Over the last forty years, as incarceration has surged across the nation, so has the number of children with a family member in prison. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the number of young people with a father in prison rose 500 percent between 1980 and 2000.
Over 5 million of today’s children have had a parent imprisoned at some point during their childhoods, like these high school sophomores:
“I have a family member that’s in jail.”
“Well, my uncle, he’s in Angola.”
“My stepdad he’s in jail.”
“My dad, like he’s in jail.”
“My uncle in jail.”
“My brother, him being in jail is hard for me because it makes me so emotional.”
For at least two generations, New Orleans has locked up so many of its people that the city’s incarcerated more per capita than any other city in America. This has affected New Orleans’ workforce, its neighborhoods, and the children in its classrooms.
“The hardest part is like finding out where he’s at or when his court date is.”
“Yeah, he went to jail on my first birthday.”
“And when he got arrested, he was arrested out there.”
“My dad works as a guard, and he saw my uncle in jail.”
“He’s in there for life.”
These young people attend New Orleans Charter Math and Science High School -- Sci High for short. I’d come to an English class at Sci High to play stories about mass incarceration. As we discussed the stories, student after student – roughly a third of the class -- casually mentioned having a loved one behind bars. I noticed the same sort of pattern in all the New Orleans classrooms I visited.
“Dear Big Brother,” reads Anissa Christmas, “I’m making that big 16 this year. LOL. Guess I’m not a baby anymore. You still taking me to prom? I really miss you. You’re the only guy that kept it real with me.”
Anissa just finished her sophomore year at Sci High. She tries to keep in touch with her incarcerated brother through letters.
“I have some good news,” reads Anissa, “I won first place in the science fair. I’m a geek. We’re going to regionals. Can’t you believe it? High school is going by super fast. Less than two years. I hope you’ll be able to see me walk across the stage.”
One of Anissa’s schoolmates is Jewel Williams. She’s 15 and also just finished her sophomore year.
“Just recently, my little brother found out that my dad was in jail,” says Jewel. “He was just sitting there. And he was just thinking. So I asked him: what are you thinking about? What’s going through your mind? You know, tell me. He was like: is that why he don’t talk to us no more?
“I was like: I guess. I guess that’s why he doesn’t talk to us. And then he got kinda confused. And he was like: should I be happy?
“Like a few days after that, when I actually was thinking about it, I was like well, I guess he took it the same way that I did. I was kinda relieved to know that he wasn’t choosing not to talk to us. You know, cause that’s what I thought. At first I was like: I guess I should be happy that he isn’t choosing not to talk to us. You know like, he doesn’t have a choice. At least in my mind I can like say: he does want to talk to us; he’s just in jail and he can’t.”
The federal correctional system has started asking prisoners at intake about their children, but the Louisiana state system still has no mechanism in place for tracking who and how many are impacted. So it’s hard to understand the scope of this issue in our communities and schools. One of the critical factors that shapes whether prisoners and their children will succeed in the future is whether they can maintain ties during the parents’ incarceration. But that can be difficult.
Prisoners can only call home through phone calls that cost 20 - 30 times more than regular calls, and are made using prepaid phone cards, which the prisoners' families have to purchase. So financially strained families often forgo talking on the phone. Which is why thousands of families continue to stay in touch mostly through letters.
“Hey my baby, Daddy loves you dearly,” reads Taje Willoughby, another Sci High sophomore. “I received the recent picture of you, and I have to say you look beautifully beautiful. I know you’re a big girl now, but, no matter what, when, where, or how, you will always be my little bunny. Keep up the good work. You’re mother was intelligent like that too. I can’t believe my baby is a genius. I’m so proud of you.”
Taje’s father writes her from Colorado, where he’s currently serving time.
“Taje, no matter how things may seem, always remember: I’ve got your back and you have got my support in all that you do,” reads Taje. “And anything you want to discuss, feel free to do so. I’m really easy to talk to. However, about the same time next year, I’ll be home, comforting and being there for you like a loving father is supposed to. P.S. Did you know that nothing rhymes with orange? Yours truly, Daddy dearest.”
After Jewel Williams’s mom and dad got divorced nine years ago, she still saw her dad all the time. They had sleepovers, and her dad brought her an ice cream cake every year on her birthday. He always remembered to bring her favorite, vanilla.
“My dad always was in and out of jail – I guess for child support,” says Jewel. “You know, that kind of stuff. But you know, it was always just a small amount of time. He would be in jail, he would always tell us: I was in jail for not giving money to your mother and everything. He would always tell us that, but it wouldn’t be that long.”
But after Jewel’s 12th birthday, her dad became more distant. Eventually she and her brothers stopped seeing and hearing from him at all. After her older brother told Jewel their father was locked up, his silence was easier to understand. Years later, their mother told Jewel her father was in jail for drug charges.
Jewel’s parents went to high school together. They started dating in their sophomore year – the same age Jewel is now – and they got married as soon as they graduated.
Jewel’s mother works as a security guard. She puts on a uniform every day, complete with a badge and a holster, and in Jewel’s fifteen-year-old mind, even though her mom doesn’t work in a prison, she’s thought a lot about her mom’s job of keeping order side by side her dad being locked up.
“It’s just weird,” says Jewel, “you know, when you actually do think that they grew up together and they got married and they been married for so long and they had so many children together, how could they drift apart, so that they go down two different roads.”
“Hey my love, as always, thank you for the letter,” reads Jalen Crosby, another Sci High sophomore. “It is great to get many in here, and even better when it is from you, love.”
Jaleny’s father writes her from OPP, the New Orleans jail, where he’s serving a year.
“In the letter you say you sent two books,” reads Jalen. “When did you send them and what are the names of the books? Hopefully they will reach me because I am in desperate need of reading material. I mean, seriously. Thank you so much for the thought. Means a lot, baby.”
“Big bro I have to ask you something: still looking ugly?” Anissa Christmas reads from the letter she recently wrote to her brother. “I hope when you get out you do right because I don’t want to communicate with you like this forever. I miss your smile and your dumb jokes. I miss you saying things and protecting me. I’m going to put some paper behind here so you can write me. Until paper meet pen, little sis. I hope you keep my letter. P.S. why you so ugly? P.P.S. I love and miss you.”
Anissa keeps her brother’s most recent letter in her bedroom.
“I have it sit there in the mirror, and it’s right there behind my tiara,” explains Anissa. “Every year I wanted a tiara, and he tried to help me make a wooden tiara. He helped me paint it and put glitter on it, so I keep it right there behind there. I just read it over and over cause I could imagine him sitting down on the bed, and I can just seeing him writing, and I can hear his voice.”
Jalen Crosby also keeps the letters from her dad in her bedroom. They’re in her closet, on top of her dresser.
“Cause I always go in here so I will always see them if I want to read them,” explains Jalen. “And when he send me some I just put them right there. It’s nice seeing that he send me stuff and that even though he’s like far away, I still get to like see him and talk – well not see him but – imagine him and talk to him about stuff.”
“Do you feel like you miss him more when you see the letters or when you don’t see them?” I ask.
“When I see them,” answers Jalen, “cause it tells me like, oh he’s not really out doing something. He’s stuck. Has no freedom.”
“It reminds you of that?”
“Would you rather get the letters or not get them?”
“Get them,” says Jalen, “because I want to know how he’s doing and I want to talk to him.”
Unprisoned: Stories From The System is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by New Orleans Public Radio and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.