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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “The Shadow System: Mass Incarceration and the American Family,” by Sylvia A. Harvey, published by Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. In it, Harvey chronicles three families’ stories, each of which shines a light on the brutal, dehumanizing and exploitative effects that America’s prison-industrial system has on families of the incarcerated. This section details an in-person father-daughter visit that takes place under Florida’s Children of Inmates (COI) program.
Niyah stands over the stove, shaking taco seasoning onto the browning ground beef. Eager for another step, she calls out to her paternal grandmother, Cynthia Johnson. “Can I add water?” No, Cynthia replies from the living room. “The beef will make its own juice,” she informs the ten-year-old girl. Niyah moves on to the next task. Her small, untrained hand tries to steady the head of iceberg lettuce. After a few tries, she gets it, forcing the trimming knife down, cutting wedges. Her eyes widen with pride. She smiles to herself. Her mother, Ayana, doesn’t allow her to use a knife at home, or cook.
Cynthia has played a central role in raising Niyah from the beginning. Randall, Niyah’s father, is Cynthia’s youngest son. He went to prison before Niyah was born. She watched her for long stretches when she was a baby, and she kept her many summers through the years. They still spend a lot of time together, and it’s less of a strain on Cynthia now because Niyah is mostly self-sufficient. They watch movies with Niyah cuddled underneath her grandma, or they take trips to Overtown, a neighborhood of Miami where Niyah’s grandmother and father grew up, to take a dip in the public pool. Most times Niyah shares random facts with her grandmother: something she saw on the news, read in a book, or learned in class. They can range from why the rapper Childish Gambino featured a man shooting up a church choir in his music video, “This Is America,” or how many bites one must take to properly chew their food.
Cynthia and Niyah make it an early night so that they’re prepared for their early morning. They’re going to see Niyah’s father in prison. He is serving time for a first-degree murder conviction. The duo participates in quarterly prison visits with a program called Children of Inmates (COI), which was started with a planning grant in 2005 to provide services to address the unmet needs of children of incarcerated parents. It is similar to programs in New York and California. Niyah has visited her father through the program consistently for a little over eight years.
COI takes hundreds of children and their caregivers living in Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa, and other parts of Florida to more than a dozen correctional institutions quarterly. In addition to these Bonding Visits, the organization connects children of incarcerated parents with wraparound services — including support groups and crisis prevention—that aim to ease the burden of having a parent in prison.
Four percent of American children, or 2.7 million, currently have an incarcerated parent; that’s 1 in 28 kids. Thirty years ago, that number was 1 in 125. Unsurprisingly, there are stark racial disparities, which have widened significantly. While 1 out of every 57 white children (1.8 percent) had an incarcerated parent, 1 in 28 Hispanic children (3.5 percent) and 1 out of every 9 black children (11.4 percent) had a parent behind bars. In 2016, Niyah was one of more than 300,000 children in Florida who have experienced parental incarceration.
The next day, Niyah is calm, walking barefoot through the metal detectors with familiarity. Then, Cynthia and Niyah enter a small room with white walls, a blue door, and sheets of paper covering the window that separates them from the families who have been through security and are already in their visits in the next room. When it is Niyah’s turn, she giggles as the guard passes her hand up her legs and arms. She’s ticklish and can’t keep from laughing. Her straight, white teeth are a striking contrast to her black skin, and her braids move along with her as her body shakes with laughter. On some visits she encounters a guard who is familiar with how ticklish she is, so the guard will search her until she is on the floor, buckled in laughter.
Niyah doesn’t associate the searches with surrendering her freedom in exchange for seeing her dad. These Bonding Visits have helped ensure that Niyah doesn’t feel the real restrictive nature of visiting her father in prison. They are nothing like the visits that hundreds of thousands of other children across the country experience. Niyah has never experienced a prison guard’s watchful gaze following her as she moves around on her father’s lap. Her mother and her grandmother have never been told that they’re too close to Randall.
(Illustration by Sangoiri via Shutterstock)
The Bonding Visits last from three to four hours and provide a different kind of access for children and their incarcerated parents. Unlike visitation in regular correctional settings, here these children are able to touch, hug, and be held by their incarcerated parent without consequence. They receive new toys, have scheduled learning and bonding activities, can play games, and are served a warm catered family meal with dessert.
When the children enter the visiting room, they see several long, adjoining tables topped with toys and games that COI staff and volunteers have brought from their massive arsenal. This visit, her father has already picked something for her: Scrabble and a three-in-one game of chess, checkers, and tic-tac-toe.
Cynthia and Niyah meet him at the table and embrace. They hug and chat among themselves for a few minutes before sitting down. Randall has dark skin and a slight build and stands five foot ten. The thirty-one-year-old sports a goatee and mustache. The crown of his head is slightly balding. He has a small white towel in his right back pocket. He wears a blue chambray top and bottom. He’s written his nickname, Box, with a blue marker on the white square nametag on his shirt. His serious demeanor melts when he sees his daughter, his cheeks lifting, his white teeth revealed.
At the table, Randall has already opened the Scrabble board. He and Niyah sit side by side. When he explains that she can make up a word, Niyah, already suspicious, turns toward her grandmother for confirmation. Her father continues explaining the rules. Niyah twirls her braids in her hand as she listens. She leans into the table; her green school uniform sweater hangs off her shoulder. Soon they will be playing an intense game of Scrabble, a father challenging and building his daughter’s vocabulary. Niyah’s eyes are fixed on the board, but she is noticeably stiff as she tries to focus to impress her dad. She tries to make a word and Randall reminds her, “It’s my go. You just went.” Cynthia chimes in. “She’s anxious.”
The last visit, three months ago, was all fun and games. Jenga, a game of physical skill, and Uno, the kids’ card game, reigned. It was Randall, Niyah, and his sister April. Whenever Niyah removed a wooden block, her dad followed, pushing the wooden blocks back together to fix the unstable structure or giving her tips on where to pull the next block to prevent the tower from falling. After making it to the next round, Niyah rewarded herself by eating a vanilla Grandma’s cookie she got from the vending machine. For lunch, they had BBQ chicken, rice, and veggies. Watermelon was a healthy dessert. Randall has told Niyah how awful the food is inside the prison, so she often gives her dad food from her plate. She can always have a good meal at home, but she knows that he can’t.
The visit on this summer day is more about developing her skills. Once they have had enough of Scrabble, Randall pulls out the chess pieces. “Oh man, you’re gonna make her play that?” Cynthia asks. He tells his mom and daughter that checkers and tic-tac-toe are too easy. Randall is always looking for something to stimulate him while in prison, and his daughter is always ready to be challenged herself. Niyah, again, leans forward in her chair, ready to listen to her dad.
Randall is fiercely curious about child development and tries to nurture Niyah’s talent. When she was an infant, he asked COI staff for literature on infant brain development. Niyah was born prematurely at six months. She was one pound, one ounce and doctors didn’t expect her to survive. If she did, they said, she would have severe learning disabilities and be visually impaired. She wasn’t. Instead she’s seen as gifted in the eyes of the many adults who engage her, including her teachers at school.
Randall’s question about brain development helped motivate COI to establish a program called Babies N’ Brains, a nine-week course that teaches prisoners about infant brain development and child wellness. The program offers benefits to more than parents in prison; it offers comprehensive support services for their children through age five, conducts family home safety and wellness checks, creates individualized case plans, and enrolls the kids in health insurance plans. At the time, the program had seen three infants of parents in their COI program die from preventable causes within six months of one another, which encouraged them to start the Babies N’ Brains program to teach parents about their infants’ development.
Emerging research had studied the importance of the first three years of a child’s life, during which 80 percent of the brain is developed. As such, the first half of the course teaches the parents the theory of brain development, and the second half is an applied learning laboratory in which COI brings the children and incarcerated parents together for a visit. These visits allow the incarcerated parents to organically interact with their kids and apply what they learned in the class. The visiting room is outfitted with baby mats, developmental toys, and a puppet theater. COI staff observe the interaction and then take that information to work with the incarcerated parents to help them improve on any parenting weaknesses they might display.
Seeing his daughter only four times a year is challenging for Randall. As each visit approaches, he’s “excited” but admits, “It feels like business sometimes. I don’t get to probe into her personality.” In one visit he’s tasked with covering a lot of ground. “I want to show her I love her, maybe teach her some lessons. I have to encourage her. I have to reprimand her. I try to fill so many things in one visit.” Because Niyah is advanced in many areas, it has led her to think she knows more than she actually does, her father says. Once he was reviewing math problems with her, which got a little complicated. When he tried to break down the mathematical formula to one of the problems, she rejected it, but without sound reason. “She believes in her own smartness,” he says. “It might be hard to change her mind, even when she’s wrong.”
In the end, he thinks, she enjoys the back and forth dynamic he permits. “No one else allows her to express herself in that kind of way,” he says. “They always like, ‘shut up’ and ‘don’t talk back.’” Her mother doesn’t offer her the same latitude. When Niyah starts asking too many questions, she’s met with her mother’s, “Because I said so.” Her father agrees that she can be hardheaded. “She don’t know when to listen sometimes.” But he wants to allow her the flexibility to think and challenge him. Making sure she doesn’t go overboard is a juggling act. “Sometimes I be conscious of risking making her mad during a visit,” he says. “It’s so little time.”
Randall and Niyah have developed a close relationship despite his incarceration. He is sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Prisoners sentenced to LWOP remain in prison for the rest of their lives. His relationship with Niyah has thrived in part thanks to the cell phone he’s managed to get behind the walls. He went in when he was twenty years old and has been in prison his daughter’s entire life. Niyah doesn’t know her father’s crime or sentence. She just believes he’s coming home “soon.”
This article has been adapted from “The Shadow System: Mass Incarceration and the American Family,” by Sylvia A. Harvey. Copyright © 2020. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Sylvia A. Harvey reports at the intersection of race, class, and policy. Her work has appeared in The Nation, VQR, ELLE, Colorlines, the Feminist Wire, The Appeal, and more. She is the recipient of a National Headliner Award and a National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Salute to Excellence award. The Oakland native holds a BA in sociology from Columbia University and an MS in journalism from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Harvey lives in New York City. Her commentary on race and the criminal justice system has been featured on NPR, WBAI, Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan, HuffPost Live, Radio Curious and beyond.