Multiple readings of the text revealed shared experiences captured by the following themes: At Home No More; “To Feel Her…Kiss Her Cheek”; “Waiting at the Door”; and “Trapped in an Isolation Box.”
At Home No More. What was once familiar in youths' lives soon resulted in a traumatic disruption of any previous sense of at home—at home in the familiar world of a parent present, and at home in the actual physical space, as many were placed in new living arrangements with aunts, uncles, grandparents, or foster families. The starting point of many youths' stories was an entwined child–parent coexistence that often ended abruptly. Robert, 15, tells of the moment of this rupture: “I was 10 years old when my father was arrested. The day he was taken away, I remember in the morning my dad and I had a great time. Then later that day he was being handcuffed and taken away.” Tension can be sensed in the opposing realities in those few words. In the morning—close, familiar, joyful, and secure; in the afternoon—separation and uncertainty. The image of handcuffs that remained in Robert's mind elicits a sense of powerlessness.
From this departure, many youths' stories demonstrated accounts of moving; longing; waiting; visiting; fighting; and being judged, bullied, and stripped of dignity, as if they were also imprisoned by their own parents' imprisonment, parent and child alike “doing time.” Some participants told of an eventual reunification with their parents; most, however, are still seeking other ways to restore what was permanently lost.
“To Feel Her…To Kiss Her Cheek.” Many youth shared experiences around visiting their incarcerated parents. They either longed to visit them but could not or had frustrating, incomplete, tense, or disrupted interactions when they were able to visit. Some recalled the frightening unfamiliarity of the surroundings, as Maria, 14, described: “In first or second grade, I went to go visit my dad in jail. We waited for hours to go visit. I was standoffish when I met him. He kind of scared me. The other people on the other side of the glass were scary.” Instead of the closeness that comes from the comfort of a familiar parent, Maria's father had become the other person on the other side of the glass, a foreign entity dressed in strange clothing among other similar strangers.
Although some participants had been able to visit their parents, many shared a deep sadness for not having had that opportunity. And for those who could visit, the glaring presence of the glass wall separating them from their parents prevented the tactile fulfillment of touch they craved. Policies are slow to change but are beginning to take into consideration the needs of families, as one boy, Eric, 14, shared about visiting his father: “Eventually, I went more and more and got used to it. I was part of a program with his social worker, where I got to touch him and play games and stuff.” Apart from Eric's excitement to be granted the childhood pleasure of playing games with his father, he exalts his chance to engage in physical contact with him. This was not the experience for many others.
Omar, now 15, reflected on his mother's incarceration when he was 3, stating he “knew what was going on” and spoke of how initially he was not allowed to see her. Eventually he was allowed but relayed: “…they made sure I couldn't touch her or give her a kiss on the cheek. I could talk to her but couldn't touch her.” Omar distinguishes between talking and touching, knowing that exchanging words can never replace what is achieved through a loving touch or kiss between a young child and his mother.
Marcus, 16, demonstrated the validating dynamic of touch. He wrote of his longing to visit his incarcerated mother when he was 4 years old: “[I] visited mom at jail and couldn't show affection without phone attached to wall, talking behind glass. [I felt] sad that I couldn't feel my mom and I missed her so much.” Unlike the others who spoke more of touching their loved ones, Marcus captures a nuance between touching and feeling.
“Waiting at the Door.” Incarceration is not one moment in time, even if it is a one-time imprisonment. And for some, incarceration happened over and over due to the high rates of recidivism. Moreover, a parent being out of jail does not necessarily mean he or she is in the child's life. Participants spoke of a waiting for or a promise of either a visit, return, or birthday card or gift, something they could grasp of that former relationship. Many spoke of, or indicated, a promise to be cared for, loved, kept safe; to share special occasions; or to have received something that would extend to them a feeling of connection with their generally absent parent. Lisa, now 19, wrote about how she never spent a birthday or holiday with her dad as he was “in and out and missing” most of her life. She also shared: “…When I was 7 or 8, I realized all the things he was doing and I was confused about why he wasn't there and didn't keep promises.” Anthony, 16, also spoke of his father's unkept promises:
My dad has never really been there for me my entire life…. He's never called me or sent me a birthday card on my birthday. [One] Christmas…when I was 5 years old, people were saying he's going to show up. He doesn't. No explanation.
There is a harsh temporality of Anthony's repetitive experiences of his father never really being there for him, which fades into the past as he grasps for understanding and there is none.
Marcus, 14, shared similar stories of unkept promises. His father's incarceration was reported more as “not having any positive role model” as opposed to his mom, who was, in his words, “a different story.” He continued:
With her it was more about my lack of trust with her from all those failed promises and lies that kept me waiting at the door for her arrival only to fall asleep disappointed…. As a child, there were parental activities that included parents. I would try my hardest to get hold of my mom in order to participate. Of course, she would promise to show up, only to keep me waiting, waiting, and waiting until I would fall asleep. This grew into a strong mistrust. To this day I feel like nothing is written in stone and can always switch up on you.
Marcus was bound by the timelessness of that waiting as if having been trapped by the vacant and unfulfilled promises. He described one incident but inferred the unceasing repetitiveness of it. Even though he was let down repeatedly, he remained by the door, uncertain whether it would be opened by a fulfilled promise or closed yet again. The only reprieve from this uncertainty was to surrender and recoil into the unconscious of sleep, defeated.
“Trapped in an Isolation Box.” From an early age, participants' identities were wounded by others' rejections and emblazoned by social and cultural standards that precluded a shared common bond. The inability for others to open up to youths' painful experiences resulted in harsh judgments, not for something the youth did or did not do, but for the mere status of their imprisoned or absent parent. Some experienced this as blatant rejection and ridicule and some through the fear of vulnerability, so they kept their story in silence, such as Maria, 14: “My auntie doesn't like to talk about my mom's incarceration. She asked me to keep it a secret.” Or Selone, 13: “I needed to hide that my dad was incarcerated. I went to school with White people and thought they wouldn't understand.” Their experiences were more of an internalized shame and fear of what may happen if others knew, but for others it resulted in more of an actualized pushing away, isolating themselves from others, or even a sense of blame.
Sarah, 19, shared what her grandmother would say to her: “‘Your mom doesn't care about you, cause if she did, she wouldn't have gotten into trouble.’” Sarah is blamed for her mother's incarceration and told she is unloved. Outer voice becomes inner voice feeding self-doubt. Sarah continued: “When I was in third grade, at school, teacher told me I'm going to turn out like my dad. [I felt] a little bit of fear because I thought to myself what if she is right and I'm wrong?” This fear of “turning out” like their parents was common among participants and often reinforced by family members, teachers, and peers.
Youths' self-dignity was challenged, and they sought hard to restore it. Omar, 16, was hopeful, yet still uncertain of this restoration. He wrote a rap song about this:
Teacher and principals, always labeling me as my father. Asking me, if I was gonna follow in the footsteps and turn out to be like him. As I'm looking into the mirror, I see a young man that looks like his old man. I wonder, is my teachers right or will I prove them wrong? Will I end up behind bars like my dad, or will I follow my path and be the man that I want to be for my family?
This rap captures the struggle of a young man who is caught between the inner conviction to be his own person, and others' assumptions of the person he will become. There is a determination to succeed, yet he knows it is an upward battle full of uncertainty.
Eric, now 14, also wrote about how it feels to be judged by others, and, like Omar, of a will to defeat, however lonely the journey may be. He shared:
Some people think because my dad is in prison I will end up in the same place. No matter how hard I try I will always have a bullseye on my back. It makes me feel like I'm paralyzed to make my own mark. It's like being trapped in an isolation box…I started closing out people. [I thought] no one likes me, and people were thinking of me as a mess up. [I did] anything to prove everybody wrong.
Eric's desperation is felt in these powerful images. He is unable to escape others' gazes and prejudgments; yet outside perceptions of him were not what he saw or believed of himself. This disconnect drew him into a safe, melancholic space where he alone could find comfort in his solace. He was driven, however, that his future, against the backdrop of his father's past and the prophesy of others, was to be different.