By Laura Herberg | WDET
Sirena, a 13-year-old from a Detroit suburb, has one word for what it’s like having a father in prison: “hard.”
“When friends come over and they talk about their dads, it’s hard,” she says.
If someone asks about her father, she says he lives in Lansing. Sirena doesn’t say that he’s in a prison in Jackson serving a life sentence for homicide.
“It’s hard. It’s hard having one parent in the house,” she says.
Prisoners are parents, too
According to a federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report in 2000, more than half of the prisoners in state systems were parents, and 55 percent had at least one child 18 years or younger.
No current, reliable data show how many children in southeast Michigan have incarcerated parents. But according to Child Trends’ analysis of the 2011–12 National Survey of Children’s Health, in Michigan, 1 in 10 children have at some point had at least one incarcerated parent.
[See chart with percentage of children who’ve experienced having a parent incarcerated for all states (page 5)]
The Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that in 1999, African-American children were roughly nine times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than whites, which means that with Detroit’s African-American population over 80 percent in the last U.S. Census, the number of children who’ve experienced an incarcerated parent in the area is likely higher than 1 in 10.
Scot Spencer helped author, “A Shared Sentence: the devastating toll of parental incarceration on kids, families and communities,” a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that was released this year. He says children are often overlooked in the conversation about the punishment for crimes.
“It is not top of mind that there is a family that is behind an incarcerated person,” says Spencer. “Simply by not knowing, or not having the consciousness, you don’t think that there is some collateral impact on very vulnerable and impressionable people.”
Sirena has a 15-year-old brother named Richard, who goes by Ricky. He loves his dad. But he says his dad missed a lot while they were growing up. And now it feels pretty normal with him away. Ricky says:
“It’s just something that I grew up with so I grew around it… Some of the stuff that I feel more comfortable talking to my dad about I’ve had to talk to my mom.”
“Having an incarcerated parent is akin to the impact of divorce on the child,” says Spencer. Children may experience separation anxiety or suffer from traumatic stress. They are likely to struggle academically.
With a potential provider out of the mix, their families are more likely to become and stay impoverished, which in turn can have an impact on the communities they come from. Indeed, in the book “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy,” author Heather Ann Thompson argues that the aggressive policing of black men in Detroit that started in the mid-1960s contributed to the decades-long decline of the city, alongside the departure of industries and whites.
In terms of whether or not children with incarcerated parents will end up incarcerated themselves, a review of the current research shows there is insufficient data to draw conclusions.
“There’s no one-to-one link for having an incarcerated parent and facing criminal charges,” says Spencer.
Children with parents in prison tend to be exposed to a lot of risk factors even before their parents become incarcerated. If the children themselves become incarcerated later in life, current research is not able to determine the causal factor. Did they end up in prison because their parent was incarcerated? Or was it because they witnessed domestic violence, their parent had a substance-abuse issue, or they received an inadequate education? At this point, the answer isn’t clear.
June Walker, director of Prison Ministry at Hope Community Church on Detroit’s eastside says :
“If you want a person who you’ve locked in a cage for 20-30 years to come out and be human, then you need to keep them connected to their family.”
In addition to providing services for prisoners and returning citizens (as former prisoners are called by their advocates), the program serves loved ones of people who are incarcerated. Prison Ministry offers support groups, provides Christmas gifts for children with parents in prison, and assists with visitations.
Walker says she thinks too many inmates from Wayne County are sent across the Mackinac Bridge.
The five-hour-minimum drive from Detroit to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is an impossible trip for many of the people she works with. So, at least once a year, she takes a group up to see their incarcerated loved ones in the UP. Walker would like to see more prisoners located near their families.
Chris Gautz, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said in an email that officials are “cognizant of the travel times” for family members. But, he says, the department can’t always keep prisoners tied to a particular geographic region.
“Their location in prison is determined by their security level and their programming needs. Sometimes they need to take a specific program and it may only be offered at certain prisons,” he wrote.
For example, if the prisoner needs to be in a drug rehabilitation program.
“Once they are close to paroling, we generally move them to prisons close to the county they are paroling to,” he says, “so they can more easily make those family connections, as well as connect with possible employers and others to make the transition to the community easier.
Sirena and her brother have to travel a little longer than an hour to visit their dad in G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson. Because they are minors, they have to be accompanied by an immediate family member.
After passing through security — including taking their shoes and socks completely off and putting them back on — the children meet with their father in a group visitor room, alongside other prisoners and their loved ones. When they first arrive and then later when they leave, if they’d like, the teens can kiss and hug their father. But during the visit, only hand-holding and putting hands on shoulders is allowed.
According to Sirena, when she and her brother visit her dad they usually “just sit and play tic-tac-toe and board games.” If they get hungry, they can order a sandwich from a vending machine.
Ricky says he sees his dad once every couple of months. He feels like that’s not as often as he should be visiting but, he says, “I have a lot going on in my life with sports and school… and I’m always tired.” He is a teenager, after all.
One day with God
Programmers behind an event called “One Day with God” are working to better connect children like Ricky and Sirena to their incarcerated parents by hosting a day of festivities tailored to encourage bonding. Activities range from relay races, to decorating photo frames, to daddy-daughter dances. The events take place inside prison.
Unlike normal visits, children, surrounded by volunteers, do not have to be accompanied by an immediate family member. They are also allowed to be as affectionate with their parents as they’d like.
At a recent “One Day with God” event held inside an auditorium at the Cotton Correctional Facility, 46 children came to spend time with some 25 fathers.
Sirena and Ricky were among the kids in attendance. On top of the high-energy activities, the fathers were given multiple opportunities to open up to their children.
Towards the end of the day, one of the leaders passed a microphone around. Sirena and Ricky’s father was one of the men to take the mic.
In front of all the children, in front of over 100 volunteers, in front of a handful of prison guards and his fellow inmates, Sirena and Ricky’s father said, “I just want to thank my children for saving my life. I’ve been through some real lows in here… and there’s been many times I’ve wanted to give up. But their faces is what’s kept me going. Hope is more important than the air is to breath, to a prisoner.
“So I want my children to know, Ricky and Sirena, I love you. And thank you for saving my life and I will do better.”
By staying in contact with their father while he is in prison, these two siblings get to hear that their father loves them.
While their father serves out a life sentence, his children give him something to live for.
The beginning of a “One Day with God” event is dramatic. At the Cotton Correctional Facility on November 5, 2016, the kids lined up in a gym waiting for their fathers to arrive. “Celebration” was blasted through the speakers. As each father entered the room, their name was announced by an emcee, and their children would run or walk to greet them in the middle of the room. This was usually followed by a big embrace. You can watch some of the arrivals from the Cotton Correctional Facility event in November, below.