1.7 million children with incarcerated parents
April 16, 2019
I was 13 years old when my mother told me that my stepfather was going to prison. As I started to cry, my mother grabbed my hand and spoke sternly to me, “It’s okay to cry, but you have to know this right now. Don’t tell anyone in your class. Do not talk about this to your friends or your teacher.”
In the slurry of emotions, I nodded and tried to make sense of a new reality in my home that didn’t involve weekly Sunday dinners with my stepfather’s voice booming over the table or him picking me up from school. This new reality felt scary and abnormal.
As I watched Tre Maison Dasan, a new PBS documentary directed by Denali Tiller, portrays the experiences of all three boys with incarcerated parents in Rhode Island, I became acutely aware of the role that shame had played in my own coming of age with an incarcerated parent. While speaking with AFROPUNK, Tiller said that meeting and working with Dixson-Haskett, a formerly incarcerated woman that Tiller met who wrote L.O.R.T.E. (Levels of Response to Traumatic Events) as a guide to help families and loved ones help children with incarcerated parents, helped the film materialize.
Tiller stated that Dixson-Haskett’s work helps children work through “the grieving process of having an incarcerated parent.” Over time, I learned to use writing as a way to grieve and after a number of years, to confide in friends about my stepfather’s incarceration.
Each of the film’s subjects grapples with having an incarcerated or formerly incarcerated parent in different ways. Dasan is a sensitive six-year-old boy and literally has to have the concept of prison explained to him by his formerly incarcerated mother. Eleven-year-old Maison is still at an age where can is very affectionate with his family, at one point, retells the experience of asking someone to be his Valentine on Valentine’s Day, and must decide if he will move cross country to live with his mother. Tre is 13 years old, loves rap music, and many of the verbal fights he has with his mother reminded me of my relationship with my mom throughout high school.
As a Black man with a formerly incarcerated father, some of the most touching scenes are when Tre’s tough exterior falls away during visits with his incarcerated father. There are numerous times where Tre falls into his father’s arms in tears. During a scene where Tre and his father discuss the mishaps of ankle monitors they’ve been made to wear during probation, Tre’s father says to him, “This is not normal.”
For children with incarcerated parents, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish what is normal or not normal about having an incarcerated loved one. Sometimes I felt sorry for my stepfather and his position, and other times, I was angrier than I could have imagined because of all the lost time. These feelings grew more complicated when I turned 17, graduated from high school, and he rejected my queer identity when I came out to him. Every Father’s Day is still an event of panic on my calendar.
The documentary, however, proved to be a healing, collaborative process for Tre, Maison, and Dasan. Maison helped coordinate interviews with his father while visiting him and at one point, reminds his father not refer to himself as a felon. Tiller and her crew helped film rap music videos for Tre and let Dasan toy around with the camera equipment.
Near the documentary’s end, Tre must go through another grieving process after the death of his mother. Tiller noted that seeing Tre through his experience helped her understand its impact on him through the course of its filming, “It kind of came to a point where the film was the only consistent thing in Tre’s life.”
What should be normalized for the 1.7 million children growing up with an incarcerated parent
are programs, institutions and spaces that help children make sense of their loss. The film, for its subjects, succeeded in this goal and for someone like myself, who has experienced having an incarcerated loved one, it helped to do some healing as well.
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