The Resilient Children of Incarcerated Parents: Interviews – Next100
Commentary   Criminal Justice

The Resilient Children of Incarcerated Parents: Interviews

Follow the stories of these three incredibly resilient children of incarcerated parents, in their own words.

In my time at the Next100, I plan to elevate the diverse stories of children of incarcerated parents. Each of our stories are different, but critical to identifying the vast needs of COIP (you can read my full article detailing the challenges of COIP here). Each of the three interviews below detail the experiences of COIP, including: Zaki Smith, my colleague who works on collateral consequences at the Next100 and who identifies as a COIP; Alexandria Pech, a PhD student who has done extensive research on COIP and identifies as COIP; and, lastly, myself.

I interviewed Zaki and Alexandria, and Emma Vadehra, the executive director of Next100, interviewed me. Please read with the intent to understand the individual challenges COIP face, and with the goal to decrease stigma around the children of incarcerated parents.

Zaki Smith is currently a policy entrepreneur with Next100 and is working on the collateral consequences of incarceration, or the perpetual punishment of formerly incarcerated people. He was impacted by the incarceration of his mother.

Isabel Coronado (IC): Zaki, you are an amazing advocate for raising awareness around perpetual punishment, the laws that follow incarcerated people after release, and are currently working on clean slate laws. Can you explain what clean slate laws are, and explain the complexities and importance of creating clean state laws as they impact children and families?

Zaki Smith (ZS): Clean slate laws are policies that push the conversation to seal or expunge records of the formerly incarcerated. The push we are looking for is to create a process that happens automatically for those that are eligible. Eligibility may vary from state to state, for those that take on this new level of prison reform. By not having something like this, many formerly incarcerated people are left with a life sentence of perpetual punishment, through which they’re blocked from employment, housing, and other opportunities that can support a successful re-entry. This can have a long-lasting impact on families, especially children. The inability to find work, the inability to take care of your family: many young people take on that pressure, fearing that their parents may resort back to the thing that got them locked up in the first place. And oftentimes that is the case. Parents recidivate, leaving their children again. Children become depressed, feel abandoned, struggle and act out in school.

IC: The movement towards supporting those who are impacted by policy leading policy change themselves has been an amazing shift. How has policy impacted your early years of life and led you to do the incredible work you do currently?

ZS: Policy is the very thing that made it legal to criminalize people of color, people with addiction, and people with limited resources. Also, policy has maintained a second class group for life through collateral consequences. Policy is what made it easy for me to go to prison for so many years of my life. Being in a space to influence policy allows me and those like me to bring an authentic voice to the table—a voice that has been impacted by policy, so that I may be the voice to help shift what has not been working.

IC: I understand you were impacted by family incarceration at a young age. Can you tell your story as a child of an incarcerated parent? What is an area in which policy misses the mark when it comes to family and children who are impacted by incarceration?

ZS: I remember the day my mother was arrested. She had a warrant for her arrest for a shoplifting charge. I remember the officers coming to the house asking for my mother, and my stepdad said that she wasn’t around. The officers entered the house and started looking around for her. She was hiding in the closet, where they eventually found her. I guess they just assumed that my stepdad was my father because they never asked.

We eventually went to stay with my grandmother for the whole time my mother was locked up, which turned out to be about ninety days. I never had a space to talk to anyone about my mother’s incarceration.There wasn’t any support for my grandmother, who automatically became our caregiver. It was a thing we weren’t allowed to talk about—it was viewed as my mother’s personal business. I didn’t receive any support from my school community. I’m not even sure if my school knew that my mother was incarcerated, except that I started getting a free train pass from the school, due to my grandmother living in a different part of New York. All I know is that no one ever talked to me about it. It was a very tough time for me during that moment. Little did I know that it would impact me well into my adulthood, and I would follow in my mom’s footsteps.

When I was incarcerated, my children then were impacted by my incarceration. I noticed the lack of services for fathers in prison, versus for mothers. It made it more difficult to parent while I was incarcerated. I felt as if the system let us wallow in our punishment rather than start the healing process—as if fathers are not held to the same standard as mothers during their incarceration. I tried to minimize the impact on my own children, but the lack of support and resources made it very difficult to even stay in communication sometimes.

Alexandria Pech is currently a PhD student at the University of Arizona studying the impacts of incarceration on the children of incarcerated parents. She has been personally impacted by her father’s incarceration.

IC: Alexandria, I know you have attained incredible educational achievements. You are currently a PhD student, and you are passionate about research around children of incarcerated parents as it relates to your own experience. What is a continual theme you find when you research children of incarcerated parents?

Alexandria Pech (AP): A continual theme I see is the way that parental incarceration is considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE). Along the same lines, COIP are more likely to experience additional ACEs. Research shows the negative impacts created by ACEs extends beyond childhood and into adulthood. In my personal experiences working with COIP across different capacities, I have observed how trauma is prevalent, explicit, cumulative, enduring, painful and generational. Research has started to look at how parental incarceration influences identity formation among COIP, such that stigma, shame, and dehumanization are common feelings that COIP have to navigate through.

IC: You identify as a Latina, a woman, and a child of an incarcerated parent. What was your journey growing up identifying as these three identities?

AP: I was a very observant child and many stories that were told to me as a very young child (~5 years old) about where my father was didn’t stick. I wanted the truth—always, so much so that I remember asking my father why he was in prison even though I was only in fifth grade. I hated feeling confused. I had to keep my father’s whereabouts a secret. This felt harmful, and it taught me that it was okay to keep secrets in order to make people feel comfortable. I see how harmful this sentiment is now that I am an adult.

My observant nature didn’t always align with who I was as a young girl. I wasn’t always encouraged to ask questions. I felt like I was to be quiet and not cause anyone discomfort. I grew up spending more time with my mother’s side of the family. We practiced Mexican American culture via food, religion, and family values. On my dad’s side, we are Mayan and my father’s father immigrated to the United States from Mérida in the Yucatán Peninsula. We celebrated our culture via food, music, religion, and more. All that to say that I also identify as Latina. My culture established really strong connections with all of my grandparents. I grew up with three of my great-grandmothers, my paternal grandparents, and my maternal grandmother.

My identity as a COIP often overlapped with my culture because it was my grandparents that always checked up with me. Even on my maternal side, my grandmothers would ask me how my dad was even though they knew I had to keep a secret. They made me feel really safe. It helped that my culture embraced collectivistic values because my dad’s side of the family always made sure I was a part of the family unit. Even though I was the only kid in the family who had a dad in prison, they made me feel very loved, empowered, and supported.

Throughout my journey, all three identities overlapped, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the not so good. For example, as a visibly Brown girl, visits to see my father often ended with correctional officers policing my clothing. One time, I was forced to take out a small piece of wire in my bra in the bathroom with nothing to cut with but my hands. This was dehumanizing, as they made me feel like I was a criminal. In school, I was visibly Brown girl, and my clothing was also policed by teachers.

IC: We see the same narrative play out for children of incarcerated parents—that the children will follow the footsteps of their parents. What is your vision of changing this narrative?

AP: This narrative can be very problematic.

First, telling kids that they are more likely to end up like their parents shows that you expect them to accomplish that one thing. It’s like saying your life only matters so long as you don’t end up like your parents. It is the same thing as telling young Latinx girls, “Don’t get pregnant in high school.” All you see them as are baby-making machines. The same goes for COIP. If all you see them as prisoners-in-the-making, you truly don’t see them for their full humanity.

Second, if for whatever reason COIP do come in contact with the (in)justice system, that does not mean they do not warrant support. They—we—are not disposable. Again, their humanity should not be contingent on their contact with the system. If people choose to think this way, they are ignorantly ignoring the structural systems at play, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, over-policing in Black and Brown neighborhoods, the treatment-industrial complex, and more.

My vision of changing this narrative is to organize and mobilize the youth to lead the conversation of how mass incarceration imposes itself on their/our lives. I want policymakers, school administrators, and staff who work at prison facilities to understand that COIP are so close to the problem, which means they are so close to the solution. They have experiential knowledge to lead conversation on how to best support all COIP. I want COIP to be regarded as expert advisors and leaders. As academics, legislators, non-profit organizations, legislators, COIP must be included, have a seat at the table, and lead the conversation on the impacts of parental incarceration on children, youth, and families.

Isabel Coronado is a policy entrepreneur at the Next100. Her areas of interest lie in how policy can better support the children of incarcerated parents, and how we can decrease the number of indigenous people who are incarcerated. She was personally impacted by the incarceration of her mother.

Emma Vadehra, executive director of Next100 (EV): Who was your greatest influence growing up?

Isabel Coronado (IC): I would have to say my mother has always been my greatest influence. She showed me the importance of resilience, education, and following my instinct. My mom taught me resilience, because I witnessed her struggling as a single mom. She did the best she could under the circumstances, but was at one point arrested and sentenced to prison for a few years. She came out of that experience changed and ready to change the environment around me so that I could have a better life. My mom taught me education was important because it was a path to end the cycle of poverty that my family has endured for decades. My mom taught me following my own instinct was important, because although society already has me pegged to make the same mistakes as my mother, she taught me that I can shatter that glass and follow the path I put into stone. And seeing my mother’s mistakes never made her less influential in my eyes, it made her a stronger person to whom I can look up to.

EV: You find so much passion with working with children of incarcerated parents. How did you come into your advocacy work?

IC: I came into this work as a total coincidence. From the time I went through the incarceration phase with my mom until I was 21 years old, I held in everything that I felt. It wasn’t until I was starting my master’s degree, while concurrently developing a nonprofit organization called American Indian Criminal Justice Navigation Council, that I opened up about my story. I was starting to see the children of the families I was working with, and it made me open up and talk about the difficulties of losing a parent. If kids younger than me could be so vulnerable, then I knew I had to step up as well. That passion has now translated into the work I am doing at the Next100. I’m focused on creating policy aimed at reducing incarceration in Native communities by dismantling a criminal justice system that impacts generation after generation of Native youth. My work aims to ensure that children of incarcerated parents have the resources, support, and opportunities they need to succeed.

EV: While you are advocating for all children of incarcerated parents, you especially want to make sure indigenous children are represented. What makes indigenous children of incarcerated parents unique?

IC: As a young woman who is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, I understand firsthand the special needs for indigenous children of incarcerated parents. During my own mother’s incarceration, my tribe helped tremendously with the reentry process. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation helped with back-to-school clothing and scholarship funds for my mother’s education (who went back to our tribe and served as an attorney for the reintegration center). My tribe is currently leading as a model for a fully equipped reintegration center. They have built housing for formerly incarcerated people to live in up to a certain amount of time, and they help with transportation, food, clothes, and legal services. These services are coming at a pertinent time, when Oklahoma has a high incarceration rate, and indegenous people are especially impacted. The unique set of systems governing and supporting indigenous people includes tribal courts, tribal resources, and the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). All of these are systems that impact tribal children, and so these systems, just like those children, need adequate support. However, few of them receive even close to the support they need. Tribal courts are especially challenged, as not all tribes have them, and the ones that do have tribal courts, do not have their full powers to operate within their full right. The federal government partakes in tribal courts and set certain restrictions in which tribal courts can operate; for instance, tribal courts cannot prosecute non-tribal members who commit a crime on tribal land. One consequence of tribal courts having their oversight so circumscribed is that in many jurisdictions, tribal members may have to serve in federal prisons, which can lead to them being relocated anywhere in the United States, far from their nation’s territory and their families.

Tribal resources such as housing, health care, and education are some of the services in which tribes help their enrolled tribal citizens. Some tribes are taking innovative approaches to helping incarcerated or formerly incarcerated tribal citizens (as I outlined above). ICWA was created to keep Native kids in their communities, but the requirement to notify the tribes when a Native child enters the child welfare system is not always followed. These failures of the child welfare system leave many tribal children living outside tribal jurisdiction and, most importantly, outside of their culture and traditions.

When we discuss children of incarcerated parents, I want to make sure the indigenous children are getting their needs met. And in any case, understanding the disparity of impact that the numbers in this section illustrate is imperative to understanding the picture of incarceration’s impact as a whole. The disparities must not be papered over: instead, they need to be the starting point of our solutions and reforms.

About the Author

Portrait of Isabel Coronado. She has straight brown hair, festive earrings, and a red blazer.
Isabel Coronado Criminal Justice

Isabel Coronado is a citizen of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation. Her clan is the Wind Clan, and her tribal town affiliation is Thlopthlocco Tribal Town. At Next100, Isabel is focused on creating policy aimed at reducing the generational cycle of incarceration in Native communities, after witnessing the effects firsthand.

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