Teenagers who have experienced what it’s like to grow up with parents in jail share their stories. In a related article, an expert discusses the challenges that these teens face.
“We had to talk through a window…”
When I was three years old, my whole family’s life changed. It wasn’t four of us as a family any more; it was my mom driving my sister and me six hours away to visit my dad in prison.
My dad looked different each time we saw him. Most of the time we had to talk to him through a window, but when we were allowed contact visits, I always sat on his lap. I remember the guards giving my parents a warning every time they got too close to each other.
In letters, my dad wrote that he’d think about us every day, even when he wasn’t able to call. And he’d tell us not to worry. But I always worried. After what seemed like forever, I felt so relieved when my dad was released. I didn’t expect to experience that ever again, going day after day without my father, but things happen.
When I was 11 years old, both of my parents were sent to jail. Going to school knowing all of my friends went home to their parents made me cry. I had to communicate with mine through letters, visits, and phone calls. But the one emotion I never felt was shame. Nothing my parents do will ever make me turn my back on them.
Gabriela Alvarez is a student at Hayward High School. She is a youth advocate at Project WHAT!, a youth-led program for Bay Area teens with incarcerated parents.
“Honey, your dad is in jail … “
By Valerie Axtle
He was on the run from the law for about a year. He thought that he was going to be slick and wear wigs and shades and not get caught. I knew he was going to get caught eventually because I watched a lot of criminal shows, and they all got caught. I used to cry to him, beg him, “Dad, turn yourself in. You’ll get less time. Everything’s gonna be okay. Just turn yourself in!”
One morning my mom was in the living room with me and my grandma when she got a phone call. As she talked, I listened. She kept rolling her eyes and frowning her lips, so I could tell she was hurt and angry. She hung up and started talking rudely about my father. Then my mom said, “Honey, your dad’s in jail. He got caught. I’m sorry.”
I froze. My eyes were wide open, and I was completely still. I was on the couch, just sitting there, trying so hard not to cry. I was shaking, and my throat started hurting because I kept holding everything back.
My grandma saw the pain in my eyes, and she asked me, “Do you wanna cry?” I kept shaking my head side to side. Then she told me, in Spanish, “Valeria, If you want to cry, cry. Cry, because it’s not good for all your sadness to stay inside you.”
When she said that, something unlocked inside me, and I cried for hours until my eyes hurt.
It took a really long time for his actual court date to come around and for him to finally get sentenced. But eventually the day came. It was a Wednesday, and I told my grandma to take me out of school to bring me. The judge read the letters that my brothers and I had written. In the letter I spoke directly to the judge. I said my father protected me and my brothers, never letting us see him angry or upset. I wrote about how he would go out of his way to try to make us happy, even if it meant staying up all night with us to make us feel loved.
After the judge read my letter, she spoke directly to my father and said that I was a very smart and bright young lady. The judge told me to stand, then asked me why I wasn’t at school.
“I wanted to see my dad,” I replied.
She got mad I wasn’t in school, but then she told my father to get his life together, because he had a lot of support. She even made him turn around to look at us. After court, I asked my grandma, “How many years did he get?”
“Twenty-six,” she told me. I couldn’t believe it. I was so mad. It felt like my anger was growing bigger and bigger, like a blowfish about to pop.
Before my dad was sentenced, I tried to talk to him as much as I possibly could. My grandma would take me to see him. We would all be in the tiny room talking to him; then I would get ten minutes to talk to my dad alone. We would talk about how I’m doing in school, how I’m doing in debate, and how everyone in the family is doing. I felt horrible seeing him like that, in his orange clothing and handcuffs. What felt the worst was seeing him through a glass window and not being able to touch him. All I would get was his hand and mine, pressed together on either side of the glass.
The emotional distance between my dad and me was horrible. Now, two years later, it still is. Ever since my father left, I feel like I haven’t been happy. I’m angry that I don’t get to see him because he’s far away in Indiana. I understand that he has done some wrong things, and he needs to pay the time. But the least they can do is place him in a prison that is closer to my siblings and me. I have the right to see my father. I have the right to talk to him in person. And I have the right to hold him.
Valerie Axtle attends Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in Oakland. Valerie has been working as a Youth Advocate at Project WHAT! since the summer of 2014, and her hobbies include reading, writing, and policy debate.
“It shouldn’t be this hard to visit my dad … “
By Xitlally J. Lupian
My grandparents picked me up at my house at seven in the morning. I was 11. I was really tired but also very happy because I was going to see my dad for the first time in three years.
When I was younger they moved him to a prison far away, and we just didn’t have the money to go out there very often. In the car that morning, my grandma gave me a blanket so that I could sleep, but I was just too excited. I imagined the ride was going to be really long and we were going to have to spend the night at a motel. I couldn’t believe it when my grandma told me the new prison was only a two-hour drive. Before I knew it, I saw a sign that said Folsom Prison.
When we arrived at the prison, my grandparents took all the things out of their pockets and I had to take off my shoes. We walked through the metal detectors and waited for a bus to take us to the visiting building. We got to B building, and we had to go through another metal detector. The guard pressed a button, and the immense metal door groaned as it opened. We stepped slowly into a small room and waited for another guard to take us upstairs. We finally entered the visiting room and waited for my dad to show up in one of the windows.
When he did, I wanted to run up and be the first to talk to him, but I got shy. I was walking towards him ahead of my grandma, but then I slowed down because I realized I didn’t know what to say to him. I couldn’t say, “Hey, Dad!” because I tried calling him “Dad” once and I didn’t like the way it sounded. It’s like calling your parents by their first names—it felt so foreign. He went to prison when I was only eight months old. I never got used to saying the word “Dad” like everyone else.
He looked shocked to see me. He said that I had grown so much that he didn’t recognize me. Talking to him was awkward at first because we hadn’t spoken in so long. I said, “Hi,” and he started asking questions, and then I couldn’t stop talking. After what seemed like a long time, he looked at the clock and told me he had to talk to my grandpa.
When my dad saw my grandpa, he stood up and smiled. I couldn’t see my grandpa’s face, but I could tell he was very happy. I could sense that they just wanted to give each other a hug. They hadn’t seen each other in about 10 years.
Now I’m 15, and I haven’t seen my dad in over a year because he is so far away. It shouldn’t be this hard to go visit him, especially when we only get three hours together. We used to get phone calls from him. The visits used to be five hours long, and I was allowed to hug him. Then he got put back in solitary. Because he’s in solitary, he can’t even get a phone call. That’s inhumane. He can’t have contact with anybody else. I can’t hug him. My grandma can’t hug him. We can’t sit around a table and just talk and be a part of the same conversation. Don’t I have the right to speak with, see, and touch my dad?
When I get to see him again, I’m going to tell him about the plays I have been performing in and how my first year of high school was kind of great. I’m going to tell him about my new friends and my plans for the future, like going to college and traveling the world doing theater. I hope that in a few years he will be out and we can go camping like he said we would. I just can’t wait to talk to him. When I do, I’ll make sure to tell him how much I miss him.
Xitlally Lupian attends Metwest High School in Oakland. She is a youth advocate for Project WHAT!
Read our expert’s essay about the challenges of growing up incarcerated parents.
Learn more about Project What! at communityworkswest.org/program/project-what