Children of the Hidden: How Mass Incarceration is Affecting Students of Color

I think that every family member of someone who’s imprisoned can attest to the loneliness and frustration that typifies this type of family dynamic. Children of incarcerated parents have an especially difficult road to walk. As a wife of a man who’s incarcerated, I have chosen to voluntarily incarcerate myself in many ways. The children of men who are incarcerated, on the other hand, have no say in the matter. They are just adversely affected by the consequences of their dad — the person who is suppose to protect them from pain, not cause it.  These burdens that children bear can interfere with even the best teacher’s efforts, and only a clearer understanding of their situation can help them learn.

Meaningful, sustained connectivity between those incarcerated and their  families is one of the most indicative factors of a former prisoner’s likelihood of recidivism. But little, from my perspective, is actually done to educate, to bring about true rehabilitation, or to strengthen that vital family and community connection.

This is especially true for the children of those incarcerated. Many of the men I see when I go to visit my husband are fathers. What about their children, i.e. our students? Who supports them? Who even knows about their situation? Given the shame and judgement that I’ve encountered first-hand for being married to a man behind bars, I can only imagine what the children of fathers who are incarcerated must endure. The thought makes me shudder.

What must it be like for children to cope with the ambiguities of having a dad whom they love, talk with everyday on the phone, and visit each weekend, yet, none of their friends know he exists or have ever even met him? How do they cope with the anger, love, resignation, hope, and  frustration that they must experience as a result of having a father in prison? My heart breaks just thinking about it. These kids have such resiliency and strength. I can’t help but watch them and marvel when I see them laughing and making much of their dads while on a visit.

Contrary to popular belief, inmates have feelings. They hurt. They love. They care. They are sons, fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins. They are missing from society and the gaping emotional wound that is left as a result of their absence from their families and communities has a lot to do with why students — students of color in particular since they are more likely to have a parent who is incarcerated — often experience feelings of unbelonging which translates into non-compliant behaviors both in and out of school.

I am profoundly humbled and honored to have the opportunity, through my blogging, to be the voice of so many who are deeply impacted by the reverberation of mass incarceration, yet who feel so voiceless and powerless. As an educator who is very personally affected by the school-to-prison-pipeline and mass incarceration in this country, I am acutely aware that keeping the children of those incarcerated connected to their family member behind bars is not only possible, but necessary.

Creating safe spaces of belonging within our schools for students who may have moms or dads who are incarcerated is vital, particularly within schools in the South Bronx, Brownsville, East New York, Harlem, Bed-Stuy, South Jamaica, and Newark because the majority of inmates in prisons across New York and New Jersey come from these neighborhoods.

We are teaching students everyday who are coping with great losses that we can help mitigate by becoming more aware of their home lives and by providing environments in our classrooms that lend themselves to nurturing not just their minds, but their hearts. We must create  places where they can feel stable and safe because these necessities are significantly reduced in a child’s world when they have a parent who is incarcerated.

What do you think?

One thought on “Children of the Hidden: How Mass Incarceration is Affecting Students of Color

  1. Thank you for being willing to share your important story! At Rehabilitation Through The Arts (RTA) we believe in restorative justice! We work in 5 NYS prisons and so know many in similar situations. Also wanted to bring to your attention a great book for 5th – 7th graders called Ruby On The Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin (In many libraries!) It is about a girl whose mom is incarcerated. It is touching and empathetic. (Truly good for all ages!) Here is a quote from the book, “But just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there. And just because you don’t remember something doesn’t mean you don’t miss it. And just because you are used to something doesn’t mean it’s normal.”

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