Haniyah wrote this article as a 17-year-old participant in Project WHAT! a program of Community Works West, based in Berkeley, Calif. The young people in Project WHAT! all have family members who are or have been incarcerated. After an intense summer training, they lead presentations and trainings for teachers, social workers, and criminal justice system staff to create awareness of the problems faced by young people in their situation. Their Resource Guide for Teens with a Parent in Prison or Jail can be downloaded at http://www.communityworkswest.org.
Illustration: Thea Gahr
My baby pictures are of my dad holding me, getting ready to kiss me, in the visiting area of a juvenile facility. In the photos you can see my dad is wearing a jail suit. I have another photo of me when I was 2 or 3, sitting outside after a visit. At that point my dad was in adult jail. I am now 17 and at age 35, my dad has spent most of my life incarcerated.
Its been so hard for me having a parent in and out of my life since I was born. Whenever my father is fresh out he always looks so beautiful. My dad is darker skinned than me but we have the same calm, slow walk and smooth vibe. We talk similar and have the same facial expressions. My dad is a political rapper, Askari X, and I rap, too. If Im rapping in the mirror I see movements that Ive seen him do even though its not conscious, Im just being myself. When my dad is out, he teaches me so much in just a few hours that he spends with me. My dad is so smart. Everyone who knows him says there isnt any subject he doesnt know about. They used to call him Professor X. When hes out we plan fun things to do for holidays or for my birthday and get so excited. But he always seems to get arrested before those things can happen. A month before my 16th birthday my mother told me my father got locked up for not going to court. All I could think about was the red Cadillac he said he was going to buy me. It felt like he reached for my heart in my body and just ripped it out. I had nothing to say.
One of the hardest things about having my dad incarcerated has been the lack of information about what was going on. As a little kid, I knew the police had taken my father away, but I didnt really know what that meant. When I was 4 years old I learned that 911 was the number to call the police, so I dialed 911 and asked to speak to my father. A police officer came to my house and said I was playing on the phone. He told my mother to watch me and make sure I didnt call again.
Growing up, nobody in my family would tell me what my dad was in jail for. I wondered if they didnt want to tell me because he did something really bad and they thought I was going to look at my father differently. But I feel people should tell a child if they want to know why their parent went to jail. Whatever I found out wouldnt change my opinion or love for my father. But not knowing anything causes me hurt and worry.