digital collage on a dark brown background with lines like shattered glass emanating out from an orange circle on the right side. inside the circle is a brown hand with the same shattered lines and a smaller hand in the same shade of orange layered on top
Designed by Lara Witt

My mom plopped Annalaya, my youngest daughter, on the counter opposite me. I watched my family gather on the other side of the plexiglass barrier: my mom, my dad, my older daughter Adessa, and 8-month-old Annalaya. We were separated by more than just a glass; a cycle of generational crime, addiction, mistakes, and my recent indictment also kept us apart. I was facing major time for a drug deal gone wrong—enough time that a weight had landed on my chest, making it impossible to breathe without intention. There was a chance I would remain separated from them for the rest of our lives. 

The time was enough to wake me up to the decisions I had made; my poor choices had been my undoing. The knowledge also kept me up at night, dreaming of redemption and a second chance. I desperately wanted to fix this, to be a good mom and a good daughter. I wanted to prove to God, the world, and myself I was more than my worst decision. I had no idea if I would ever get the chance.

Annalaya had gotten chubby. She made a thump on the ceramic counter and had rolls around her knees. Her growth was evident. The few months I had been gone at the time were evident. She wore a jean skirt that I recognized easily, a hand-me-down from Adessa. At 8 years old, I had dragged her through my addiction with me. Annalaya was too young; she didn’t know me as an addict. It hurt to admit it, but she didn’t know me at all. Maybe it was better that way. 

Annalaya’s little skirt flared at the bottom, stitched with peace signs on the pockets, reminders of the peace her life lacked. Peace was not something that had passed down in my family. 

Suddenly, Adessa jumped up to the glass, clawing frantically, wanting to touch me. She wanted comfort. She scanned the closet-like room, as if trying to find a crack or a hole she could crawl through to get to me. 

There are a lot of cracks in the system, but none of them get you to your family. 

She continued to dig fervently at the glass like a puppy trying to dig her way to me. I was her hidden bone. 

I could see her longing.

I could hear her weep.

I could feel her helplessness.

She kept clawing. It hurt me deeply. It cracked my spirit. 

I placed my hand on the glass, a hint of a smile on my face. Adessa’s hand mirrored mine. Then Annalaya placed hers on the glass too, thinking it was a game. I couldn’t keep the one rogue tear from trickling down my cheek, just like I could not keep their hearts from breaking. I peeked at my mom and dad, wishing the tear would disappear. My parents looked helpless. My mom let her shoulders fall, defeated. I nodded.

I could not think of one word to comfort them.

“I love you,” I said. Why had that not been enough to stop me from destroying our lives? Why had I done this to them? Why had I done this to myself?

That was 10 years ago. In the decade since, the justice system did not lead me back to my family, help me heal, restore me, or even help me fight my addiction. I had to figure that out on my own in spite of all the barriers before me. I am slowly but surely digging my way out of hell. I am almost there. In a few short months, I will be back to my children.

However, even after I am reunited with them, I know the mental, physical, and emotional long-term effects of my absence will remain. 

Almost no one talks about the casualties of mass incarceration and the children it leaves behind. According to a policy brief by the National Council on Family Relations, about 5 million children have experienced the incarceration of a parent at some point during childhood—and that’s likely an undercount. Research shows that this separation only causes more harm to already vulnerable children and their families, increasing household instability, substance use, and mental health conditions.

I understand parental incarceration from all angles. I have experienced the cycle myself. My mom spent a good chunk of my childhood in prison. I now realize what I considered normal as a child was just statistics working against me. I suffered from social anxiety and started showing signs of bipolar disorder at around 10 years old. I often got in trouble at school for behavior problems. I felt misunderstood and confused.

I lacked a maternal influence and became pregnant with my daughter at 14 years old. When my mother was released from prison, I was angry and resentful. I threw it in her face every chance I got. It was not until my incarceration years later, when I had to leave my own children, that I understood and was able to forgive her. 

My incarceration and my recovery work helped me understand how deeply my mother’s  incarceration affected me. The psychological harm led to numerous issues that I still deal with today.

These are the same things I have left my children to deal with. I hope they can break the cycle, but with the generations stacked against them, it will not be easy. All I can do is watch and hope the ripples will eventually fade—for them and the millions of other children left behind just like them.

Unfortunately, without a major social service overhaul, rehabilitative programs focused on reunification, and initiatives that prioritize keeping bonds secure and in place for families affected by incarceration, I don’t believe the cycle will ever end.

One person alone cannot dig us out of this hell; we have to dig together. Just like how one person alone cannot change the tide, but together we can make a wave.

The Right to Write (R2W) project is an editorial initiative where Prism works with incarcerated writers to share their reporting and perspectives across our verticals and coverage areas. Learn more about R2W and how to pitch here.

Heather C. Jarvis is an expert on the gender-specific issues one faces while incarcerated. A survivor of addiction and the criminal legal system, Heather now dedicates her life to helping others pursue...