Voices from See Us, Support Us:
Where are you dad? How are you dad? Why aren't you here dad? Today, children ask these questions. And they deserve answers. In April 1989 my father was arrested and served 11 out of 15 years of his 15 to life sentence in various NYS maximum correctional facilities starting as close as Sing Sing and as far North as Attica. Time, space, and distance was a factor but never served as a barrier in my relationship with my father while he was in prison. My mom and my uncle—who stepped in to support my mom in raising his brother’s only child at the time—are both immigrants and had to learn how to navigate not only what seemed like a new world in the U.S but, now this savage like system for what felt like eternity with an infant.
Visits were weekly, calls were daily, and letters were free flowing. DIN # and there you were dad. Identifying you through your DIN# became the norm. I was young and would always forgot the sequence of the numbers and would see my mom get so anxious in re- checking what I wrote. As I got older I realized the significance of these numbers; your numbers. It meant everything; it meant you would get the package we worked so hard to get to you, it meant seeing you; it meant getting our letters, it meant you being able to get your commissary. I took pride in finally getting those numbers memorized.
I never had to wonder where you were or how you were and why you weren't home. Transparency and honestly was the motto in my household. My mom and uncle were judged and criticized for being so open with me in fear that I would tell the world what was going on. I was there front row during your trial and at all the visits, it was impossible to keep things away from me. As I mentioned earlier about the questions most children ask, this happens when families withhold information. Living with questions and uncertainty is hard and unfair to children that have many other things they are trying to figure out. I was lucky to not have to worry about figuring those answers out. I was never instructed how and what to share. I was given the autonomy of free expression. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to be surrounded by trust and given the trust to do what I felt best with the information. I did feel the responsibility to protect my family. Shame, labeling, and judgement were a dense air we walked with. But, keeping the family together was something that my mom and uncle did not negotiate with.
And so, off we went, weekly to see my dad. I remember my family struggling financially between the weekly packages of food that had to be left, the commissary, and travels. The further North my father went, the more taxing the trips became due to the need for overnight stays. Life stopped for my mom and uncle as they lived the life of an incarcerated family members. There was no balance, it was pure tunnel vision. Mon- Fri was the grind of working, getting me to school, and pure survival. And weekends were dedicated to seeing my dad. Even from a young age I somehow knew the importance and significance and in some way looked forward to the sacred time of being with my family from the vivid drives that will forever be some of the best memories of my childhood to the smell of popcorn in the visiting areas and my dad unknotting my insanely curly hair during allotted overnight family visits.
February 2000, my dad’s application for deportation was granted. Under the administration that was in office at that time, there was an opportunity for immigrants who was serving a sentence for a non- violent offense to put in an application for deportation.
I believe that my family offers an exceptionally example of individuals that did all they could to ensure that I had a connection with my father as I was growing up with an incarcerated father. And, they normalized it and protected me as best as they could within my enclosed nuclear household. So although the air was dense and filled with stigma from family, friends, school staff, and the community, my family made sure that I knew I was safe and okay. There is no manuscript in dealing with such a tragedy and the expectation is not for families to stop their lives and no longer live their lives. But, I ask that caregivers give children the opportunity to have contact and communication with their parents.
As children of incarcerated parents our voices are not heard because we depend on our caregivers to give us the freedom to have access to our loved ones that are away. I encourage all caregiver to take one step in helping support children remaining in contact with their parents by providing them with their parents DIN# so that children can have the availability to locate and write to their parents. And, if and when they become ready to see their parents, to give them the freedom and support to do that. Let’s all stop punishing children for their parents mistake. No parents deserves to stop parenting because they are not at home.
Hena Ali-Bernard is a Social Worker, Educator, and Advocate