Captive Lives: The ‘Invisible Victims’ of Incarceration

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Luna Garcia swipes through the photos on her phone until she finds it — the one of a young man with a slight mustache standing against a wall, his blue shirt neatly pressed, holding a chubby baby girl.

It’s the kind of picture someone might snap at a holiday dinner, a grainy image of a girl and her dad. But just out of the frame are armed guards and metal doors. It was visiting day at San Quentin State Prison.

It’s a rare photo of Luna with her father. Now 17, she doesn’t have any of him at birthday parties or science fairs. Jose Garcia was serving two years in San Quentin when she was born and has been in and out of incarceration ever since. In the few photos she does have, she can trace the passing years by the colors of his prison jumpsuits.

“He tells me that’s the only thing he knows how to do,” Luna says, her voice flat, resigned. “Prison is all he knows.”

Jose Garcia, who has served time primarily for drug offenses and auto theft, isn’t the only one paying a price for his crimes. Luna is, too. She carries the burden and the stigma of having a father who is not just absent but behind bars, a fact that studies show gives her and children like her long odds at success in life.

Luna Garcia places items into her locker after graduating from June Jordan School for Equity. 

An estimated 10 million children in the U.S. have parents who have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. According to “Shared Sentence,” a recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child health and welfare organization, such children have a greater chance of experiencing physical and mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.

Their families are less likely to be financially stable and more likely to be homeless. At school, they are more likely to be suspended or expelled or drop out.

Many are byproducts of the country’s move toward tough-on-crime policies, which have helped swell the overall jail and prison population to 2.3 million people, more than four times the total imprisoned in 1980.

For every incarcerated parent in San Francisco, there’s a child like Luna. Like Arvaughn Williams, 17, whose father was in and out of jail until he was shot and killed four years ago. Or Leila Soto, 17, who hasn’t seen her father since he was sent to prison when she was 4.

Yet the needs of children like these have been largely ignored. Government efforts to help them are scant. Unlike for children in poverty or English learners, there is no consistent funding designated to aid them.

“It is an enormously important issue, but it remains a subtext to this country’s ongoing epidemic of mass incarceration,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. “In this rush to lock ’em up, three strikes and you’re out, we’ve been completely blind to the impact on families.”

There are indications, though, that the issue is beginning to gain public attention. Researchers and policymakers are acknowledging a link between these children’s plight and the overall health of their communities. In San Francisco — where on any given day 1,300 boys and girls have a parent locked up — schools are ramping up programs to raise awareness and create support among educators.

The San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, a coalition of service providers, public agencies and advocates, distributes a “Bill of Rights” to highlight the unique needs of these children. Even TV’s “Sesame Street” created a character, Alex, whose dad is in prison.

In some ways, Luna has been luckier than many like her. Though she has struggled at times, with sadness and anger overcoming her, she has loving relatives close by. She’s found programs that have offered her a place to vent, to learn, to advocate on her own behalf.

But, as she navigated her last months of high school this year, her father’s absence was a constant shadow, just as it had always been. It followed her as she tried to plan for college, to pass her year-end finals, to make it to graduation.

Most children of incarcerated parents — or CIPs (pronounced sips), as some call themselves — don’t want to talk much about their lives. Even those willing to talk can be guarded, mistrustful, sometimes angry. No one understands what CIPs go through, they say. And no one seems to want to.

….For children of incarcerated parents, school is often overwhelming. They have higher rates of absenteeism and are more likely to be suspended and drop out. Just 15 percent of children who have had an incarcerated father, and 2 percent of those with an incarcerated mother, earn a college degree, compared with 40 percent of all others, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report.

For some, a parent’s imprisonment has more severe impacts. Researchers compare the trauma experienced to that associated with child abuse, domestic violence and divorce, and say it can lead to behavioral problems, low self-esteem and drug or alcohol abuse.

Though research is mixed, some studies indicate children of incarcerated parents are up to three times more likely to enter the criminal justice system themselves.

Children of color are disproportionately affected. One in 9 black children in this country has had an incarcerated parent, compared with 1 in 28 Latino children and 1 in 57 white children, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Yet instead of finding support in school, these children are often stigmatized. And many educators are ill-equipped to understand and deal with their situation, said Rachel Davis, managing director of the Prevention Institute in Oakland, which focuses on health equity and prevention of violence, trauma and chronic disease.

“They’re dealing with that day in and day out, and then we expect them to come into a classroom and learn,” she said.

The rate of failure for such students stunned San Francisco school district leaders when they began to examine the issue earlier this year.

In March, the school board took action. It adopted one of the first resolutions in the nation requiring its staff to address the impact of incarceration on children by, among other things, increasing training for counselors, teachers and staff.

The district also will develop curriculum that addresses the impact of incarceration, perhaps in health or civics classes. And it is adding questions about incarcerated parents to its annual anonymous student survey, which has been used to assess the presence of other risk factors, like violence, drugs and sex. School enrollment forms don’t identify which students are CIPs, and officials want to know where help and support are needed most.

Board President Matt Haney, who sponsored the measure, said these children are often “invisible victims.”

“Without their schools on their side,” he said, “things can be even worse.”

….Whether children should visit incarcerated parents has been the subject of debate. Some warn against it, noting the potential trauma of seeing dad or mom in inmate attire amid armed guards. But a growing consensus of experts considers the interaction beneficial to children, and studies suggest locked-up parents do better as well.

“The isolation, the lack of really understanding where their parent is, is much worse,” said Ruth Morgan, founder and executive director of Community Works West, an Oakland nonprofit group that seeks to break the cycle of incarceration.

While state and federal prisons generally allow in-person visits with some minimal physical contact, county jails typically keep visitors separated from inmates by thick glass. Only a handful of counties, including San Francisco, have programs offering contact visits for parents and minor children.

…Oakland resident Zoe Wilmott, 25, remembers many details from childhood visits with her mother in the federal penitentiary in Dublin: The men with guns. The hot paper run across her fingers to test for drug residue. The joy felt as the mothers filed in to see their kids, the tears as they said goodbye.

…Wilmott later decided to help other children with jailed parents. She became director of Project What, a leadership program that enlists children of incarcerated parents to raise awareness about their struggles and to advocate for policy changes. An arm of Community Works West, it’s one of a few such programs of its kind.

“They need someone who is not going to pity them, but demonstrate understanding,” said Willmott, who ran the program until early this year.

“It is a place where they can really voice their anger about their situation.”

And, as Luna would discover, a place that helped her see she was not alone, and didn’t need to feel ashamed.

Luna joined Project What as a sophomore, becoming one of about 30 CIPs in the program at any given time. Another recruit was Arvaughn Williams, a student at City Arts and Technology High School.

Project What — an acronym for We’re Here and Talking — pays its young members to go out into the community: They travel to Sacramento, speak at hearings, and tell their stories to social workers, cops, lawyers and politicians. Paid $14 an hour to start, they gain work experience, some financial independence, and learn that they can make a difference.

Project What youth were instrumental in the development of San Francisco school district’s new policy. They have worked with law enforcement officials on changing arrest protocols, to help prevent the trauma associated with a child seeing a parent handcuffed. The group also spearheaded the effort that placed an initiative on the November ballot to lower the voting age to 16 in San Francisco elections.

Last year, after discussions with Project What, former San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi lowered the minimum age for unsupervised visits at County Jail to 16 from 18, the general threshold in other California jurisdictions.


As her high school graduation approached, Luna couldn’t help thinking of a promise her father had made to her more than once when she was younger.

“I’ll always be there no matter what,” he’d said. “I’m going to make sure I’m there.”

By this time, she knew he was jailed in San Mateo County, facing charges including resisting arrest and auto theft. She also knew it meant he would break his promise.

On commencement day, Luna wore a nervous smile as she adjusted her mortarboard, trying to keep it in place with a slew of bobby pins. The cap, and her class’ gowns, were a muted gray color.

“I don’t like it,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “It reminds me of prison.”

She zipped up her gown and filed into the auditorium with her classmates to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Once the graduates were seated on stage, the Jordan School’s co-director, Jessica Huang, greeted them, then turned to the audience. Her message for this day: the importance of family.

“Family is about love, commitment and dedication,” she said. “Family is about seeing the good in people no matter what.”

She turned back to the graduates.

“You are here,” Huang told them, “because of your family, which is sitting here cheering for you in body and spirit.”

If the words stung, Luna didn’t show it. On this day, she would say later, she was caught up in the moment, in the achievement. She was graduating, knowing she’d attend San Francisco City College in the fall. Several family members were there for her. She didn’t notice the many dressed-up dads in the crowd snapping photos with their phones.

Her father hadn’t made it, but she had.

Information, resources about children of incarcerated parents

Where to learn more about children of incarcerated parents:

“Shared Sentence,” Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2016

“Collateral Costs,” Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010

“Parents Behind Bars,” Child Trends, 2015

Community Works West

San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership

American Bar Foundation, White House parental incarceration workshop 2013

Jill Tucker, an education writer for The San Francisco Chronicle, is a 2016 John Jay/Solutions Journalism Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged version of a story published this month in the Chronicle, as part of Tucker’s project for the fellowship, which is aimed at strengthening reporting on solutions to violence in America. The full version is available here. Jill welcomes readers’ comments.


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