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The Mass Incarceration Epidemic Viewed Through a Young Daughter’s Eyes

by Hayley Schulman

When I was 16, my dad was sentenced to eight years in prison for non-violent offenses. What the judge didn’t realize was that he was sentencing me to a virtual prison. 

It was a story of an accountant desperate for money. In a position with access to the books, my father took advantage. His actions were wrong and punishable, and he was punished. 

He became yet another man removed from his family – another statistic in America’s mass incarceration epidemic. It is no secret that the United States has a staggering incarceration rate with, as reported by Prison Policy Initiative, 2.3 million people locked up.  

Unfortunately, the collateral consequences of imprisonment spill over to prisoners’ families, who must live out their own version of punishment for crimes they did not commit. According to The Sentencing Project’s study titled Incarcerated Parents and Their Children: Trends 1991-2007, roughly 10 million children experience life with an incarcerated parent at some point during their adolescence. I was one of those children. 

A lot of this falls disproportionately on poor kids from poor communities and people of color. In 2007, data from the study show that of the large number of children with an incarcerated parent, more than 70%, were children of color.

After learning about the reality of the prison epidemic – and about how common my experience was – I faced a very troubling question: Why did it feel like I was the only one?

I don’t fit what I believed to be the typical profile. My experiences growing up were much more fortunate than many other children of an incarcerated parent. When my dad was sentenced,I thought I had lost everything. I was born into promise – the promise of an education, the promise of financial stability, the promise of loving parents. I was raised in an upper middle-class family surrounded by wealth and success; all I knew was security. 

When the judge sentenced my dad to an institution that was a two-hour drive away, I thought that those things that had filled me with a sense of security were taken away from me along with him. Almost eight years later, after gaining an education and a degree, I realize that I lost nothing – rather, I gained perspective. 

As an adolescent, I understood that I had a forever best friend – my dad. Although he was busy at work, I knew I had a constant support system to pick me up every time I fell. He served as my confidant and motivator, always lovingly pushing me onward. 

At first, I didn’t understand the severity of the situation as I watched my dad from afar, while the police officer clasped his hands in cuffs and pushed his head and body into the back of a police car. 

As they drove away, my processing began. My dad was the head accountant for a large company. His decision to embezzle money wasn’t only about greed, it was about trying to pay the medical bills of a close relative. However, he took advantage of his position and found what must have seemed like an easy fix tohis problem. Of course, this short-term solution created a much bigger problem. 

I didn’t want to believe this reality. At first, I didn’t care what he did. The only thing apparent to me was that he was leaving me; I was losing my dad, my best friend, and my biggest cheerleader. He got himself involved in something and couldn’t get out of it. Dad left me to utilize the skills I saw in him as a parent and apply them to myself. 

In an effort to help my dad in any way I could, I drafted a letter to the judge to highlight the type of father he was. He wasn’t just another criminal case number; he was my dad. I wanted to humanize him in the eyes of the sentencing judge. In the letter, I appealed for any relief the judge could grant – it was not a legal appeal, it was the plea of a child. I told the judge stories – stories of how my dad would enthusiastically cheer me on at gymnastics competitions and patiently sit down and help me with my homework after a long day at the office. I explained that he was a kind, understanding man who made a terrible mistake – one that carried a penalty that would hurt many (due to the positive impact he had on so many people). I expressed my understanding that punishment was necessary; however, I pleaded for some measure of mercy because my dad was a good man who lost his way in a misguided effort to help a loved one.  

The sentence for his crime ranged from eight to fourteen years. After the judge issued the eight-year sentence, he indicated that my letter had influenced him to choose the bottom of the scale. I felt tremendous relief and pride that I was able to help my dad when he needed me most.  

After he began serving his sentence, my life completely changed. Everything became all about him being incarcerated. High school was a blur, no longer revolving around socializing and academics. I began a new routine that no one knew about. I walked the halls of my school, consumed by thoughts of Dad. Yet I was in denial about his interactions with violent prisoners and abusive guards, about barked orders and strip searches. The once unfathomable slowly and quietly became ordinary to me. When his possessions were stolen by another prisoner, I ignored it. When he went to solitary confinement for speaking out of turn with an officer having a bad day, I understood the phone call from Dad I was anticipating would not happen.   

My phone was glued to me as I awaited the 15-minute phone call that did not always come. Weekends were dedicated to visitation. I had no time for friends. Instead, my family and I would make the four-hour commute to see Dad, followed by another hour to endure “security,” adopting an insensitivity to being touched, something no 16-year-old girl should accept. We’d get yelled at by aggressive officers and spend one hour sitting across the table from my dad in an overcrowded room. After the long journey home, my energy depleted, the evening was devoted to homework and sleep. 

This was growing up, my unique version of normal. However, in college, my knowledge expanded. I met more people who understood crime, and the terrible toll incarceration imposes on families, especially those with young kids. Likewise, I learned the harsh realities of incarceration rates in America. Astounded, I began to understand that what I had thought was my unique version of childhood was actually experienced by millions of other children, especially in poor communities. 

I developed a new, unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach. Growing up, I thought I was dealt a badhand. The striking reality that so many children around the country experience this lifestyle under far worse conditions leaves me dumbfounded. I realized how lucky I am to still have been raised with financial security, a promising education, and a loving family. Despite what I experienced, I grew up fortunate. There are many children who have different experiences, ones that those living in communities like my own are unaware of. This ignorance, writ large, does our country a disservice. 

As lawyer and civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson explained, the solution is all about proximity, physical or intellectual closeness that promotes and expands understanding. Through activities like meeting former prisoners and hearing their stories, children can come to understand and relate to the problem of mass incarceration. 

Why shouldn’t adolescents learn about the consequences of our penal system the way they are schooled about war? We learn about war not only to be educated about our history but also to understand the mistakes that were made that caused such destruction. With knowledge, we gain insight and guidance on what not to do in order to avoid future problems and how to address the consequences that come along with such issues. 

This is applicable to crime, especially regarding children. With a gained understanding of what is happening in the world we live in, maybe this would help children connect to others with similar experiences and not feel so isolated. Schools could have support groups for this. It would help children avoid developing any mental health issues while growing up. Kids could have an outlet to express their grief, anxiety, and anger while also being able to connect with others experiencing similar situations. The feeling of isolation that haunts children with incarcerated parents would hopefully be lessened during their formative years. 

Not only would children better understand the earth-shattering realities of what seems to them like parental abandonment, but there would be more sympathy toward the heart-wrenching abundance of children who know this reality. This broadening of knowledge could create room for change. Exposure could enable more individuals to take part in advocacy and help create programs and different means to not only support children but also fight the problem of crime and mass incarceration in America. 

It is so important for people to not be as blind as I once was because more can be done. My letter had an impact on my dad’s sentencing—because of my devotion to my dad, the judge chose leniency. Going to college, I learned that my situation is not unique, and far too many people in this nation are incarcerated. However, too few members of the general public are aware of this reality. With my letter, I got lucky. If more people learn of the harsh realities of the prison epidemic, maybe more can be done to ensure that fewer children in the future will have to endure the harsh realities of crime and punishment when a parent is incarcerated. 

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