment, substance abuse treatment and re-entry programs,” for this crisis, he said.

“Millions of grandmothers and other caregivers are struggling to raise their children’s children. It’s imperative that Congress support federal funding for direct financial assistance and services to these caregivers,” he said.

“Parents in prison have left behind between two and five million children. Who cares for them? Where are the benefits to assist them? How is the education of so many Black and Hispanic children affected by the loss of one or more parent or loved one? These are very serious matters to consider and it is critical that lawmakers at every level of government begin to think and act on these concerns.”

Lack of an active force in the Congress to address the needs of these children, “sends the wrong message to our nation’s young,” he said.

“In truth, government doesn’t pay attention to family or children when they incarcerate,” said Native American activist Emani Davis, 24, whose father is in his 19th year of a 127-year sentence in a Virginia prison. “For this government to incarcerate two million people and having the collateral damage of the families, who are constantly denied access to services, and a government denying the problem exists, we basically end up being in the system ourselves,” she said. “If the government’s plan is to create generation after generation of incarcerated people then they’re doing a great job,” Ms. Davis added.

A silent struggle

Many faced with the dilemma of incarceration struggle silently; too ashamed to reach out for help. Activists also suggest that a direct correlation exists between poverty and families left behind as a result of incarceration. The disproportionate incarceration of Blacks and Latinos in the U.S., they said, heavily affects the already disproportionate poverty rate in these communities. Women struggling to raise children alone must work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Incarcerated fathers cannot, or do not, send home child support. Grandmothers have difficulty getting financial assistance in the rearing of their children’s children and many children end up in foster care.

“In many cases we are witnessing the sins of the father passed on to the children,” commented Anthony Muhammad, eastern regional prison reform minister for the Nation of Islam. “Today’s criminals are often produced by their fathers,” he said.

Min. Muhammad said the lack of presence of dad in the family structure, men not knowing how to be fathers and a parent’s life of crime contribute to the problem. “If there is no contact at all between children and incarcerated parents, the chances of intergenerational imprisonment are greater,” he said.

With the emphasis on the need for fathers in the lives of young men, often forgotten is the fact that daughters, too, need their fathers. “Fathers help to reflect the beauty in a young girl’s eyes. If her father is in prison and is not there to tell her she is beautiful, she will find someone else. If her mother is not there to offer a healthy role model, she could lose her way. Thus, enter teen pregnancy,” Dr. Mendez said. As prison populations in America grow younger, fathers of these teen pregnancies are generally absent as well and the cycle of victimization continues, he noted.

“The children today are robbed of the way generations of Blacks in this country have been raised,” mourned Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).  “The way I was raised, my mother and her grandmother–even in slavery under the worse racism in America– the Black family was a unit,” said Ms. Norton. The Black family must be restored and the Black community as a whole must note the political importance of these issues, she said.

To be effective, there must be a greater organization and pressure put on lawmakers to fund programs that service children whose parents are incarcerated and reduce recidivism, Ms. Norton said.

Choices and their consequences

Historically, in Black families affected by incarceration, the guardian for the children is the grandmother, who is often, herself, overwhelmed with responsibility. Consequently, it leaves children to be raised by other children.

Ms. King was raised by her grandmother in Newark, N.J., alongside four of the grandmother’s own children and six additional grandchildren. She described her grandmother as a very spiritual and strong-willed woman.

“She was a Black woman with no man and only one leg,” Ms. King recalled. “There was no doubt in my mind as to whether she loved me. But clearly, raising your children’s children after your own can overwhelm you. I mean, we had shelter and clothes and we ate, but there were too many of us therefore, we lacked the parenting,” she said.

“There were times, I thought I was being punished for what happened with my parents. Everyone knew my parents were both in jail and drug addicts and I was always told what I could not be. So, I decided to be the one thing no one told me I could not be. I decided to be smart,” Ms. King said. She applied herself harder in school, read every book within her grasp. “Especially Black literature. I could escape when I read. In the books, there were no drug addicts and mom and dad never left home,” said Ms. King.

The amount of stress that children with parents in prison face is almost unimaginable. They live with the daily secret of their mother’s, or father’s, incarceration.

Prophet, a 15-year-old Queens, N.Y. resident, admits having his father in prison all of his young life forced him to grow up fast. “With no father figure and my mom working nights, I had to watch out for my younger brother and sister. At a certain age, everybody knows the difference between right and wrong. As you grow, you expand in experiences and options. So you have to make the right choices,” he said. He thanks God for his mother being a force in his life that would not allow him to travel the road that led his father to prison. His first love is music and his ability to express himself through hip hop.

Prophet talks to his father and understands that his dad did not really know how to be a father. The teen is also trying to understand his father’s circumstances.

Tanya King’s mother has been out of prison and drug free over a year now. They are working to learn, know and respect each other. She lives in New Jersey and the daughter visits her as often as possible.

“It’s about choices and knowing you have more options than the life that is pulling you down,” Ms. King said. “What’s important for government to understand is that they (children) are not just numbers. These numbers represent children with very different circumstances–children who need to learn how to cope with why mommy and daddy are gone.” This is extremely important to avoid anti-social situations that can cause extreme behavior like suicide, she said.

“Until you have been in their shoes, (those) who each have a very different experience being raised without a parent or both, you’re just equipped with numbers and statistics and they deserve, we deserve, more than that,” Ms. King insists.