More than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent and approximately 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. According to the Urban Institute, the experience of a parent going to prison will have a “significant impact on the emotional, psychological, developmental, and financial well-being of the child.” Children have difficulty visiting their parents and often lose contact. They drop out of school more frequently and are more likely to be incarcerated than their peers. Most often, these children are minorities: Black children are seven times more likely than white children to have an incarcerated parent. Separation due to a parent’s incarceration can be as painful as other forms of parental loss and can be even more complicated because of the stigma, ambiguity, and lack of social support and compassion that accompanies it.
William Koger lives in Washington, D.C., with his mother, Sandra, and three boys: Isaiah, 11, Demetri, 10, and Deshawn, 8. But it is the absence of their mother, Sherrie Harris — who is serving a long-term sentence at Hazelton Penitentiary, in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia — that looms over the household. William took on the unexpected role of primary caregiver to all three children, including one stepchild, but he has been in and out of jobs and in and out of prison himself. After being injured in a serious car accident, he is now unemployed and often in severe pain. The family is stretched financially and often unable to afford food or medicine. The children are emotionally scarred by their mother’s absence and sometimes withdraw into their shells or act out. Only when pressed do they express their intense yearning for their mother to come home, rejoin the family, and provide them with the maternal love they are missing. Sherrie Harris has been incarcerated since 2006 and is scheduled to be released in 2017.
This piece is part of a much larger multimedia project, titled Locked Apart, that includes multiple families in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. I believe it is appropriate to acknowledge that family members of offenders are among those who are victimized when a crime occurs. Like the voices of crime victims and their families, the voices of offenders’ family members should be heard.
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Gabriela Bulisova is a documentary photographer and multimedia artist based in Washington, D.C. Over the past five years, she focused her attention on under-reported and overlooked stories regarding incarceration and reentry, especially the impact on families. instagram.com/gabrielabulisova