From Jail to Yale
“Let’s play me and you against our moms,” Lorenzo yelled across the patio. It was the beginning of another summer in Bedford Hills New York, just an hour’s drive north of Manhattan along the Saw Mill River Parkway. It must have been the twelfth volleyball game of the day and we had already played with every possible combination of teams. I too preferred to play with Lorenzo against our mothers. We always won, but it required teamwork and all our attention. After the exhausting volleyball game, we had a water fight, the object of which was to become as soaked as possible. Finally, we retreated inside to the cool of the air conditioning for lunch. It was our favorite day of the week - Wednesday - when our mothers ate McDonald’s with us.
Lorenzo and I had become friends over the years even though he was three years older than I and we attended different schools. Those summers provided an abundance of potential playmates, but Lorenzo was my favorite; we had a special bond. I looked up to him, and he let me tag along.
After that summer Lorenzo and I lost touch. Our moms remained friends, but I guess he was growing up and so we went our separate ways. I didn’t hear any news about him for a couple of years, but then my mom told me he’d won an essay writing contest. The prize was a meeting with the governor of New York and a trip to Egypt. He was excelling in the sixth grade, and I was still struggling to read. Our whole community in Bedford was so proud of him. Knowing that he would see the pyramids made me envious.
Our Bedford Hills is not the privileged Westchester County community filled with the estates of New York City’s elite refugees. My Bedford, Lorenzo’s Bedford, is the women’s maximum-security prison located on the edge of town. Prisons became an intricate part of our childhood; as children with incarcerated parents, our chances of becoming incarcerated ourselves increase six-fold.
After a hiatus of more than a decade, I saw Lorenzo on a windy Thursday morning in October of 1999. I eagerly anticipated our meeting - what would he be like? How much would we have in common? We had exchanged a few letters arranging to meet, and all of a sudden he was walking toward me. Wearing green pants and a red polo shirt, he looked nothing like I remembered. His hair was in cornrows and his tall, strong body complemented his good looks. Our eyes met for a moment, but I felt self-conscious and looked away. Finally we said hey and exchanged an awkward hug - hindered further by the wide table separating us. Our journeys had left us in radically different positions: he was incarcerated at Great Meadows Correctional Facility, and I was at Yale University.
I was preparing for my first year at Yale when I heard that my father had met Lorenzo; they were incarcerated in the same upstate New York maximum-security prison. I know a lot of brilliant, kind people in prison, but my childhood friendship with Lorenzo and the intersections of our lives puzzled me. Why was he in prison while I was in my freshman year at Yale?
It was exciting to see Lorenzo and my father. We huddled at one end of the long table that runs the length of the Great Meadows visiting room. Lorenzo and my dad were on the prisoners’ side, and Jeff, a friend who had driven me, and I occupied the visitors’ side. I was there primarily to talk with Lorenzo, but it had been several months since I had last seen my dad, so all four of us chatted for awhile about college life and my challenge at college of balancing academics with Varsity crew. Eventually Lorenzo and I broke off into a private conversation. I wanted to hear his perspective on the different courses our lives had run.
I came with a simple, straightforward view: Lorenzo’s childhood and his mother’s incarceration must have led him to prison. He disagreed. “I was stupid,” he said. According to Lorenzo, his incarceration was his fault; he had no excuses. Before long we were having a typical nature versus nurture argument. We could have been in a Yale dorm room. The odd thing was the sides we had chosen to argue. According to society’s standards, I had achieved a measure of conventional success. Yet I attributed that primarily to my support and surroundings. Lorenzo on the other hand, was not an actively productive member of society yet was demanding responsibility for his life. He claimed that he had enjoyed all the advantages necessary, but that he had made different choices. Contextualizing our experiences as children of incarcerated parents, Lorenzo and I agreed that we are by no means anomalies.
It turns out that nationally, according to conservative estimates, there are 1.9 million children with parents in prison. The numbers are far greater if all the children who have had a parent incarcerated at some point during childhood are included. We are the unseen, forgotten victims of America’s war on crime. Our numbers have dramatically increased over the past decade as the nation’s race to incarcerate has led to the imprisonment of more and more parents.
When my mother and my father were sentenced to 20 years to life, and 75 years to life, respectively on robbery and felony murder charges, so was I. Lorenzo’s mother, along with 68 percent of incarcerated women, is serving time for a nonviolent crime. Her offense was drug related, as are those of one third of incarcerated women. When she was sentenced to a staggering 17 years to life under New York State’s Rockefeller drug laws, so were Lorenzo and his younger sister. The majority of prisoners in this country are parents with more than one child.
Since our mothers’ incarcerations, the number of women in prisons has climbed faster than any other group, although men still account for 94 percent of the United States’ prison population. The number of female inmates has grown at an annual rate of almost 9 percent for the last decade: an increase of 573 percent since 1981, the year my parents were arrested. The rate of incarceration for men has increased by 7 percent annually. These numbers are competitive with stock market returns even during the unprecedented boom of the 1990s. Given the extraordinary growth in the prison industry, perhaps it should come as no surprise that we now have several private prison companies with stocks traded on Wall Street.
Like our mothers, nearly 80 percent of women in prison have kids with an average of 2.4 children each. Lorenzo, who has no children of his own, is in the minority since 55 percent of men in prison are fathers, each with an average of 2 children. What happens to all these kids?
Lorenzo, determined to convince me that if anything he had had an easier life, asked me how old I was when my parents were arrested, and how hard the separation had been for me. I was fourteen months old. I suffered from early developmental problems and told Lorenzo that as a child I was diagnosed with learning disabilities and petit mal, a form of epilepsy. I got into trouble at school and had a violent temper, as do 69.9 percent of children with incarcerated parents. Lorenzo, who was already nine when his mother was arrested, was able to stay with his grandmother and maintain contact with his father, who was never incarcerated. He held that my separation from both my parents at such a young age represented a larger obstacle than his mother’s incarceration did for him.
Knowing that only 1 out of 11 children of incarcerated parents remain with a primary caregiver, I was surprised to hear that Lorenzo, like me, made only one switch. He moved from his parents to his paternal grandmother, and I went from my parents to friends of theirs who already had two sons, my instant brothers. Although neither Lorenzo nor I claimed an advantage in this regard, there is actually a direct correlation between the number of times a child changes primary caregivers and the problems he or she suffers in school. With only one change, nearly 20 percent of kids have problems in school; two changes raise the percentage to 30, and suffering three or more changes increases the percentage to 50.
Despite the fact that we both had relatively stable family lives, I was fairly certain that he hadn’t had the same opportunities as I to maintain contact with his mother. In fact, less than 50 percent of children ever visit their incarcerated mothers. Lorenzo told me that he and his sister had lived with their paternal grandmother because their maternal grandparents were so angry with their daughter that they refused to allow any contact. He admitted that he had not visited his mother regularly since our summers together, but maintained that he had a strong relationship with her nonetheless. Anyway, Lorenzo countered, unlike me and most children of incarcerated parents, he lived just an hour away from his mother. Some studies indicate that over 60 percent of such children live more than 100 miles away from their parents’ prison. This challenge is particularly large for the 10 percent of children whose families lack the resources to keep them out of foster care. Although Lorenzo and I both come from families with adequate resources to keep custody, our families and our socioeconomic backgrounds differ.
Financial resources played a significant role in my development. Even at age seven, when my adoptive family moved to Chicago, we had enough money for my flights to New York to visit my parents. I was in touch with my parents throughout my childhood, seeing them almost monthly and through frequent letters and phone calls. Once I arrived in New York, I relied on numerous friends of my parents for places to stay and rides to prisons. I never had to worry about the long distance collect calls from their correctional facilities which cost $3.33 for the first minute and $.33 for each additional minute. My adoptive family frequently pays over $300 per month for the phone bill alone.* These luxuries made the development of sustained and deep relationships with my biological parents possible, bolstering both of my families’ efforts to help me overcome my various problems.
I saw child psychiatrists from kindergarten until I was in the fourth grade. Most children are not able to verbalize their problems so therapists use what is called “play therapy” to help kids express their feelings. My first day at the psychiatrist, I wobbled in and started playing with the blocks. After I had completed my structure, the doctor asked me what I had built. “This is a prison,” I said. Then pointing to two figures in the structure, I continued, “those are my parents in jail,” and directing his attention to the two dolls outside my structure I told him, “those are the parents I live with.”
For some reason I have always been unusually comfortable talking about my parents in jail. When I was younger it was often one of the first things I would tell new acquaintances. Unlike me, the other children I know with incarcerated parents are guarded about their family lives. For me, overcoming the problems connected to my separation from my parents was a long, expensive process that required a massive support network. My stable family life, as I told Lorenzo, enabled me to overcome challenges. I would not have been accepted to the University of Chicago Laboratory School in Chicago, where I had spent the previous twelve years studying, without my adoptive family’s adamant support in the face of a hostile admissions board. Once accepted, I would not have been able to keep up academically without the years of heroic teachers and private tutoring. And, I would likely have been thrown out for all of my disciplinary problems, which included fighting and throwing chairs at teachers, were it not for the support of my psychiatrist and adoptive family. I argued that it was emotional and financial support that afforded me the luxury of attending my high school, boosting my chances of acceptance at a school like Yale.
I told Lorenzo that my prep school sends over 10 percent of its graduates to Ivy league universities, and that 99 percent go on to college. My neighborhood and private school placed me in an environment where that kind of success was expected. I told him that 10 percent of children with incarcerated parents serve prison time at some point in their lives; had his school and neighborhood been as strong a counterbalance to our dramatically increased risk of serving time?
Lorenzo was quick to correct any potential stereotype I might have imagined about his childhood. Growing up he had not faced the same academic or social challenges as I had, and he too lived in a loving environment. Lorenzo told me that he had “always had enough.” His writing had won him statewide recognition and his grandmother made sure he studied hard. The work and discipline paid off and Lorenzo excelled academically, athletically, and socially. Looking back, he told me that he never really felt challenged by his school. He was a star member of several athletic teams, and he attended church every Sunday as his grandmother mandated. Lorenzo was so successful that a family in Bedford Hills that had known him during our summers there made him a generous offer.
The Bedford family was so taken with his charisma, kindness and intelligence that they were willing to let him live with them (just a few minutes away from his mother) and have him attend a wealthy Westchester county school instead of his inner city school. Or, if he would prefer, they were willing to help him gain admission to a prep school for which they agreed to pay tuition. It was his decision. He could to go off to boarding school, move in with them, or stay with his grandmother.
Lorenzo’s decision to stay in Brooklyn with his grandmother and sister is understandable. They are his family, and he had been with them his whole life. As much as he appreciated the offer, he felt more comfortable in Brooklyn. What would he tell all the new kids? It had been hard enough in Brooklyn, and Lorenzo never liked to talk about his mom in prison. After a while he had gotten tired of hiding it, and now enough people knew that he no longer had to explain. He didn’t want to start over.
Despite my own willingness to discuss my family situation with complete strangers, I could identify with Lorenzo’s discomfort. There is a certain stigma or sense of guilt associated with having incarcerated parents. At age four, after speaking on the phone to my mother, I began crying. I repeated, over and over again, “If only I could have talked; if only I could have told them not to go.” Obviously I was not able to talk at fourteen months, let alone convince my parents not to get involved in a robbery. Nevertheless, only a few years later I felt at least partly responsible: I should have been able to stop them. It is natural for a child to assume that if his parents really loved him, they wouldn’t have risked losing him. Lorenzo felt it too.
To this day, he also says he “feels responsible” for his incarcerated mother, and that he “needs to take care of her.” When he was younger, he cared for and respected her by not talking about her outside of the family. To talk about her meant referring to her as a convict or a criminal, disrespectful to her and potentially humiliating for him. Lorenzo remembers going to school events on several occasions and having his grandmother come along. All his friends who had brought their mothers wanted to know why they never met his mom.
Lorenzo’s need to avoid talking about his mother eased up after his trip to Egypt. His family pressured him a bit less. He had proved himself; he deserved a deep breath. Lorenzo had developed separate groups of friends: one at his public school, and the other in his neighborhood in Brooklyn. Gradually he began to feel more comfortable with his friends from the neighborhood. It was easier to see them; he didn’t have to take the bus across town the way he did to meet up with his friends from school. All he had to do was look out the window. He started running with a group of guys who never asked about where his mother was; they didn’t have mothers in the picture either. They had fierce loyalty to each other and to their neighborhood. Lorenzo had always been able to prove himself in school; eventually he felt that he had to prove himself on the streets as well. One time he took it too far.
When Lorenzo was sixteen, he and his friends were riding their bikes, and before any of them knew what was going on, they were confronting a stranger on the street. A fight ensued and when it was over the stranger was severely beaten and hospitalized. Lorenzo was the only one of his group of friends caught.
Lorenzo served 18 months for assault in a youth detention center. When he got out I was just starting high school. By the end of junior high I had finally managed to control my temper and concentrate on academics. I had fewer and fewer outbursts each year, and was only suspended once in junior high. Wanting to keep my options open I promised myself I would take high school seriously and my grades improved. I didn’t know where I would want to go to college, but with good grades I would be able to take my pick. I developed self-discipline and put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Participating on four different athletic teams, being an active member of six or seven other extracurricular groups, as well as being involved with the school theatre and community service kept me busy. After earning enough credits to graduate a year early, I decided to travel for the better part of my senior year. Lorenzo was back in school also. Before long he had finished high school and was working on his associate degree at Monroe College in New York.
When Lorenzo was only a few credits away from finishing his degree, he was arrested again. This time it was for robbery. He had broken into a house and was sentenced to five years.
Throughout his story, Lorenzo emphasized his poor choices and blown opportunities. He also pointed out that he was more mature now and would be able to avoid being reincarcerated once he got out of prison. He insisted that despite all of the challenges I’d faced, the choices I had made were better and that I deserved full credit for my successes. He was right that people make choices.
Needless to say Lorenzo and I did not choose the color of our skins. Lorenzo is black and I am white and we live in a country that incarcerates African-American men at a rate of 6,926/100,000, and white men at a rate of 919/100,000. Lorenzo is 23 years old. Thirty-two percent of black men in their twenties are under some type of correctional control—prison, parole, or probation, while only 6.6 percent white men are under correctional control. In New York State, African Americans make up 12.4 percent of the population but 50.4 percent of those behind bars. In fact non-Hispanic Caucasians make up a paltry 15.5 percent of the prison population. Perhaps our choices paved our individual ways, but I felt that the odds had been stacked from the beginning.
Consider drug offenses as an example. African-Americans constitute 13 percent of the population and a proportionate percentage of all monthly drug users, yet represent 35 percent of arrests for drug possession, 55 percent of convictions and 74 percent of prison sentences for drug related crimes. Just like Lorenzo’s mother, 92 percent of female drug offenders serving time in NY State are women of color while it is estimated that whites account for at least 50 percent of drug use and drug offenses. Lorenzo’s skin color makes him a member of the majority in prisons, but his education makes him a minority. He is close to earning his associate degree, while an estimated 65 percent of male inmates have neither a high school diploma nor a GED.
A partial explanation for these trends is that criminals tend to come from economically disadvantaged families, and a disproportionate number of economically disadvantaged families are minority. But this explanation does not justify an incarceration rate for black men of more than seven and a half times that of white men. Simply by being born a black male in the USA, Lorenzo faced a 29 percent chance of being incarcerated at some point in his life. Further, the chance of incarceration for black men in Brooklyn are considerably higher.
As a white man, I have a 4 percent chance of being incarcerated. My neighborhood, Hyde Park, and prep school, decrease that chance even further. If Lorenzo’s skin did not affect his decision-making capabilities, then the numbers must have had some significance. Lorenzo’s actions resulted in his incarceration, but I still feel that the color of my skin helped keep me out of jail. Lorenzo knows the realities of our criminal justice system far better than I do. He accepted my statistics but still refused to discount his own poor decisions.
The Thursday morning we met was Lorenzo’s first day off work in four months. He works serving breakfast and lunch from four in the morning until one in the afternoon, seven days a week. His job in the mess hall of one of the toughest prisons in New York State pays $0.26 an hour. He has been on “good behavior” and with his parole date only two years off, his counselor recently offered him a transfer to a medium security prison. Lorenzo decided not to accept the offer. Explaining this decision to me, he said “it would be easier to use the move to break up [his] two years.” He was in a good routine, working seven days a week. He would wait another year before transferring to the less repressive and disciplined medium security prison. He was going to make sure he was ready this time.
Our visit ended and I caught a bus back to New Haven. Lorenzo has since written me that our visit inspired him to read widely and think about his upcoming parole date. Our debate reminded me of the burden faced by children of incarcerated parents.
Concern over crime has been mounting, as have the number of prisoners in this country. What about their children? We outnumber the total number of convicts in the US, yet are not guilty of any crime. Is it time for our government to take a more holistic, long-term approach to reducing crime, one that considers the effect of parental incarceration? The war on crime, and drugs in particular, has effectively created a generation of parentless children. Many of us will become incarcerated at some point ourselves.
Before our visit it was easy for me to say, using statistics as evidence, that Lorenzo never had a chance. But meeting with him was an intense reminder that statistics are simply numbers. Prisoners are dynamic human beings. For the time being Lorenzo is in prison, but he will always be more than just a convict. Despite the statistics, people make choices that alter the courses of our lives; that does not mean that we all have the same choices available to us.
Lorenzo and I suffered tragedies as children, but compared to some, even other children with incarcerated parents, we were both privileged in many ways. The contradiction that still troubles me is the different perspectives Lorenzo and I chose. I could argue that my successes so far, overcoming overwhelming odds and difficulties along the way, are purely a result of my choices, hard work, and self-discipline. Instead, I know my successes were made possible by those very difficulties.
Instead of taking credit for where I am, I choose to point fingers. Instead of pointing fingers, Lorenzo chooses to take responsibility. Of course, we are both right, and both wrong. It is impossible to know where Lorenzo and I would be today if our parents had never been arrested, and we both made decisions within the context of our lives. The biggest problem is that too few children with incarcerated parents have adequate options available - too few live in environments that encourage success.
Once on the street, Lorenzo hopes to finish his degree and perhaps become a counselor. I have not thought much beyond Yale. I have not yet decided on my career path, but next year I will choose a major and perhaps eventually attend a graduate school. In the meantime, I hope to maintain my friendship with Lorenzo and eagerly anticipate meeting him outside of the confines of a prison visiting room for the first time in our lives.
The Center for Community Alternatives, http://www.dreamscape.com/ccacny/chips.htm.
D. Johnston, Report No. 13: Effects of parental incarceration (Pasadena, CA: Pacific Oaks Center for children of Incarcerated Parents, n.d.).
D. Gillard and A.J. Beck, “Prisoners in 1997,” Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1998).
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K. Gabel and D. Johnston, 66.
Miller, J.G., Search and Destroy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 110.
Child Welfare League of America, Parents in Prison: Children in Crisis (Washington, DC: CWLA Press, 1997) 13.
* The NY Times recently ran an article on profits from calls made from Correctional Facilities. NY State led the country raking in over 20 million in profit last year alone.
H. Gleitman, A.J. Fridlund, and D. Reisburg, Psychology (New York: WW Norton & Co., 1999) 834.
“Correctional Populations in the United States,” Bureau of Justice Statistics (Rockville, MD: Department of Justice, 1997).
The Sentencing Project, http://www.sentencingproject.org/brief/1035.htm
M. Mauer, and T Huling, Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice system: Five Years later, The Sentencing Project.
Miller, J.G. 82 and The Sentencing Project
The Sentencing Project
T.P. Bonzcar, and AJ. Beck, “Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison,” Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1997).