Op-ed: I’ve been social distancing from my father for 31 years

It’s been nearly two months now since the U.S. was stricken by the coronavirus pandemic and Americans have been forced to adjust to this new normal of isolation. Millions of children are sitting at home confused, worried, and terrified; parents are home, some wondering if they will have a job to return to if and when businesses reopen. We have all been forced to shelter-in-place, adhering to “social distancing” from the most important people in our lives.

Now that you’ve experienced a glimpse of life in the unknown, I’d like to share an alarming fact with you. This unknown is exactly what it feels like to be a child when your parent is incarcerated. I’ve been social distancing from my father for 31 years, because he is in prison. This abnormal reality is merely compounded by coronavirus.

The collateral damage of mass incarceration is incredibly pervasive. Some of the hardest-hit have been those without a voice, some impacted so early that they literally could not speak. Others couldn't bring forth the words to articulate the pain. Others cried for help in many different ways, but nobody responded. —Tony Lewis, Jr., We Got Us Now actionist and author of Slugg: A Boy's Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Washington, D.C.)

When my father was arrested, my immediate reaction was similar to the public’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak: This will pass soon. In reality, I was completely clueless to what it meant to have my father sentenced to life in federal prison. Weeks, months, and years have gone by, and our lives together have never been the same. In retrospect, I realize I’ve been coping with the pain of this ambiguous loss of my father for decades — I just stuffed the emotional turmoil of his physical absence deep down inside of me to avoid the pain.

In 2014, I learned of a White House initiative for “children of incarcerated parents.” I was shocked because not only had I never heard this term before, but I also did not know anyone actually cared about the children of people behind bars. That moment led me to create We Got Us Now, a first-of-its-kind, national, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization built and led by and for children and young adults with parents behind bars. The data shows that there are at least 10 million children in the U.S. who have been impacted by parental incarceration at some point in their life. But these children often do not share this part of their lives because of the shame, stigma, and trauma attached to the experience.

"We are implementing laws to eliminate phone call fees for all children of incarcerated parents in Louisiana that are risking their lives everyday at work through COVID-19 to add money on their dad's account.” —Bree Anderson, We Got Us Now actionist and co-founder of Daughters Beyond Incarceration (New Orleans, Louisiana)

The mission of We Got Us Now is to build community and engage, educate, elevate, and empower this historically invisible population through the use of digital narratives, safe and inclusive spaces, and advocacy-led campaigns. We want to ensure our voices are at the forefront of local, state, and federal strategic initiatives and policies that will help to keep our families connected as well as create fair sentencing and end mass incarceration. That’s why on Friday, we released a video highlighting some of our actionists, who are currently living with the reality of a family member incarcerated. We Got Us Now actionists are directly impacted daughters and sons; they’re subject-matter experts, with a proven commitment to reform the criminal legal system through action and advocacy within their respective cities and states in alignment with We Got Us Now’s policy priorities.

With the onset of COVID-19, jails and prisons at all levels began to lock down their facilities. With little to no access granted to us to connect with our incarcerated parents, and our questions about preventative measures going unanswered, We Got Us Now organized our community. On March 16, 2020, we released an open letter titled #ProtectOurParents that included a list of four demands from daughters and sons across the country who are anxious about the wellbeing of their parents behind bars. Our urgent plea to the authorities stems from the understanding that “social distancing” is not a reality inside a jail or prison facility, with men and women who share personal living spaces including cells, showers, and restrooms. Everyday necessities that people in the outside world take for granted are not provided to our incarcerated parents, such as basic hygiene products, health care, and family connection via phone calls, emails, and video communications. For children with parents behind bars, the COVID-19 pandemic only compounds the emotional and financial worries we have to bear. Everything comes at a cost. Nothing is FREE.

What if I was just laid off from my job and couldn't put money on my parent's commissary account? How would they get access to soap and basic hygiene supplies during this global pandemic? I really want to know how we are going to ensure that our mothers and fathers have basic hygiene and cleaning supplies? How will we ensure that everyone has the ability to thoroughly wash their hands and clean their living quarters? —Tiffany Brown, We Got Us Now actionist and founder of Developing Despite Distance (Detroit, Michigan)

Imagine the mental, physical, and emotional toll of not knowing whether your parents will become exposed to coronavirus. Nearly everyone in the world is feeling that now, but for most people, they can call or videochat their loved ones to check in. We can’t. Some of our parents are now elderly and have been incarcerated for decades, many years removed from their initial offense. They’re considered the most vulnerable people, according to the CDC, and we have no way to reliably care for them.

With COVID-19 contaminating the Butner, North Carolina, federal facility where my dad is on lockdown, the next 15 minutes on this phone are precious, as this may be my only chance to assure him that I am okay, and to simply hear his voice. After pressing five on the dial pad, I hear the usual "Hey Babygirl," and I smile. As his only child, that is something I will never outgrow. When I was just six months old, my then 20-year-old dad, Orrin Jackson, was sentenced to 98 years in federal prison for a non-violent, drug-related offense. He is now serving his 30th year in prison. My dad's draconian sentence is and was the result of a crack cocaine law and a misinterpretation of the federal criminal statute Title 18 U.S.C. 924(c), which is what has kept my dad in prison for so long. His case has seemingly fallen through the cracks of our criminal justice system. —Ashley Jackson, We Got Us Now actionist and founder of Gift Box Shop LLC (Charlotte, North Carolina)

We Got Us Now’s interest in this goes beyond fundamental human concern. #ProtectOurParents is about basic human rights and civil liberties. For us, this is life or death.

Ebony Underwood is a social entrepreneur, content creator, activist, and Soros Justice Fellow. She is a heralded voice championing for the millions of children and young adults impacted by parental incarceration. Her personal mission is to help heal and eliminate the devastating impacts of parental incarceration for children and young adults by building an empowered community of allies and directly impacted leaders.