Howard Zehr

What Will Happen to Me?  When a parent is in prison

Howard Zehr
August 11, 2010
Filed in: photostories

Preston & Nyveah

Can I give daddy a hug? I wanna give daddy a hug!


Dear Dad. I hope you’re doing fine. I prayed for you and I’m going to pray for you tonight. I hope you won’t have to have any surgery because they hurt. I hope you get your favorite kind of medicine, a flavor that you like. I went to culture night again and this time I didn’t drum. I want to wait until you come home to drum with you because you’re my favorite dad and the best dad I could have. I love you dad. Travis.


I was three when he got locked up. I have some memories - like we were riding on an elephant. It had to be a dream. When he was in prison I had this grudge against him for not being there for me. When I finally got a chance to talk to him I realized he really did love me. Sometimes I dream and he’ll be talking to me, like my conscience. He'll be the person that takes the mask off and tells me how it really is. (Sasha's father was on death row. His conviction was overturned, he was released, then died five years later of untreated hepatitis.)


I felt so sad. I was just crying. It just made my head hurt, my brain hurt, my stomach hurt. It just got control of me, it got my mind twisted, I couldn’t focus on anything else. I couldn't live without her. It was like a curse, it was like a prison. I'm just glad she's back now.


I was 9 when he went in. Now I’m 11. It makes me kind of angry and sad. It’s hard that I really don’t get to spend any time with him. I wish he could get his life straightened out.


My sweet sixteen birthday, I've been planning and planning it. I want a circle with me coming out, with my partner, and then he hands me over to my dad. Then it hits me, my dad isn't gonna be there. It has to be my grandfather. It's gonna be that way – I might as well get used to it. Sometimes I close my eyes and think, 'If he were here, what would happen?' I would have had my full life; it's just half now. I'm starting not to care about it: he's there, I'm over here and I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do.


Life would've been different if my parents hadn't been in prison. I would have been graduating high school this year, going to senior prom and doing all the other stuff kids do instead of growing up too fast. I had to grow up real quick. I’m fixing to be 18, and I never thought I’d make it to see 16. Because I wasn’t in school, I was living on my own on the streets and I thought that somebody would kill me. I thought I’d be dead. But I’m still standing. What I’ve been through has made me who I am today.


My father was locked up fifteen years. I asked my mom and step dad about it. The answers I got said it was something serious but they weren't going to tell me about it. To this day I fear that it could happen to me. If what happened to him happens to me, will I react the same way and put myself in the same position? Maybe one day I'll find out the meaning of all this, why he got locked up and stuff like that. One day it's gonna unravel and I'll find out why. And hopefully make my life better.


I hated my mom when she first went in. I thought she didn’t love us. But I also missed her. People would tell me that she wasn’t in there because she didn’t love us. She was in there because she made a mistake and she did want to get out and be with us. If this does happen to someone, I would tell them to talk to people instead of keeping it in ‘cause it just makes it worse. They love you and they didn’t do it to hurt you; they just made some mistakes.


When I first went to the prison it was hard being able to hug my mama and then can’t take her with me. Now I’m used to it. But I miss my mama and I need her. I had to be the mama for my sisters. My aunt says I’ve never really been able to be a child. I used to be ashamed to say my mom is in prison. But then my auntie told me that it’s not my fault, so it’s nothing I should be ashamed of. I’ll probably have kids by the time she gets out. Taking them to the jailhouse – that’s not where I want them to remember her from.


I don’t really talk about it. (Latrell’s father, who he never met and only spoke to once on the phone, is in prison. His stepfather has been in and out of prison, and his mother, who was also in prison, died of a drug overdose.)


I was mad at the world. I didn’t want to talk to nobody, didn’t want to be around nobody. I took my anger out on other people. I felt like nobody could understand what I was going through ‘cause they probably didn’t have it happen to them. I was just misunderstood. I want other kids to know that even though your parents are locked up, they’re not bad people. They did something that they shouldn’t have done. As long as we have someone that’s there to help us, we can get through it. You have to grow up fast.

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More about this Photo Story

3 million children are estimated to have a parent in prison on any given day in the United States.  These children share the pains of separation experienced by other children who are without regular contact with one or both parents.  Added to this, however, are the special pains of having a parent or parents in prison: shame, guilt, questions, often trauma that crosses generations.

Millions of adults are involved in the care of these children.  Some, like grandparents, may be the primary caregivers.  Others such as teachers, social workers, mentors and school counselors are regularly involved.  The issues raised by these children’s situations can be perplexing and overwhelming.

The project began as a way to give voice and visibility to these often-forgotten children who are so profoundly affected by policies that do not take their needs into account. Rather than speak for them, my colleague Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz and I wanted to provide an opportunity for them to speak for themselves. We also aimed to provide suggestions for caregivers responsible in some way for these children.

This gallery provides a glimpse of this project which has now been released as a book entitled “What Will Happen to Me?” (Good Books, 2011).

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