One in Four Podcast

Family and Re-entry: The Impact of Mass Incarceration

Episode Summary

In this episode, we will focus on the topic of family and reentry. For a perspective on how incarceration affects families, and particularly children, we will be speaking with Dr. Avon Hart Johnson, co-founder and President of D.C. Project Connect, a non-profit organization in D.C. that provides support to families impacted by incarceration in the greater DC metro area. We will also hear from a couple of people whose parents did time in prison when they were children and learn how this experience impacted them.

Episode Notes

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Hosts: Bea M. Spadacini and Tim Nicholson

Episode Transcription

Welcome to the fifth episode of the One in Four podcast, which stands for, “One in Four adult Americans has a criminal record.” This is a show that seeks to Humanize, Educate, and Elevate conversations about the re-entry process of the formerly incarcerated.

My name is Tim Nicholson and I am one of your co-hosts for this podcast.

In this episode, we will focus on the topic of family and reentry. For a perspective on how incarceration affects families, and particularly children, we will be speaking with Dr. Avon Hart Johnson, co-founder and President of D.C. Project Connect, a non-profit organization in D.C. that provides support to families impacted by incarceration in the greater DC metro area.

Dr. Hart Johnson is a scholar, an author and a social activist. We will also hear from a couple of people whose parents did time in prison when they were children and learn how this experience impacted them.

According to the Sentencing Project, one in 12 American children, more than 5.7 million kids under age 18, have experienced parental incarceration at some point during their lives.
Every time a person is incarcerated, his or her family is deeply affected. The impact is psychological, emotional, as well as financial.

When children witness their parents being arrested, detained or incarcerated, they experience extreme trauma that can last for decades. The psycho-social dimension of incarceration cannot be understated. Many immigrant children today are also being traumatized by current deportation tactics that criminalize and separate families.

Some of the interviews in this episode are brought to you by Dave Sampe, Senior Advisor for the One in Four podcast and my co-host Bea Spadacini. This episode of the One in Four podcast is brought to you with support from Circle Yoga and the Circle Yoga Connect initiative. This initiative seeks to work with social change organizations to offer yoga and mindfulness to people living in underserved communities. To finds out more, check out and search for the Circle Yoga Connect page. A special thanks goes to our loyal and super patient sound engineer and audio editor Mike Balasia. Thank you for helping us elevate these important conversations.

BEA: Dr. Avon Hart, it is a pleasure to meet you and learn about your work with DC project Connect. Can you tell us about your work and the healing work that you do with families affected by mass incarceration?

Dr. Avon: D.C. is a very unique area and I'll share why we started the organization and the uniqueness of D.C. First of all, Washington D.C. no longer has a prison. There used to be an old prison complex called Lorton Prison. When that shut down in 2001, approximately fifty five hundred individuals were transferred from DC's prison system, which was in Lorton, across the nation as far away as Washington state. (CUT: So, imagine the impact on family systems.) Imagine the impact on family systems when your family is fragmented by someone who was incarcerated in D.C. they now are in say Pennsylvania or in California or in South Dakota.
So how is it that a family can remain intact if they are separated by that level of fragmentation. It's a geographical separation. There are costs associated with families not being able to keep or remain in contact because of you know the high telephone charges etc.. So we started DC Project Connect because we believe that families were somehow impacted on an adverse level because of that separation.

As a researcher, Dr. Avon Hart wanted to go deeper into the effects of incarceration on families so she began to interview African American women in the DC area whose partners were incarcerated. She wanted to find out how they were coping and what type of support system these women and their families had, if any at all. The research culminated in a book that explores the psychological and social impacts of mass imprisonment on African American women. One of Dr. Hart Johnson’s main findings coming out of this research is a theory called, “symbolic imprisonment grief and coping theory.”

Dr. Avon: What that means is that the ladies that I interviewed were actually experiencing this level of vicarious imprisonment. And what does that mean? It means that with the overwhelming situations and crises that occurred in their life, number one they were socially isolating as vicarious imprisonment might suggest that imprisonment means that you are somehow in bondage and it might be conscious or unconscious but the point is is that they were withdrawing socially. You know intentionally, or they were doing so because they felt as though they were ostracized or stigmatized.

So you've got this component of vicarious imprisonment where you feel like you know I'm socially isolated I'm in my own prison I am not good enough to to be with other folks that aren't like me or I'm going to be judged guilty by association. The other thing, other part of the theory, is grief. So there's a very heavy underpinning of grief, meaning that these individuals who I interviewed suggested that they were feeling grief as if someone had died and I had one woman tell me that she wished that her husband was dead because he was serving a life sentence and her life is always, you know, on hold with no closure. And so they're tethered to this whole experience and this big secret of having someone incarcerated and imagine what it feels like to never live your truth, to feel like you're always live in a lie, and that's because of the stigma that shrouds this whole idea of incarceration.

NARRATION 3: By interviewing hundreds of women whose partners were in prison, Dr. Hart Johnson was able to identify gap areas where psychological and practical support was needed. The outcomes of this research informed the programs offered by D.C. Project Connect, which include crisis intervention, advocacy and mentoring during the reentry process.

Dr. Avon: When your family system goes through a crisis of incarceration, there are several crisis points that occur within the lives of these individuals. So imagine this follow me through this continuum. The first thing would be the arrest. That's a crisis. You know a lot of people scramble and they try to figure out well am I going to pay the rent, am I going to pay the house note or do I retain a lawyer? The second thing might be the actual incarceration itself. So you've got the impact of trying to make that adjustment within the household. How are you going to maintain the house that other person that was incarcerated may have been a form of income so. And then also how are you going to make the adjustment by having the absent person you know still integrated in your life whether it's you know through a telephone or through letters, that person is still involved in your life.

Dr: Avon: People reach out to us by way of our website, and what we learned is that when people are in crisis, if they can have a facilitated conversation about some of the options and some of the choices that they might want to consider, ultimately they will make the best decision based on their lives because they are the subject matter experts of their own lives. So what we do is facilitate a conversation about how things might play out if they were to follow one path versus the other. For an example the person that's struggling to figure out whether or not they should pay their rent or retain a lawyer, ultimately they have to make that decision but they need to consider the consequences of doing so. So we try to provide a level of triage, if you will, for the family system during those kinds of crises points. The second thing that we do is we advocate for social change and that's informed by our research and it's informed by our outreach within the community.

Bea: Avon, you are a trained behavioral scientist and more because I know you're also a professor and have many other talents. Can you tell us about the psychological and social impact of imprisonment on families and on communities? From a behavioral science perspective?

Dr. Avon: Yes sure. So let's start with this premise that every family and individual will have a unique set of circumstances obviously because their lives and the circumstances centered around their situation may be different. The greater the attachment, the greater the loss. And I don't want to say that that's an exact correlation but think about it if there is a significant attachment within the family such as a mom that was close to her children and then she's incarcerated that child is going to feel a great amount of loss. If there was a tight or a secure bond so that might bring about a number of different psychological outcomes such as trauma, grief, stress, you know somatic physical related outcomes. So to put that into real terms, imagine a child that loses her mom. And so what might happen is that that child may become withdrawn especially if he or she has not been told where the parent is.

Dr. Avon: So often times what happens in this (CUT: this) situation around incarceration is so complex because, think about the dynamics or just try to imagine what happens when someone is arrested in the household. That is a complete disruption to what's going on within that family systems. And what we know from family systems theory is that when there is a disruption to the family system the family system will try to work to try to absorb the crisis and try to work its way back into some sense of normalcy and balance. And so what it's doing is it's drawing all of its resources, its internal resources, to try to grapple with and try to figure out how to regain some sense of balance. Now imagine a child within that particular system where he or she may not have ever been told where the missing parent is. So now this sense of ambiguous loss which means that someone is psychologically still present in your life. All the reminders, all the symbolism, all the expectations of a mommy is still there but physically they're absent.

Dave Sampe, Senior Advisor for the One in Four podcast, asked Charnal whose mother is Lashonia Thompson, founder and Executive Director of the WIRE or Women Involved in Reentry Efforts, what it was like to grow up with an incarcerated parent when she was a child.

Charnal: Her being locked up was just one of many issues. You are talking about the crack epidemic….unclear…my father being incarcerated due to him selling drugs, an abusive step mother…uhm, the kids that I went to school with, they were toxic, just staying in an environment that was life or death. You did not go to school to learn, you just went to school to basically get out of the house. I stayed from place to place. I went to like 11 different schools and the hardest time was probably between when I was 14 and 18 because I was coming to the realization of what was happening in the environment around me cause when you are a kid it is all about being happy and the rest, you realize the trauma but you don’t really focus on it as much as adults do but when I was around 14, I came to the realization that oh shit I don’t have a mother, and my step mother is abusive on top of that. That is when I really started becoming jealous of other girls who had their mothers so I started to rebel

Charnal told Dave that she has been on her own since she was 16 years old. She had her first child at the age of 17 when she was a senior in high school and despite the challenge of being a young mother, she managed to graduate on time. She went to nursing school right after she got her high school diploma and moved into her own apartment at the age of 19. Charnal shared that for years she was very angry with the world and had to do a lot of work to address that. Dave also interviewed Lashonia, Charnal’s Mom.

Dave Sampe: Can you talk about reconnecting with family. What were the challenges that you faced reconnecting with your own family and your own children and who took care of your own children while you were away? What was that like, how did that affect you?

Lashonia: First of all, because we do not have a prison system here in DC, I spent the majority of my time in Danbury, CT, which was an 8 hour drive and a 16 hour round trip. So, I got to see my kids, about maybe once a year and that was as a result of Outplace DC or some of my friends who might get out and would go get my kids and bring them back uhm so, my daughter was three years old and my son was ten months old and by the time I came home, I think Charnel was like 21 and ? was 18 or 19 and the biggest challenge for me was rebuilding my confidence to be a parent to my son because when I went to prison, I was a teen Mom, which was very traumatic and I was basically living, how would I say it, a delinquent lifestyle so it wasn’t like I was an ideal Mom? I was a teen Mom with two kids, 19, dropped out of school, no job and deeply immersed in a life of crime, and then I landed myself in prison, I never got a chance to learn how to be a Mom. But… you are a woman so you know how to be a Mom, so we expect you to come home and get with the program and so my cousin, who was raising my son at the time, even though he was a young adult, because he has a disability, he will always be living with someone so he has epilepsy, he has developmental delays and all sorts of things, so he will always be living with someone, be co-dependent on someone, all his life. My cousin was very anxious about me getting custody of my son. She was not patient at all, despite the fact that I was homeless, despite the fact that I was trying to complete my undergraduate degree, unemployed, returning to a new city that had changed tremendously, trying to re-socialize and create a new lifestyle opposite to the one I had lived. None of that made a difference to her. Her thing was, I have raised your son, while you were in prison and you are home now and I need you to handle your business and as a woman, especially as a black woman, I expect that you know how to do that.

One of the services that DC Project Connect offers is mentoring upon reentry from prison, the kind of support that Lashonia could have used when she came out and also a service that her own organization – The WIRE – offers. Bea asked Dr. Avon Hart Johnson about the nature of her reentry work with formerly incarcerated individuals.

Dr. Avon: We partner volunteers from the community, the business community, or other organizations with the Fairview Residential Reentry Center, which is also referred to as a halfway house, where women are making their transition home from prison or they may be housed there because there is some way affiliated with the justice system whether it's through DOC or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. And so what we do is we bring volunteers into that setting and we have a number of life skills exercises, problem solving techniques, social skills building, and those kinds of things.

Dr. Avon Hart and her team of volunteers also help children process what it means to have an incarcerated parent, how to cope with the stigma that is often attached to that experience, and even prepare them for a parental visit inside a prison. For this purpose, Dr. Avon-Hart Johnson created a children’s book with the title of Jamie’s Big Visit that features a bear that young readers can identify with. The book targets children between the ages of 3 and 10 years.

Dr. Avon: Jamie the bear is a chronicle of what it means to have a close relationship with a dad and the dad goes to prison. And so what the book does in a very delicate and sensitive way you you travel with Jamie through his journey in preparing to visit his dad in prison. And it's a lovely book. And the graphic illustrations are actually phenomenal. But you follow Jamie through his pathway to the first visit and he you know experiences the prison environment and what it does it gives a visual, in a very user friendly way, about what it's like to visit prison and it actually walks the child through even what it means to go through a metal detector and to actually put his or her items into a locker and go through the actual visit. The other thing that it does is that it gives hope to a child when they see themselves in Jamie's character. They think, oh I can get through this. Jamie got through it. I can get through this or now I understand because I read Jamie's big visit. Our mom read Jamie's big visit to me. Uhm, what I love about the overall story is that when you read the story you recognize at the end it's OK the laugh. It's OK to smile that a child can in some way return back to the normalcy of a child. Yes there is going to be life events but you can recover from it and it's OK to be a child. It's OK to laugh and OK to smile.

Bea Have you used the book quite a bit with the families?

Dr. Avon: Yes I have. I've used the book and in multiple ways. There are times where I do readings for large groups of children who have been impacted by parental incarceration, and so what I do is I, I make it an interactive session as I'm reading and we talk about emotions such as anger, sadness, even being happy and, and the fear you know when a parent is taken away and so what we do is we talk through and we give expression and we give voice. Now one of the things that's very important and especially if you know anything about trauma, trauma is both psychological but it's also physical or somatic. And so what we understand about trauma is that sometimes children have, I'll use simplistic terms, trauma trapped inside because they don't know how to articulate what they're feeling. And so some scientists suggest that the reason that the trauma remains you know stuck within is because they don't know how to give expression to that and to release it and to make meaning of it or to even discuss it with those who might help them to make meaning of it and then some children are not developed mentally ready or able to articulate what they're feeling so when you go through the interactive activities with Jamie's Big Visit, which are the you know do the activities that we have as a companion, children can give expression through using their hands or their facial expressions to say, OK this is what a smile looks like and then we might walk them through: Well how do you if you're angry how do re you return back to the state of smiling?

When Randell’s Mom was sent to prison, he was only 8 years old. He has 5 siblings, three older than him and two younger sisters. At the time, there was no such book like Jamie’s Big Visit that could have helped Randell and his siblings process what their family was going through and how they were feeling. The children were sent to live with their maternal grandmother for the first five years, and later with an uncle. It was only when they were living with their uncle that they were told what had happened and were allowed to re-establish communication and visit her in prison.

Randell: I mean it was very difficult I think for the five years I believe my grandmother, my grandmother really didn't mention my mother at all. We never visited. We never talked about her. We never got letters from her even though she sent letters throughout that entire five years. But my grandmother wasn't you know the kindest person either so she had our moments where she would be in rage she would say horrible things to us, and I think that she may not have liked her daughter either so it was a very difficult situation because we really couldn't mention our mother at all. It was just like she vanished and we never really knew what it happened really when she went to prison for like five years.

BEA: Do you remember the first time you visited your mother in prison?

Randell: Yes. So I visited her when I was 13 and she was such a beautiful woman growing up. She was amazingly beautiful I would always say that she kind of look like Angelina Jolie. She was that beautiful. But when I saw her for the first time in prison I was like shocked like she you know obviously, time is taken you know where to look. And so like she you know to me look really like almost like you know she had a frizzy hair and like you know she looked older and not having seen someone from my eight until like 13 and it's just like all that time in between just past. It was kind of shocking to see her in that condition. And I remember just like staring at me like this can't be my mother when she walked out was like: this can't be her like. She looks nothing like the woman that I used to know or he used to take care of us. So it was very difficult. And I remember it was like me and my other four siblings. My uncle brought all of us there, and I remember getting patted down and then like you know checking to see if we had any drugs or any like you know weapons on us or anything that you know could be seen as I you know a threat to you know the prison. And then we went into the room all four of us. We didn't get physical contact because you know we were still minors at the time. And so we had to like visit her through a pixie glass. And that was our first visit and it was only two hours. We drove like seven hours to get there.

Bea: Where was the prison where was she incarcerated that first time that you met her?

Randell: She was incarcerated near Dallas near Waco Texas. Like in the middle of nowhere many prisons in Texas are in the middle of nowhere. So you drive many, many miles and sometimes you can request a special visit for four hours, but that time we didn't know that if you live a certain amount of miles away you can request a longer visit. So we just took that long seven hour drive for a two hour visit and that was pretty much it.

Bea: So were you able to establish and maintain a relationship with your mother while she was incarcerated. And if you could explain a little bit about besides going to visit her but in terms of letters and what that was like?

Randell: So during that time of writing her and visiting her I think we probably visited her probably four or five times just because it was such an expense and it was such a you know so much time they had to take out to go visit her. So we wrote a lot. I mean I think I wrote her for almost 10 13 years throughout her time in prison once I got to have a relationship with her when my uncle allowed that to happen. So I wrote her all throughout high school all throughout college and really a good part into grad school.

Bea: Did she write back and what was your correspondence. What was it about?

Randell: So yes she definitely wrote back and forth. I mean we talked about you know forgiveness and what we wanted and goals and I told her about what I was doing in college and grad school in high school as well. But we basically talked about you know what she was doing was when she was younger and I learned a lot about my family history things that you really didn't know because my family is very private. So a lot of things that I didn't know that shaped her life and shaped my life is what I learned in those letters. And I have hundreds of those letters.

Bea: So for instance what do you think affected her most in her growing up?

Randell: Well I think it's like a generational thing. So it was like things that happened way back in history before I could even be in the picture. And so you know I think my mother, like her mother, as well probably went through some very severe trauma that they probably never healed and so it just kind of got pushed on and onto her and then she pushed it onto us and we never fixed that cycle of trauma. Just kind of continue on and on and on and I think that basically is what it is.


Randell’s Mother was sentenced to 12 years on a charge of child molestation, a label that carries even more stigma. Randell says that her actions were a result of years of drug addiction and that he and his siblings have forgiven her. Randell wrote a letter when her first parole hearing came up but it was denied. When her second parole hearing came, 17 years into her prison sentence, he and other relatives wrote again and this time she was granted parole and she was released into a transitional home. However, her health has been deteriorating steadily, despite only being 46 years old. It has been hard for Randell to come to terms with this reality.

Randell: I think a lot of issues health issues in particular affected her while she was in prison and she didn't get the right sort of help that she needed. And I think that maybe she didn't take care of herself as well as she could have as well while she was in prison. So a lot of those health issues are coming back and really affecting her quality of life right now.

Randell: Yeah she's pretty young and in just a lot of health issues happening with her heart. And then you know she had a surgery because she broke her ankle and had to get an amputation so it's been a lot of hard things and this is only like two years outside of prison. And we had a lot of dreams and what she was going to do and like I didn't have you know these amazing you know out of the sky like dreams they're just like basically oh she's going to get a job and maybe get a place for herself.

Randell’s story highlights the profound impact that incarceration has on children and the emotional weight they often carry for the rest of their lives. We asked Dr. Hart Johnson to talk a bit more about the impact of trauma on the family system and on the community at large.

Dr. Avon: The family system is the very basic unit of a neighborhood or a community. And so when you have healthy, thriving families, you are probably likely to have reduced crime. You have higher levels of employment, and obviously stronger families. And then it also produces the opportunities for children education-wise you know and overall you know a thriving neighborhood.

But think about what it's like to be in a community where there are high levels of unemployment and high levels of incarceration, and a high level of families that are impacted by mass incarceration. And think about that level and the conditioning that it provides.

How do you get a group or community or restore a community back to a healthy thriving community? Obviously, there are it's necessary to to to raise the awareness thus the reason for one of our prongs is community relations and making sure that we raise the level of community awareness so that they understand that healthy communities start with healthy families.

Dr. Avon: I always tell individuals that the family is the 24/7 support when the Social Services offices and Human Services offices and re-entry offices are closed. That family system is there to support that individual. So and they might be the first form of contact to talk someone off the ledge who is thinking about going back to crime, or going back to using, you know misusing substances, or someone that just needs the extra confidence you know to go on an interview to believe that they can do it so families are critical when it comes to providing that support system.

Unfortunately, many families and entire communities have been devastated by the system of mass incarceration and this is why alternative support systems must be put into place.

Randell: Well for my family in general it really affected my family deeply because you know my mother was in prison my brother was in prison. My uncle two three uncles were in prison. So like my whole family has just been eaten up by this whole prison system and from what I've seen it's been very minor crimes for the majority of them like marijuana charges and now the tide is changing but their lives are already being affected. You know and basically ruin you know so they really can't do anything and so that that's what this system has really done to a lot of families not just mine.

Dr. Avon: One of the things that we know is that we talk about this idea of intergenerational incarceration. The risk of multiple families affected by incarceration: the father, the son, the grandson, you know so that's multiple generations of incarceration. We can offset that risk by support systems. That's where communities play a vital role with children: after school programs for those children who are at risk so that they have a place to go to and not only just to have a place to go to, so they have an extended support system outside of the family unit.

Dr. Avon: So, one of the things that that I recently was trained in is a circle keeping and the idea of circle keeping is to when the person comes home you know or is preparing to transition home. The idea of circle keeping is to form a network of people whether it's family or not. Who will be the support system and is willing to commit to supporting the person's reentry. For an example one person might be a social worker. The other one might be a probation officer. The other one might be clergy. A friend you know and so you form the support network for individuals.

When it comes to children of incarcerated parents, it is important to also talk about resilience. Despite the many challenges he faced while growing up, Randell has become a successful young man who has defied the odds, went to college, completed graduate school, and started a prestigious international career. Before departing for his overseas post, he had the opportunity to spend 4 days with his Mom.

Randell: Last time I talked to her about three or four month three months ago we sat under an oak tree and just like talk for hours and hours and hours and I visit her for four days and that was the longest time that I've actually visited her since you know the 17 years that she was incarcerated and even now in a halfway house in a nursing facility. So we just sat there and talked under the oak tree about our lives and what we wanted in her life because I don't know a lot about her life at all.

We've always had like two hour visits in every time that I've been around her, you have someone in the back of your head telling you have five minutes life but this was a different experience because no one was telling me that I had five minutes left. It was just my time to learn as much as I could with those four days that I had. I learned a lot about her and like you know her dreams and she got to learn a lot about me.

To find out more about how to get involved with DC Project Connect, you can check out their website, which is You will find many resources through the website and of course you can also order Jamie’s First Visit book online and via Amazon.