Ifetayo Harvey: How war on drugs affects kids like me
NORTHAMPTON — Growing up with an incarcerated parent can be tough. The feelings of isolation and stigma that I and others like me experienced were a burden to bear.
To ignore the impact of incarceration on the family is to ignore how the drug war continues to dismantle black and Latino communities. The United States’ prison population — fueled by the war on drugs — is increasing, with blacks and Latinos being the majority of those incarcerated.
In the U.S., 2.7 million children are growing up in households in which one or more parents are incarcerated. Two-thirds of these parents are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, primarily drug offenses. One in nine black children has an incarcerated parent, compared to one in 28 Latino children and one in 57 white children.
Incarcerated people have families and communities they belong to, and when they go to prison an array of problems develop.
My father immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in the 1970s. I was 4 years old when my dad went away and my younger brother was 2. My father was convicted for trafficking in cocaine and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
At the beginning of his absence, we maintained contact through letters, although I did not at first know where he was. Every time I wrote my father, I’d carefully write his department identification number, thinking that it was a code for an apartment complex mailbox, until my mom informed me that my dad was in prison.
I began to cry, but even then I remember questioning my tears; what does it mean to be in prison? For any parent, breaking the news to a child that their father is in prison is difficult. At that age, I didn’t know what it meant; I just knew I wouldn’t be seeing any more of my dad.
My father left my mom alone to raise seven children, which added a financial strain to the emotional distress. Upon his early release, he was deported to Jamaica, where he lives today.
Looking back on it, maintaining communication with my dad became important to me, because like any person I wanted to make sense of my existence.
Despite my childhood being a positive one, a cloud hung over me at times, triggering anger and doubt. I wondered whether I was worthy of love. I dealt with the awkward conversations that include the question, “So what does your dad do for a living?” After some practice in these situations, I came up with different lies depending on who I was speaking with. It wasn’t until I reached college that I realized the impact of my father’s incarceration on me.
Even within my circle of family and friends, I did not know how to talk about my dad’s situation. I internalized my feelings of shame, only at times letting them spill over to my mother.
Children with incarcerated parents are a group ignored by society. Our government puts a great deal of energy into locking up nonviolent felons, yet offers no reconciliation to their families, and those most innocent, the children.
I found no support within any school I attended until my freshman year of college, where my dean recommended that I take advantage of counseling services available to students.
But my question remains: What about the kids who don’t seek help (or don’t know that they can)? People with parents behind bars are more likely to end up on the wrong side of justice, a pattern called intergenerational incarceration.
What about the children who don’t make it to college, and instead prison? Incarceration operates cyclically, affecting those behind bars and their children for years to come.
Ifetayo Harvey was born in raised in Charleston, S.C.. She is a senior at Smith College studying history and spent this summer as a media intern at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org).