Gabrielle Frick | Experiences of Children of Incarcerated Parents

Gabrielle Frick | Experiences of Children of Incarcerated Parents

Fun Facts
Number
2.7 million
Number Description
Children who currently have incarcerated parents
Number
5 million+
Number Description
Children who have had incarcerated parents
Number
80 months
Number Description
Average term being served by parents in state prison
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Photograph of Gabrielle Frick

About the Author
Gabrielle Frick (she/her/hers)

Gabrielle Frick is an undergraduate fellow in the Global Arts and Humanities' 2020-21 Society of Fellows cohort. They are pursuing dual majors in sociology and women's, gender and sexuality studies. Frick hopes to attend graduate school and work with nonprofits for part of their career, with a focus on prison abolition. They are particularly interested in human rights work related to mass incarceration, education, poverty, addiction and LGBTQ+ issues.


Background

With an increasing attention on the carceral state — from police brutality to wrongful convictions — it is important to discuss those impacts of the punitive system and mass incarceration that are not easily visible. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world (Wagner & Bertram, 2020). The United States makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, but has 20% of the world’s incarcerated individuals (Wagner & Bertram, 2020). The impact of mass incarceration reaches beyond the individuals actually incarcerated. In the United States, 2.7 million children (1 in 28) currently have an incarcerated parent (Prison Fellowship, n.d.). More than five million children (7% of all U.S. children) have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives (Prison Fellowship, n.d.).

The needs of children are generally not considered in the incarceration process and sentencing even though they are heavily impacted by the decisions (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). Studies on the impact of parental incarceration gather information from adult sources and emphasize behavioral observations and outcomes rather than the thoughts and feelings of the children (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). There is little information about the impact of incarceration from the perspective of children with incarcerated parents (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). Academic and scientific analyses invisibilize children of incarcerated parents (COIP) by only talking about them rather than engaging in conversation with them. The reality and impact of having an incarcerated parent is obscured when the voices of the children themselves are ignored.

I aim to center the voices of children of incarcerated parents by exploring information about their experiences from their own perspectives, particularly regarding experiences of stigmatization, with a focus on identity, concealability and disclosure. I have a personal stake in this project as a child of incarcerated parents myself. The interplay between concealment and disclosure is innate to this experience, and my work is going to create visibility around this issue and the COIP identity.


Theoretical Framing | Stigmatization

This research is framed by theories of stigmatization. Children of incarcerated parents face social challenges as a result of stigmatization. A stigma is an attribute that discredits the individual and marks them as an unusual and tainted person (Goldstein & Shuman, 2012). Children of incarcerated parents face social challenges as a result of stigmatization. The stigmatization interferes with COIP connecting to others, finding others like themselves and having a sense of belonging (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). Stigma depends on discourses of difference and hierarchies of value based on what is characterized as normal (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). When a group is stigmatized, they are placed outside of what is considered ordinary and acceptable (Shuman & Bohmer, 2012). This ostracizes individuals and categorizes them as othered. Stigmatization assigns, legitimizes and disputes value (Shuman & Bohmer, 2012). In doing so, it also makes things visible, hypervisible and invisible (Shuman & Bohmer, 2012). For children of incarcerated parents, having a parent incarcerated and being intimately connected to the carceral state is stigmatizing.


Findings

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The nuclear family — consisting of children and both parents in the household — is characterized as both normal and expected. It frames individuals with both parents physically present as whole and untainted and those who do not meet the standards of normativity as less than, abnormal and undeserving. For example, growing up, my school would have "Donuts with Dad" and "Muffins with Mom" events every year, where kids would bring their parents to school for breakfast. I experienced a lot of anxiety and stress around the events because I did not have a parent to bring to them usually. I was ostracized, isolated and questioned because my reality did not fit into what was considered normal and acceptable. The absence of parents was constructed as taboo.

My experience is not unique. In a study conducted by Ande Nesmith and Ebony Ruhland, a nine-year-old male respondent shared a similar account: “Well, because you know how kids are? They like, oh where's your dad? We don't hardly see him as often. It's always mom picking you up. And then it starts... then I tell them well, he's in prison. And then they start being smarty pants, and then it turns into a whole conversation, and like, it takes me awhile to get the darn thing out of my head” (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008).

At seventeen, I skipped an award ceremony for a scholarship that I worked extremely hard for because I did not want anyone to know about my COIP identity since my grandparents were going to attend with me. Other children of incarcerated parents experience the same tension around concealing their identities, especially at events where parents are expected to attend. In a listening session with youth of incarcerated parents, they described facing difficulties with the absence of a parent around events like graduation and sporting events (youth.gov). The value put on the nuclear family imposes standards of normativity that are unattainable for most individuals in our current society, and it is one way that COIP face stigmatization.

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The dimension of stigmatization that I want to focus on is how it affects concealment and disclosure through tellability. "Tellability" refers to types of experiences and narratives that can or cannot be talked about (Goldstein & Shuman, 2012). As stigma and normalcy produce each other, what constitutes the tellable and untellable are defined (Shuman & Bohmer, 2012). Experiences are untellable when “rules of appropriateness outweigh import of content” and when the narrator understands the space as unsafe or risky (Goldstein & Shuman, 2012). In my opinion, it is not enough to say that stories are untellable when rules of appropriateness outweigh the significance of content. It is more dehumanizing than that which is why this is a human right concern. Rules of appropriateness and maintaining the status quo are being valued more than the narrator is valued as a human being. This is one way stories and experiences of children of incarcerated parents become untellable.

As a COIP, there were many instances in which I learned that it was not appropriate to talk about my parents’ incarceration. If I were to bring up my parents’ incarceration around my extended family, who all were aware of the situation, I would receive stern looks and hushed scoldings; I was told “that’s something that is private” from the adults. In a study conducted by Ande Nesmith and Ebony Ruhland, a young male respondent shared an experience in which one boy “said that he never talked about his father's whereabouts because that was the family expectation. He said he would tell his friends “my dad was at work because my mom said I'm supposed to keep everything that she tells me and that my dad tells me to myself”” (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008).

Rather than allowing us to talk about our parents’ incarceration and how it affects us, our voices and experiences are silenced and lives devalued in order to maintain rules of appropriateness. The rules of appropriateness are created to perpetuate the marginalization and stigmatization of vulnerable populations and ensure the comfortability of the unmarked. When we talk about our experiences, it forces individuals to examine one’s privilege and position in society and confront the reality of the experiences of marginalized populations, which is uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable for individuals to consider how the carceral system, which is often thought of as the justice system, is harming children. As such, rules of appropriateness determine what should and should not be discussed and in doing so defines what is tellable and untellable. For children of incarcerated parents, rules of appropriateness outweigh the significance of our experiences and is one way our stories become untellable.

Stories also become untellable when the narrator’s comfort or ability is limited as a result of unsafe and risky spaces (Goldstein, 2012). When the narrator feels that sharing their story could put them in an unsafe and risky position, their story becomes untellable. Children of incarcerated parents know there are risks associated with talking about our experiences (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). Children of incarcerated parents are aware of the public discourses and negative assumptions surrounding the COIP identity (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). While we will get more in depth into the public discourse below, the fact that we have awareness of our stigmatization and the negative assumptions about us is enough to render spaces unsafe and our stories untellable.

Stigmatization and tellability impact decisions of disclosure and concealment for concealable, stigmatized identities such as the COIP identity. A concealable, stigmatized identity is a devalued identity or attribute that cannot be immediately recognized by others (Camacho et al., 2019). Examples of other individuals with concealable, stigmatized identities include individuals with mental health diagnoses or individuals who are part of the LGBTQ+ community (Quinn & Earnshaw, 2013).

There is a great tension between disclosing and concealing the COIP experience. The decision to disclose or conceal is significant because it impacts our social interactions, feeling of belonging and physical and psychological wellbeing (Camacho et al., 2019). Since our stories are untellable, there are many more instances in which we conceal compared to when we disclose. Concealing a stigmatized identity allows individuals to pass as non-stigmatized, unmarked individuals, which in turn allows them to escape social exclusion or prejudice (Camacho et al., 2019). This was the reason I concealed and why I went to great lengths to do so.

However, concealment can also lead to social isolation, thought suppression and anticipated stigmatization (Quinn & Earnshaw, 2013). Anticipated stigmatization — negative treatment that an individual believes they might receive if others know about their identity — makes it even more difficult to disclose our identity (Quinn & Earnshaw, 2013). As a COIP, I desperately wanted to share my experience and disclose my identity, but I feared the stigmatization that could come from it. A young male respondent in Nesmith and Ruhland's study, when asked if there was anyone with whom he did not talk to about his dad, but wished he could, replied that he wished he could share with his friends, but he was conflicted about it: “I just want to, but I just don't want them to know, so I don't tell them about my dad.” (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). Disclosure has the ability to increase chances of receiving social support but has the potential for experiences of discrimination (Camacho et al., 2019). At the same time, I was doing everything in my power to conceal my COIP identity, I desperately wanted to tell others about it to connect and feel understood, seen and recognized. I wanted someone to acknowledge my identity and not treat me any differently. I wanted to be able to speak about something that was constructed as this large inescapable part of myself. I wanted to be seen and acknowledged as a COIP and a human being.

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As a child of incarcerated parents, I understand that sharing my experience could lead to ridicule and discrimination as a result of the stigmatization of the COIP identity. Because of that, there are many times that I am not comfortable sharing or am unable to do so which renders my experience untellable. Similarly, in a listening session with youth with incarcerated parents, they wanted others to know that “we are misjudged by many and negatively judged because of our parents or our parents actions” (Youth.gov). There is inherent risk-taking involved in talking about certain personal narratives, especially for people with stigmatized identities (Goldstein, 2012). Since COIP is a concealable, stigmatized identity, and we are so keenly aware of discriminatory discourses about us, a large part of the COIP experience is focused on the decision to conceal or disclose our identity. The anticipated stigma comes from knowledge of the negative societal beliefs about COIP (Quinn & Earnshaw, 2013).

The colloquial phrases “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” and “children follow in their parents' footsteps” represents the societal belief that COIP will end up like our parents: incarcerated. In a listening session with COIP, they wanted others to know that “we are sometimes told we will turn out like our parents, and we are constantly fighting against and running from that judgement” (Youth.gov). While one-out-of-ten children of incarcerated parents will be incarcerated before reaching the age of 18, it is not due to an innate propensity to crime rather it is the result of already being intimately involved with the carceral system and the expansion and policing of bodies connected to the system (San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, 2019). It is not the result of an “innate criminal behavior” or “innate badness." This is what is expressed by the belief that COIP will follow in our parents' footsteps. The societal belief is rooted in socially constructed ideas of good and bad and criminality. It does not recognize the multiplicity and complexity of factors that lead to involvement in the carceral system such as race and socioeconomic status. It creates an entire class of human beings labeled as criminals undeserving of civil and human rights (Davis, 2003). By association that label is also applied to COIP. I was treated with a similar sense of criminality as my parents by my others when they found out about my parents incarceration. I was not allowed over to some of my classmates houses because of my parents incarceration. I was also treated as a “troublemaker” in school by a teacher after she found out about my father’s incarceration. I would receive worse punishments for the same behavior as other classmates. A young female respondent in a study conducted by Nesmith and Ruhland indicated that she experienced discrimination when from school personnel and peers when her identity was discovered (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). Perhaps the most stigmatizing aspect of this negative societal belief is that it positions COIP as foregone conclusions. It makes us have to prove that we are ‘good kids’ during a time when we need support, not suspicion and discrimination. Knowing that there is a pervasive negative belief about us following in our parents’ footsteps also complicates our relationships with our parents and ourselves that we can never begin to understand unless we discuss it which we cannot do when our stories are silenced.

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In sum, value is assigned to nuclear families and individuals that perpetuate and uphold power structures by meeting standards of normativity. As children of incarcerated parents, we are devalued, labeled as less than, dehumanized, marginalized and silenced because we do not meet standards of normativity that uphold systems of oppression.

Rules of appropriateness and risk of discrimination and stigmatization render our stories untellable and our voices silenced. We are othered and ostracized to further oppress and obscure our experiences. All of this is involved in the processes of stigmatization. But why us?  I believe it is because we expose the faults in the carceral system more than any other group. Harm done to individuals incarcerated is frequently (and unjustly) ignored or explained away under this idea of ‘deservedness.’ The carceral system depends on the belief that the individuals incarcerated deserve to be there. The system reduces human beings to their actions during one situation or moment. By dehumanizing incarcerated individuals and reducing their humanity, it makes it easier for society as a whole to believe that the carceral system is just and successful. But when we begin to see the effects of the carceral system on individuals who are not classified as deserving of punitive treatment and harm, it starts to expose the faults in the carceral system. When children — individuals who are often thought of as pure and in need of protection — are directly harmed by the carceral system, something needs to be done prevent that exposure in order to perpetuate the carceral system and ideologies that uphold it. As a result, COIP are devalued and silenced which renders their experiences and identities invisible and in turn works to perpetuate the carceral system and hide the harm done to humanity directly and indirectly involved.  The devaluation of COIP ignores their dignity as human beings to be seen, acknowledged, heard, listened to and cared for. It is a violation of our humanity when we are systematically and intentionally stigmatized, silenced and made invisible.

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  • Camacho, G., Reinka, M.A., Quinn, D.M. (2019). Disclosure and concealmemt of stigmatized identities. Current Opinion in Psychology, 30, 28-32. 
  • Davis, A. Y. (2003). Are prisons obsolete?
  • Goldstein, D. (2012). Rethinking Ventriloquism: Untellability, Chaotic Narratives, Social Justice, and the Choice to Speak For, About, and Without. Journal of Folklore Research, 49(2), 179-198. doi:10.2979/jfolkrese.49.2.179
  • Goldstein, D., & Shuman, A. (2012). The Stigmatized Vernacular: Where Reflexivity Meets Untellability. Journal of Folklore Research, 49(2), 113-126. doi:10.2979/jfolkrese.49.2.113
  • Lorde, A. (1996). A Litany for Survival: The life and work of Audre Lorde. New York, NY: Third World Newsreel.
  • McLeod, A. (2019). Envisioning abolition democracy. Harvard Law Review, 132, 1613-1649.
  • Nesmith, A., Ruhland, E. (2008). Children of incarcerated parents: Challenges and resiliency, in their own words. Children and Youth Services Review, 30, 1119-1130. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2008.02.006
  • Prison Fellowship. (n.d.) FAQS about Children of Prisoners. Prison Fellowship. 
  • Quinn, D. M., & Earnshaw, V. A. (2013). Concealable Stigmatized Identities and Psychological Well-BeingSocial and personality psychology compass7(1), 40–51.
  • San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership (2019). Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Bill of Rights. Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition.
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What Now? Abolitionist Framework as a Way Out

How do we address the harm done to COIP through stigmatization, discrimination, silencing and invisibilizing? Where do we even start? What can we do?

Like I mentioned before, children of incarcerated parents expose the deeply-problematic and flawed foundation of the carceral system. The only way to address this problem is to first recognize that the cause of the harm are not the parents but the entire carceral system that creates conditions that harm individuals, families and society. We have to remember the entire carceral state as an institution and belief system is innately problematic. Reforming the system will never seriously address the cause of the harm. Reform tries to redress the harm from the carceral process but does not destabilize the social and political systems that create the harm (McLeod, 2019). Because of this, we must approach the problem with an abolitionist perspective that approaches justice through a transformation of political, social and economic institutions (McLeod, 2019). An abolitionist approach aims to remove the prison from social and ideological parts of society (Davis, 2003). Approaching the prison industrial complex from an abolitionist perspective requires us to imagine a network of alternative strategies and institutions that radically transform aspects of our society rather than looking for prison like substitutes, such as such as surveillance via ankle bracelets (Davis, 2003).

Decarceration is the overall strategy for abolitionists and helps us unpack the ideology that connects crime and punishment (Davis, 2003). Our efforts should not only be focused on the prison system as a sole institution but on all the social relations that perpetuate and solidify the carceral system (Davis, 2003). An abolitionist approach is committed to justice grounded in experience (McLeod, 2019). So, for individuals who do not identify as children of incarcerated parents, begin by listening to the voices of COIP and seek to know and hear their experiences told from their own words. In doing so, we can begin to destabilize the carceral system and imagine what justice looks like — to COIP and for COIP. We can continue to challenge existing ideas of justice and reimagine an approach that is rooted in respecting human. For my fellow COIP, I encourage you to find each other and find community. There are millions of us suffering alone, but we are not alone in the experience and fight. The forces silencing us and stigmatizing us are strong. If you have the opportunity to do so safely and with respect to your humanity, I encourage you to tell your story — talk about your experiences as a COIP. Expose the deep flaws of the carceral system. Make others uncomfortable with that knowledge. We were never meant to be heard or seen. I leave you with an excerpt from “A Litany for Survival” a poem by Audre Lorde, a Black feminist, author and activist.


“when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
so it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive."

 

Audre Lorde, from "A Litany for Survival" (1966)