(FinalCall.com) – Until two years ago, Shawnta Jones experienced bitter pain, resentment, and insecurity after her father, Earvin, was imprisoned for life.
She was nine and her sister, Jasmine, just four at the time, but since that day in Los Angeles, phone call by phone call, memory by memory, the 23-year-old has reclaimed the trusting little girl that she buried by her rage.
“I was angry and nothing mattered because I felt the world would take it all away from me anyway so I just didn’t care. Nothing meant anything to me and that led me not to go to school,” Shawnta said.
She recalled one vivid memory about the day her life changed.
“I was standing in the front yard, waiting for my daddy. He was coming over to have Father’s Day dinner with me and my mom,” because he did not live with them, Shawnta said.
She recalled as the car he was in sped by, the police in chase with sirens on. According to her, some friends were giving him a ride and one of them in the front seat tossed a gun out of the back window. Mr. Jones was sitting in the back seat and the police ruled it was him and the courts sentenced him to life in prison. He becomes eligible for parole in 2016, she said.
What helps her get by sometimes is remembering how he would play the piano, guitar, and saxophone to his girls before bedtime.
“It robbed me of my physical time with him and time he could have passed on his knowledge of things like music and Spanish to us, but he always told me don’t worry about what happened but focus on what I could do because worrying would only make it happen again,” Shawnta said.
After conversations with her dad and with constant support from her mother Tracey Baber who never gave up on her–at age 15, she reached a breakthrough, she said. Shawnta also credits Kim McGill, an organizer with the L.A.-based Youth Justice Coalition. All of them drowned out her anger.
Recently, Shawnta completed her studies in medical billing and now she attends school to get her high school diploma.
“Kids need something to replace that feeling and someone to assure them that everything can’t be taken away. Kids need something that family members at that point cannot give them because they feel that you can’t trust your family members to be there anymore because someone could just as quickly take you away as they took my other family member,” Shawnta said.
Statistics from the Pew Center on the States revealed that in January this year, there were more than 1.6 million people imprisoned in the U.S. Texas ranked highest with a rate of 171,249, California followed with 161,413, and then Florida with 103,915.
In Illinois, where the Community Renewal Society launched an 18-month campaign to address the various needs of children of the incarcerated, there were 45,161 people in prison. Alex Wiesendanger, lead organizer for CRS, said they realized very early that because of decades of damage to families by the prison system, they would have to extend their Children of Incarcerated Parents campaign to three years to begin to make significant progress but it will go beyond that.
CRS’ focus has also been on changing the system that put parents in prison to begin with and developing a holistic approach to servicing families’ their needs one at a time.
Over the last six months, CRS has sought changes with the Illinois Department of Corrections around visitation, transportation, and parental re-entry. Through negotiations, some have been made in areas like creating family friendly visitation spaces and removing the limit on the number of children that can visit a parent at one time.
“The needs of children of incarcerated parents compared to others, I would say, it’s more about being just a unique set of circumstances and what’s absolutely unique is the need for transportation services to go see their parents, who, if you’re in Illinois, are three, four, five hours away,” Mr. Wiesendanger told The Final Call.
He said a second unique factor is the tremendous stigma that gets attached to children when their parent is incarcerated but the key is finding ways to provide the support, particularly for those children, to be in a relationship with other children in similar situations, and bring down some of that stigma.
Sometimes that stigma comes through family members but definitely in schools and their communities, Ms. McGill, said but a key issue is that they are really orphaned by the prison system. “It’s a huge loss of income to families and communities. It’s a huge loss of love and stability toward children, and children with parents in institutions rarely get to visit them because the distance and the cost of getting to the prison,” she said.
Currently, no one knows exactly how many children of incarcerated parents there are. The numbers are speculative, according to child advocacy groups like the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents (CCIP) in Pasadena, California.
According to Denise Johnston, founding director of CCPI, her research estimated that in January 2009 there were about 24,000 children with a parent in L.A. County jails in 2008. In the state, there were approximately 168,000 and 90 percent of those children’s parents were males in prison. Overall that amounted to about 2.5 million with parents in prison in California in 2008.
The conservative numbers reflected one day counts only, not the number of people who entered prison that year, she said.
“Nobody counts them and it’s really difficult to say that we want to have them counted. I don’t know that we need to do that. What for? We know there are several million but if its 2 million or 6.6 million, what’s the difference?” she asked.
The CRS found that what has worked best to help children of incarcerated parents were services and programs that are culturally competent, and provided by local organizations and communities that can be directly present for the children.
Bad programs have been mentoring programs that were very dismissive of the incarcerated parents, and others that felt they were ‘saving the child from that parent’s extreme influence,’ Mr. Wiesendanger said.
Children whose parents are in prison need what all children in disadvantaged situations need, Ms. Johnston said. “Basically people who get involved in the criminal justice system are usually low income people who live in communities with fewer resources and the kids have a lot of developmental insults, such as trauma, stress, and other situations that affect child development.”
A remedy to that is a country with excellent prenatal care for all babies, whether or not the mother was poor, and pediatric services, including yearly development assessments. “We could really go a long way in improving the lives of these children without doing anything at all for children of prisoners because the issues they face that are most profound in their lives have to do with not having resources,” Ms. Johnston said.
According to Ms. McGill, statistically there is an increased chance that if children’s parents are incarcerated they will be also but there is minimal data that determines whether that is based on personal experiences or the fact that the children live in communities where incarceration rates are much higher.
“On my block–I stay in Watts … I don’t think you’d find more than a handful of homes where a direct person in that home, a parent or older brother or sister hasn’t been incarcerated for most of their lives, or killed by street violence. You wouldn’t see hardly any homes not affected by that, or deported because deportation and immigration detention are forms of incarceration, too,” she said.
Shawnta and her sister are exceptions to intergenerational incarceration despite the statistics. She said they have never been jailed or had run-ins with law enforcement but that also depends on the amount of anger a child is experiencing.
“If my father had been my only parent in the world and they had taken him, nothing could have replaced that anger,” Shawnta said.
Ms. Johnston believes based on her research that what lands children of incarcerated parents in jail has more to do with social and economic conditions rather than intergenerational incarceration.
“Why does a child who’s dad is in prison, never lived with him, have a higher risk than other kids? It has to do with the same thing that produces risks in all kids, which also includes child abuse, parent-child separations, witnessing domestic violence in the home, being attacked or assaulted. These are more common in children’s lives and the big framework for this of course is poverty.”
For instance, she said, for a middle class child who gets molested, there are mental health resources but for poor people, there is not so the child gets hurt, lacks protection, and has worse outcomes.
Erica Ford, executive director of Life Camp, a youth empowerment organization based in New York, said she knows five people off the top of her head whose children have followed their parents footsteps into jail.
Ms. McGill recalled that one inmate in California met his son for the first time when his son began serving time in the same state prison.
“Part of the problem comes from children thinking that this is all that’s in their blood line. The biggest obstacle is understanding that the errors that their parents made is not the definition or their lifeline. Many of our children aren’t exposed to a lot so their vision is shallow, so helping them to see beyond what they can see is our greatest challenge,” Ms. Ford said.
She also believes that funding community groups, on the ground in day-to-day service of the children is a primary solution. Another one is to create a nationwide movement to dismantle the Prison Industrial Complex because the idea that prisons have made society safer is a lie because it has destroyed communities and families, Ms. McGill said.
She added that people may feel they are untouched by the issue but if they check into it, their tuition increases, reduced financial aid, health clinic and after school program shut downs, and dilapidated parks, they will discover the negative impact.
“All of that is due to over-reliance on prisons as a solution for everything but we can’t afford to have a $10 billion state prison budget and hundreds of millions spent on local jails and juvenile halls, without it bankrupting everything else in our community,” Ms. McGill said, referring to California’s Prison Industrial Complex.