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My Dad Went to Prison When I Was 5. Now I Write About Families Like Mine

Growing up with a father who was incarcerated didn’t define me. But it certainly taught me to challenge stereotypes and ask better questions.

In 1986, in Oakland, California, my father was convicted of second-degree murder. At 29, he began serving 16 years to life in prison. I was 5 years old.

From the moment my tiny beige hand touched the scratched glass partition, my father’s hand covering mine from the other side, the separation was real. Like the millions of kids who would come after me, I leaned my face into the receiver and whispered, “When you coming home?” My brothers, tucked in the booth with me, waited for the answer. “I don’t know baby. As soon as I can.” My eldest brother, as usual, wailed uncontrollably. He was the only one old enough to understand that this separation could be permanent.

In just two years my life had transformed. It seemed like yesterday we were a different kind of family. My mom making biscuits from scratch on Saturday mornings, swaying gently to the sound of the O’Jays on our record player. The heady, sweet aroma of her homemade syrup wafting through our apartment. My father slipping into the kitchen and dipping a fork into the side of the skillet, trying to sneak a bit of bacon. In between all the joy, my mother had bouts of sickness. Labored breathing, coughing and wheezing seemed to be normal parts of her life, my brothers’ too—they all had horrific asthma. The doctors suggested my mom slow down, but she couldn’t. Taking care of us gave her life.

Asthma, a formidable foe, had greedily sucked away her last breath. That same year, following my mother’s death, my father’s life as widower and doting dad meant helping my brothers with their homework, taking us to the doctor, and making dinner on the nights we didn’t devour our favorite Kwik-Way hamburgers. Unbeknownst to us, he also had drug houses dotting the corners of several tattered Oakland blocks. His new lifestyle resulted in him being implicated in a drug-related homicide.

As a child, I got used to the barbed wire gates and the officer holding a rifle in the gun tower. I knew prison guards would make me undo my hair in the hopes of finding heroin tucked in the folds of my braids. It was merely the price I had to pay the prison deities. In exchange for surrendering my freedom, I was allowed to see my father.

I thought then that we were the only kids with a parent in prison. I was wrong. It took decades for me to realize my father, my brothers and I represented sobering statistics. We're among millions of families who've had an immediate family member spend time in prison.

Today, I’m a journalist and I just published my first book, “The Shadow System: Mass Incarceration and the American Family.” In the book I follow the fears, challenges and small victories of three families—Black and White, poor and middle class—struggling to live within the confines of a brutal system. I uncover a shadow system of laws and regulations that dehumanize the incarcerated, profit off their loved ones and snatch at the seams of the family fabric. This includes mandatory sentencing laws, restrictions on prison visitation and astronomical charges for brief phone calls.

The prevailing question I get is, “Do you write because of your father?” The answer is layered. After losing my mother to asthma and my father to a life sentence in prison before my 6th birthday, my childhood was filled with unanswered questions:

How could my mother die of an asthma attack? Why did all of my brothers have asthma? Why did a California judge sentence my father to life in prison? What impacted my father’s decisions? Why was he in a prison so far away from home? Why couldn’t I talk to and see him frequently? Why did my cousins and I pick flowers from neighborhood gardens and sell them to our only White neighbors?

These questions, I believe, led me to study sociology as an undergraduate and pursue graduate training in journalism. I learned the tools to trace how redlining systematically denied Black people access to credit and to home and business loans, which ensured housing segregation for decades to come. I could see how families like mine were relegated to a resource-depleted community shaped by structural racism. I could see how America’s unequal distribution of imprisonment had exacerbated inequality.

My personal experience means that I can cut past the stereotypes and begin with better questions. Once, during an interview about mass incarceration, a radio host asked me if I or my siblings had been locked up. When I confirmed that one of my brothers had served time, she said she had been willing to bet that was the case. Many, the interviewer continued, would argue that my brother visiting my father in prison paved the way for his own incarceration. But my brother and I would have been worse off if we didn’t get to visit my father. Sharing a chocolate bar with my dad in a prison visiting room amounted to the joy of three Christmases, and my brother felt protected sitting on my dad’s lap. This host thought of intergenerational incarceration as something you catch like a common cold, not something orchestrated and sustained by structural inequality, biased legislation and racial disparities in sentencing.

My experience as a child of an incarcerated father also widens the lens in which I witness the world. I think of the time in Jackson, Mississippi, when I met a doe-eyed, chestnut hued, 8-year-old named Xacey. She wore a T-shirt with prisoners’ faces on it—her father’s included—and quickly told me she was “fighting for civil rights” and for her uncles and father to get out of prison. In that moment, surrounded by support, she was bold and loved her father fearlessly, but she kept this truth a secret in school.

So, I write for girls and boys like her, brave in one moment and afraid and ashamed the next. I write because the effects of parental incarceration are dogged. This is larger than me.

My father served nearly 27 years in prison. In 2012, I helped secure a lawyer for the parole hearing that resulted in him coming home. I’ve been lucky to have him on this journey with me. Whenever I hit a rough patch writing “The Shadow System,” he was a free phone call away. My father was a steady voice of reason, a compassionate ear, and someone who could quell the rage when it felt like it would spill out of my chest. He could hop on a flight and meet me in Miami to connect with my brother. Now, when I’m doing virtual book events, you can catch my dad in the chat box being my biggest champion.

Sylvia A. Harvey reports at the intersection of race, class, policy and incarceration. She is the author of “The Shadow System: Mass Incarceration and the American Family.” You can connect with her on social media as @Ms_SAH.