I am 5 years old. I am playing on the kitchen floor when I hear it: J-A-I-L. My nana spells it out to my mom in the way adults do when they don't want children to know what they're saying. But I'm smart and I can spell, and I know what they're saying. That week, I go to kindergarten and I tell all of my classmates that my daddy is in j-a-i-l. I tell them that he beat up some bullies and that he is a hero. My teacher is mortified; my classmates are intrigued.
It wasn't the truth. He'd been imprisoned twice before, but at the time my father was a fugitive, evading arrest for two armed robberies. I didn't know that, though. I knew he was gone, and I knew that for people like me, jail was a place that daddies and brothers and sisters and cousins and girlfriends went. So my nana spelled it and there it was, the possibility looming over my mind — even years before my father was caught and put in prison for five years.
Incarceration is a curse on my family. It sucked up and spat out my brother and father and friends. It permeates my earliest memories. It shaped my worldview, informed my awareness of the system, and plagued my youth with knowing. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world — 2.2 million of its citizens are behind bars. And for most of those 2.2 million people, there are even more parents, children, partners, siblings, and friends suffering along with them from the outside.
It's like we're being punished too
After my father was apprehended and sentenced, my mom took my brother and me to visit him in prison. We loaded up the car and made the long drive from New Jersey to North Carolina. Strange as it seems to look forward to visiting someone in prison, I was ecstatic. I wasn't angry at him. I didn't blame him for being there. I was 12, and I missed my dad.
When we arrived at the prison, my brother and I were buzzing with energy. But our moods quickly fell. At check-in, the guard informed us that my father was only allowed two visitors. Since my brother and I were minors, we had to be accompanied by our mother. That meant one of us couldn't see him. We had traveled 10 hours. We felt defeated.
The guards watched as my brother and I stood in the faded green waiting room debating who needed their dad more. In the end, I let him go. I sat alone in a folded yellow seat and sobbed.
It all seemed so unfair to me. My father was on the other side of a wall that I was forbidden to pass through. I felt detained too. There is no crime in loving someone who is incarcerated. There is no crime in being their daughter, their brother, their best friend. But incarceration incriminates more than the incarcerated.
Their absence has a presence
For every man in a cell missing the birth of his child, there is a woman delivering alone. My uncle took me to my elementary school's father-daughter dance. No one asked why — everyone already knew. While I was grateful for my uncle's attendance, my dad's absence was a much larger presence, a yawning chasm at the core of my childhood. His absence was something we were all trying to accommodate, to build a life around, to cope with.
My mom worked hard. She raised my brother and me by herself. She went to night school, got her master's, and eventually made the income of two parents. But his absence remained an elephant in every room we entered. His absence marked us. We had to compensate for it, compartmentalize it, and normalize it.
But it was not normal — it was nerve-racking. I worried about him constantly. I vacillated between feeling abandoned and feeling robbed. While most kids were grappling with grades and hormones, I was fighting to submerge the reality that my dad was always in danger.
After our first and only visit, my brother reported that my dad had a broken hand — that he'd gotten into a fight after someone tried to steal his black composition book of rhymes. So I knew it wasn't safe there. I knew he was in an environment of men under immense pressure, and that the pressure rising could only be destructive. It inundated me with anxiety that he could be in solitary confinement, he could be attacked, abused, assaulted.
For every man in a cell missing the birth of his child, there is a woman delivering alone
I clung to contact. He wrote me letters, and I read them over and over. I kept them in my nightstand drawer to remind me that he was okay, that it'd be over one day and that when he got out we could have a life like my friends' lives. But my life could not be like my friends' lives — my father was in a cage. And the time we lost was real. All the years stained with longing and fear could not be recovered.
When my father was released, we tried to live like he had never been gone. But it was impossible. His goneness was as integral a piece in our relationship as his presence. I was a teenager by then, more aware, less forgiving. I was in a constant and archetypal power struggle with the world, and ushering in a parent who had never parented me was not a smooth transition. I was a volatile and moody 16-year-old, and deep in the throes of my first romantic relationship.
My dad tried to finally be the co-parent my mom needed, but it didn't feel fair for him to discipline me. He was more like an estranged childhood friend than a father. He was both familiar and unfamiliar, and we didn't know how to navigate each other's existence. We were more accustomed to being away from each other than in each other's presence. And everything was tainted by his previous absence; the remnants of our separate endurances surrounded us.
Our house was always tense, each member of our family burdened by anxiety. My mom and I bickered a lot, my brother was constantly getting into trouble, and my father was overwhelmed. No doubt he needed to recover. We all did. He moved out within a year.
It's been almost a decade since he was released, and we still haven't made up for lost time. I don't know if we can. Our love for each other is unfaltering, but we don't know each other the way most daughters and fathers know one another. In his presence I fumble, reserve myself, am not fully at ease. I know distance better than closeness.
Despite the vast number of Americans dealing with it, having a loved one in prison is lonely. I had to deal with the absence of my father alone. My mother dealt with the absence of her co-parent alone. My grandparents dealt with the absence of their son alone. Incarceration has different implications on everyone it affects, and it often feels like no one understands.
There is a stigma attached to having a loved one in prison that makes it difficult to talk about openly. At sleepovers, speaking about it earned me looks of pity from my playmates' parents. At school, kids were amused by the stories. I was a stereotype fulfilling itself, and there was very little genuine empathy for what I was going through. I was confronting the reality that one misstep meant anyone I loved could be taken and locked away in a box for years. I needed understanding.
Instead I found that many people believe it's our fault for loving the incarcerated — that we deserve the suffering inextricably linked to that love. People think we are foolish or unfortunate.
And it feels selfish to speak to the person in prison about it. It's hard to fret for yourself when you know the reality an incarcerated person endures each day. I told my father I missed him. I did not tell him I was scared. People on the inside need strength and support, and much of that strength comes from the people on the outside — despite the fact that they need the same. And so the processing of all of the heavy emotions that come with incarceration is largely internal, and largely traumatic; it's largely done alone.
Even though my brother and I both dealt with the absence of our father, we grieved in two distinguished ways. As my awareness (and age) grew, I became cynical, hypercritical, and hard on myself. From my father's incarceration I learned that black people don't get to make wrong choices, that bad choices can get years taken from you. So I fixated on persistently playing by the rules, or at least never getting caught slipping. I skipped the part of my childhood where most kids feel invincible.
I was always hyper aware of the potential consequences of my actions. I modeled myself after my mother, tried to do everything by the book, was meticulous about maintaining a perfect presentation of myself. It didn't get me far. It was a prison of my own making — not allowing myself to be human, to mess up sometimes.
But my brother had it worse. When we were kids he had lofty goals. He wanted to be a surgeon. His dreams transcended the notion that he was doomed to repeat our father's fate. But as he got older he found himself perpetually targeted. By the time we were in high school, he was accustomed to being pulled over, searched, accused — this before he had ever even done anything wrong.
He realized my brand of harsh self-regulation wouldn't save him, so he did not deny himself average teenage mischief. He took a joyride in my mom's car. He smoked weed. He sold some. He got arrested, multiple times for minor offenses. I once bailed him out of jail for an unpaid speeding ticket.
When he was 22, he took a plea deal for a drug distribution charge. He did no prison time, but it rendered him a felon. He is 25 now and married with two children. He has a hard time getting hired. He and his wife have trouble staying above water. In New Jersey, where they live, former felony drug offenders are denied some forms of welfare. He has high blood pressure.
I don't know that my father's incarceration is directly to blame for these struggles, but I know that being on this side of the system has always been my brother's normal. I know the notion that he was meant to live my father's life was always looming in his mind. I know that every time our school resource officer searched his car or accused him, he got a little closer to believing he was cursed.
And he couldn't talk to my mother or me about it. We were under the spell of our own defense mechanisms, and would have berated him for making mistakes. He couldn't talk to my dad about it — it'd sound too much like blame. He couldn't talk to a school counselor about it —the school was one of his adversaries at that point. He internalized it; it festered and did damage. He spoke to no one, because there was no empathy to be found.
It's like the world is willfully ignoring what seems blatant to you
I remember being a kid and stumbling upon some made-for-television movie involving a prison. The name escapes me now; it was generic. In it, the prisoners were nameless and without histories. They were reduced to numbers. They were written to be intimidating and not relatable — bad to the bone. They were no longer people. That's what happens when you call a person a criminal. To many, a criminal has willfully committed a crime and therefore waived his rights to respect, dignity, freedom. There is no nuance, no understanding, and no vindication.
I sat through many callous remarks, many fairy tales about "good guys" and "bad guys," feeling like I was on the wrong side of existence. I was not aligned with the people protected by the system; I was being punished by it. And if I spoke up about its flaws — the traps of race and poverty, the evidence of unjust sentencing, the incentive to take a plea, the industrialization of prisons — I was silenced with nullifiers like, "You do the crime, you do the time." I learned quickly that many people are unwilling to hear about the humanity of prisoners and the people who love them. Human suffering requires confronting — "criminal" suffering does not exist (or, worse, it's justified).
From my father's incarceration I learned that black people don't get to make wrong choices. So I fixated on persistently playing by the rules.
When someone you love is incarcerated, you feel like screaming from the rooftops about the injustice of it all. Sometimes you do, and although most look away, sometimes someone listens. And that one chance at change is worth a dozen corked ears.
A couple of years ago I got on a bus with a local Pennsylvania campaign called Decarcerate PA. We rode to the state capitol to protest prison expansion. We gave testimony. We told our stories where elected officials could hear us. Some of us had been incarcerated, some of our loved ones had been, some of us were just people who saw a problem and wanted to do something about it. When the testimonies were done, our voices boomed in a bellowing chant: I believe that we will win. We said it over and over until all of us meant it.
I cried. I cried because until that moment, I had felt defeated by mass incarceration. Having a loved one in prison can do that. It can make you feel small and powerless; it can make the system feel fixed and unrelenting. But we are not insignificant and weak; we are important and strong. And if the system does not serve us, the system must change for the better.