My small feet thump the concrete as I hurry toward the door. My four older brothers trail closely behind. Upon entering, we disappear into the apartment and excitedly explore every corner. We peek out the window at our new playmates. By morning, the scent of bacon wafts into my bedroom. I look over at the floor beside my bed, where I’d asked my dad to sleep the night before. He’s not there. I don’t cry this time. I suspect he’s nearby, in the kitchen, responsible for the clanging pots. I venture out and there, amazingly, he is: my dad, standing over the stove, pushing frozen hash browns from side to side in the skillet. My brother is whisking eggs in a bowl, and I arrive just in time to put the biscuits in the pan. When breakfast is ready, my dad locks his hazel eyes on us and says, “You kids eat first.”
I was almost 4 when asthma finally sucked the last breath from my mom. After that, Dad made this ritual of “big breakfast” a weekend tradition. This weekend with him was special, though; we lived with Grandma by then, and we were visiting him in a furnished apartment on the grounds of Soledad State Prison as part of the California Department of Corrections’ Family Visiting program.
At least four times a year, my brothers and I were allowed to spend a weekend there with my father, who began serving 16 years to life when I was 5. The night before our visits, I anxiously folded my new pajamas; my grandmother refused to let me sleep in my usual oversize T-shirt while visiting him. Those weekends rate as some of the best moments of my childhood.
Going to prison is often an isolating event. It is assumed that once a person is incarcerated, their former life will simply vanish. But for the kids they leave behind, it doesn’t work that way: That prisoner remains a parent. Among the many collateral consequences of mass incarceration is its impact on children, and the number who are affected is staggering. According to a 2010 study (the most recent data available), 54 percent of the people serving time in US prisons were the parents of children, including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. Over 2.7 million children in the United States had an incarcerated parent. That’s one in 28 kids, compared with one in 125 about 30 years ago. For black children, the odds were much worse: While one out of every 57 white children had an incarcerated parent, one out of every nine black children had a parent behind bars.
After my own father’s sentencing, our love was cocooned in collect phone calls, pictures, weekly letters, and cards on special occasions. These are the fibers that now connect a child to an incarcerated parent. The extended family visits that allowed my brothers and I to have “big breakfast” with Dad are fast disappearing from state corrections systems. Nine states once allowed them; today, they are widely offered in just four. In 1996, California eliminated visits for families like mine; I was 15 at the time. In Mississippi, where “conjugal” visits debuted almost a century ago, the corrections system ended the last of its family and spousal programs last year. A once extraordinarily progressive policy has been sacrificed due to prison overcrowding and state budget cuts—as well as to racist ideas about black sexuality.