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.
Programming for Connection and Support
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.
It’s How You Play the Game
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.