Upon arrival, we checked in at the front desk and waited patiently while the guards processed our paperwork. Our names were called, we passed through a metal detector without our shoes, and got a “cool” stamp on our hands before entering the visiting room. In my mind, I thought the stamp was cool because it was invisible until I put my hand under the purple light. The loud buzzer sounded unlocking the heavy metal door that stood between the visiting room and the inside of the prison. We approached the visiting area and there stood my father in his impeccably ironed white shirt, tan pants and black boots. My siblings and I raced to hug him. As the oldest, I was always there first as I was the fastest. We spent the day with him, along with the other kids who also went to visit their dads in prison.
I spent most of my childhood, starting at the age five, at the prison on weekends and holidays. It was the only place and time in my life that my family was complete.
I am now in my early thirties and my father is still in prison. However, now the challenging experience I faced is unfortunately passed to my son, who has to resort to visiting prison in order to have a relationship with his grandfather. The pain of my father being in prison did not just end with me. My father was sentenced to 420 months in prison at a time when the war on drugs was in its infancy and mandatory sentences were all the rage. I honestly believe that, had he been accused or sentenced today, he would have been released many, many years ago.
At the time, I did not realize that I was dealing with a traumatic experience. The sound of a buzzer still triggers sad memories, even at the age of thirty, as I am reminded of the big metal doors that kept my father in prison. When I see tan pants and a white t-shirt, the first thing that comes to mind is an inmate. When I use a vending machine, it reminds me of my visitation periods with my dad as the only available option for food and drinks. Quarters in a clear, plastic bag do not remind me of laundry money, but of the money I used to buy snacks in the vending machines at the prison. As a child, I had nightmares consisting of the prison guards denying my visit with my dad. I would wake up in the middle of the night crying as a result of these nightmares.
Children with incarcerated parents are left to fend for themselves and resort to hiding their family as a result of the stigma and shame associated with having a parent in prison. Access to mental health services and early intervention for those children whose parents are incarcerated is the key to saving children from falling through the cracks of our broken system. Most caretakers are not equipped to deal with the unique set of needs that arise from such a traumatic experience—growing up with a parent in prison. Most caretakers are suffering right alongside the children trying to deal with the loss as well.
Even as an adult I find myself struggling to say that “My father is in prison” out loud to anyone. My wound is always fresh. It reopens every time I visit the prison and leave my father behind. What most people fail to recognize is that the children of incarcerated parents also serve time. I have lived through twenty-seven years of trauma just from this event alone. I believe that this event has shaped every single aspect of my life—both negatively and positively.
I am one of the few very fortunate children who got help early on when I was struggling with my father’s incarceration. My mother, a strong wise Latina, never gave up on us, showering us with tough love and guidance. I had mentors who took an interest in me and saw the potential that I could not see in myself. I had a lot of extended family who watched and cared for me. I am a living example of a positive outcome that comes from addressing mental health issues early on. I have lived a fairly normal and productive life given the set of circumstances in which I was raised. I do believe that this experience made me a gritty person. I am now in law school, a single parent and commute four hours a day to get to school. Given the grim statistics normally associated with kids of incarcerated and low income single parent households, I would say I am doing well.
My hope is to advocate for youth and to show them that their life experience and trauma does not need to define them. Having mental health issues can be a sign of strength and grit. Grit that will lead them to become anything their hearts desire.