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Meet the invisible victims of criminal justice: Children

More than 2.5 million children in America have a parent in prison; they told us how they cope.

NEW YORK – More than 1 million women in the U.S. are serving time in prison. And the majority of them are mothers with at least one child under the age of 18. 

That means there are more than 2.5 million children in America with an incarcerated parent. 

While women are incarcerated, and even after they are released and serve probation, it can be difficult to maintain relationships. It can be difficult, too, for children to cope with having a parent behind bars.

The stigma around families and prison is real, says Sharon Content, who has struggled to support one of her own family members serving a prison sentence. The experience inspired her to start Children of Promise NYC, a nonprofit organization trying to provide a better safety net for families in the prison system and, in turn, break what is too often a generational cycle of incarceration.

“You’d be surprised [at] the [number] of individuals who say ‘I never thought about that population.’ They say, ‘Well, the parent made a decision. It’s their fault that their child is now dealing with this particular issue or challenge,’” Content said.

CPNYC runs an after school program that provides an emotionally safe space for children, whether that means offering therapy, music lessons, time to write letters to incarcerated family members or ways to let off steam. 

“The child wears that burden [of a parent in prison],” Content said. “You’ve lost your mom but then you’re not able to receive the support and sympathy and understanding from society.”

America Tonight was invited to sit down with CPNYC students at a roundtable discussion led by a licensed therapist. Here's what they shared with us. 

Matthew, 17

America Tonight

Matthew is a year away from turning 18. He’s never met his father.

He spends a lot of time thinking about whether he’ll get to have a relationship with his dad; whether he’ll have a chance to learn things, father to son. He gets frustrated because he feels some people are proud to say their parent is in jail. To Matthew, it’s a source of shame.

Because of that, he told us he spent years acting out in class.  

“[If] anybody [said] anything to me, I just blacked out and just started attacking him. And I used to fight a lot, not knowing like there was a way to get over it,” he said. “And just doing that, like I used to do a lot of things like curse teachers out, be highly disrespectful.”

  A lot of children with incarcerated parents can act like that, he told us. For him, CPNYC helped.

“I just learned how to … not to react to everything. I have to think about it before I actually act,” he said. “When I started coming here, I stopped fighting and I stopped acting up, like all the anxiety attacks I used to have [happened less].”

“Coming to COPNYC, actually helped me to say like, you know what, you're going to find your purpose,” he said.  “They helped me and I'm here. I know my purpose. I know who I am … I'm not blind to society no more, because of them.” 

Legasii, 11

America Tonight

Legasii was 8 years old when he realized his father was selling drugs on the street.

His father was a principal who retired to the Jersey Shore. But when Legasii came to visit, his father started coming home with piles of cash.  

“I'm wondering, ‘Why?’” he said. ”I already knew everything about drugs and what, what effect they have on you and what they can do to your body and what they can do with your relationships with your family.”

He figured out his father was selling meth on the corner for $50 a piece. One night, he sold some to an undercover cop on the beach.

“He ran in the house and slammed the door,” Legasii recalled. “I was saying, ‘What happened?’ And then, he said, ‘Just shut up and stand by the door.’ And he had a bunch of weapons in his closet, like pistols, BB guns, knives, machetes, and then he told me to carry one. I refused. I ran out the house and ran down to the shore, and that's where my aunt was. I ran down to the shore and then she grabbed me as hard as I grabbed her.”

Since his father was arrested, Legassi doesn’t like talking about him; he has a hard time controlling how he’ll react.

“Somebody would bring up well something about my father, [and] adrenaline would just rush everywhere … I would just black out,” he said. “After I go crazy, I [don’t] remember a thing what happened. All I remembered was that I was just standing up there, I don't know how I ended up like, like 16 yards away.” He added: “It's really aggravating because say we're in class — like one of my favorite subjects, science — and then somebody would be talking about my dad when they're trying to make fun of me, and then I'll go in my frenzy mode and freak out and then I'll miss a whole lesson."

Day to day, he worries about how his father is doing — and misses the contact he had with his father before he was relocated to a high-security prison. 

“Back then, I knew I had somebody else to take care of me, but now I'm not so sure,” he said.

Gabby, 12

America Tonight

Gabby was 7 years old when she first saw her father, who went to prison when she was very young.

“When I went to go see him, I was very excited because I hadn't seen him in a very long time,” she said. “When I first saw him, he was like a stranger to me. Because I didn't know who he was until my mom told me. And I was very happy.”

It wasn’t always that way. Gabby started coming to COP NYC when she was 6 years old. She was overwhelmed with anger and confusion thinking about her father, often running to cry and scream in the corner of the hallway. 

But meeting her father — and working through her feelings with counselors — changed everything.

“He called more often, he checked up on me. He wrote letters, he sent pictures. So when he did that, it  opened up a section in my heart because my father was finally in my life,” she said. “I was staring to know him and stuff, so it, it was more  exciting than heartbreaking to go see my dad.”

She said her counselors have helped her better work through her feelings.  

It was a place where you could talk to people who understand your problems. It was a safe haven towards you. It was a place to help you and let your emotions flow out of you without people having to judge you in any kind of way,” she said. “It changes the way you want to be yourself. It changes the way of how you feel.”

Makai, 10

America Tonight

When 10-year-old Makai’s school had a career day, all he wanted was for his mother to come.

When the day came, and his parents weren’t there, everyone asked why. Makai told them they lived in Orlando, Florida. In reality, his mother is in prison. 

The stigma around having parents in prison has been hard for Makai.

“I don’t want people to make fun of me,” he said.

He misses having his mom around, he says, especially when she’d take he and his brother out on their dirt bikes.

“I brought a weapon to school cause I thought if I did what my mom did that then I'd be able to be with her,” he said.

“I don't like it when people talk about my parents, but mostly with my mom, I get upset and then I just like my brain shuts off, and then I just start fighting,” he said. “And then, after I notice what I've done, I still want to go at you.”

Still, he’s gotten better about not fighting. 

“I used to not even care if I got in trouble, but now I actually care and I don't have to fight,” he said. “Before when I was fighting, I didn't even know who I really was. I just know everybody branded me as a fighter and I really didn't care about getting into trouble. But now, I know who I really am as a person.” 

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