I remember visiting my dad in jail when I was a kid at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles, where he was housed with other men awaiting trial. Visiting was a full-day experience—long lines, being screened and patted down, waiting and sitting. We weren’t able to take anything inside, so I sat there bored and hungry for what felt like forever for a restless child. Today, organizations such as Dignity and Power Now organize art and healing pop up events like FREEDOM HARVEST outside of Los Angeles County Jails to disrupt and offer some salve to the traumatizing experience of visiting loved ones in prison—but Dignity and Power didn’t exist then.
After waiting for what felt like forever, I was excited and nervous when my dad’s name was finally called and we were allowed back to see him. I have visions—similar to what I see so often on TV that I’m not sure if my memory is being conflated with those images—of my dad coming out, and us being separated by glass and using a phone to talk to each other. He looked sad. He didn’t have the joy and sparkle in his eyes that I was used to seeing, even though he tried to smile and cheer me up.
I also remember feeling concerned and confused. I didn’t know why he was in jail. My child’s mind thought only people who hurt others went to jail. My dad was such a charismatic and caring person; I couldn’t imagine he had done anything to hurt anyone.
I later learned that my dad was in jail for hurting himself—he fought off and on for most of my childhood with drug addiction and became a victim of the War on Drugs. During the 1980’s, my father was swept up as the number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.
Los Angeles County Jails are considered the largest jail system in the U.S.; in May 2013, along with the adjacent Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Men’s Central Jail was also ranked as one of the ten worst prisons in the country by Mother Jones. Instead of providing my dad with rehabilitation and support services to address his addiction, he was punished and treated as a criminal.
He didn’t need punishment—he needed support. And what I needed as a kid was to have my dad.
Today, 2.7 million minor children have a parent in jail or prison. People too often forget about the little kid who is also locked up when their parents are locked up. When parents are in prison, their kids are also in prison.
I only visited my dad a few times as a kid; when he did his last stint, he was sent to prison a long distance away, and I was unable to visit. He once told me proudly that he was a firefighter while locked up in a California Correctional Facility in Susanville, and whenever we had California brush fires in Santa Ana I would look at the smoke with pride and fear. To think: He was saving lives and helping folks evacuate danger while he was locked away. He wanted me to experience freedom. He didn’t want me to spend a lot of time visit him in jail.
Freedom is what many parents who have histories of enslavement and incarceration desire for their children. As the daughter of a formerly incarcerated parent, and with a connection to enslaved Africans, that’s what I want for my kids. I want them to be liberated.
That’s why I created Parenting for Liberation, a multimedia platform for Black parents who commit to raise Black children who are free liberated and whole—and why, in partnership with my fellow mama activist, Cecilia Caballero of Chicana Motherwork, I help lead liberated parenting workshops with incarcerated women. Together, Caballero and I developed and designed a three-part workshop series on “Raising Liberated Children” for mothers who are incarcerated at a California’s women’s prison with the financial of Resonance Network and coordination support of Just Detention International.
Our curriculum strategy opened up space for these women to identify their own experiences of intergenerational trauma and the systems of oppression that contributed to their incarceration by facilitating storytelling and art-making. This is a way for them to tell their own stories—how they remember and learn from the past, make sense of the present and envision the future. The goal of the story map was to reveal and make connections between how their knowledge, informed by their lived experiences, can become powerful pathways for healing and liberation.
As a Black feminist personally impacted by the prison industrial complex, I entered our curriculum development with the understanding that many of the incarcerated women who would participate in the workshop were more than likely incarcerated due to their own limited “choices”—the constrictions of institutional racism, sexism and classism. Like my father, rather than being afforded rehabilitation, restorative justice or support to heal from the intergenerational trauma for themselves and their families, these women are often incarcerated and separated from their families under the punitive prison industrial complex.
At the end of the first workshop, we gave the participants copies of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.” We read through the poem twice. At the very end, an entire room full of mothers raised their voices together and affirmed themselves: “I rise, I rise, I rise!” In the second workshop, we asked the participants to use “Still I Rise” as a prompt to write poetry lines about their own resilience. In the final workshop, we compiled their writing into a collective poem.
This is an offering for themselves, their children and their collective healing as we move closer toward our visions for social justice and liberation. Their words are reverberating outside the prison walls. Like seeds, the systems tries to bury them behind bars—yet still, they rise.