My grandparents picked me up at my house at seven in the morning. I was eleven. I was really tired but also very happy because I was going to see my dad for the first time in three years. When I was younger they moved him to a prison far away, and we just didn’t have the money to go out there very often. In the car that morning, my grandma gave me a blanket so that I could sleep, but I was just too excited. I imagined the ride was going to be really long and we were going to have to spend the night at a motel. I couldn’t believe it when my grandma told me the new prison was only a two-hour drive. Before I knew it I saw a sign that said Folsom Prison.

When we arrived at the prison, I thought we were going to have to take a number and wait an hour, but the place was almost empty. All we had to do was fill out a card and give it to the people at the front desk. They asked for my birth certificate and the note my mom signed that said I could go in with my grandma. My grandparents took all the things out of their pockets and I had to take off my shoes. We walked through the metal detectors and waited for a bus to take us to the visiting building. We got to B building and we had to go through another metal detector. The guard pressed a button and the immense metal door groaned as it opened. We stepped slowly into a small room and waited for another guard to take us upstairs. Then we walked through another large door and my grandparents had to show another guard their IDs. We finally entered the visiting room and waited for my dad to show up in one of the windows.

When he did I wanted to run up and be the first to talk to him, but I got shy. I was walking towards him ahead of my grandma, but then I slowed down because I realized didn’t know what to say to him. I couldn’t say, “Hey, Dad!” because I tried calling him “dad” once and I didn’t like the way it sounded. It’s like calling your parents by their first names—it felt so foreign. He went to prison when I was only eight months old. I never got used to saying the word “dad” like everyone else.

My grandma grabbed the phone and talked to him for a while. Then it was my turn. He looked shocked to see me. He said that I had grown so much that he didn’t recognize me. Talking to him was awkward at first because we hadn’t spoken in so long. I said “hi” and he started asking questions, and then I couldn’t stop talking. After what seemed like a long time, he looked at the clock and told me he had to talk to my grandpa.

When my dad saw my grandpa he stood up and smiled. I couldn’t see my grandpa’s face, but I could tell he was very happy. I could sense that they just wanted to give each other a hug. They hadn’t seen each other in about ten years. I don’t really know why—something about visiting papers. While they talked, I just stared at my dad. I watched him listen and write stuff down, laugh at my grandpa’s fishing stories.

When I got home I was really glad that I got to see him and that I would be seeing him in two weeks, and every two weeks from then on because he was so close by. The visits every two weeks lasted until I was thirteen. In those three years I started and ended middle school. I would tell my dad how I loved my friends and hated math and science. He told me about the books he read and the movies he watched.

In eighth grade I began visiting him less and less because my grandparents had to go take care of stuff in Mexico. By the end of the year I wasn’t going to visit him at all. The following summer I received a letter from him. There was a stamp on the middle of the letter that said Pelican Bay State Prison. I asked my mom where Pelican Bay was and she told me it was way up north. She didn’t have to tell me—I just figured it out—that I wouldn’t be able to go see him anymore. I guess no one thought about me when they decided to move him. Don’t I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my dad? I would write him often, but sometimes I wouldn’t get to send the letters because I didn’t have stamps.

For my fifteenth birthday he wrote me a letter that included fifteen words that described me. In the letter he asked me lots of questions and told me about turning fifteen. Every year for my birthday he draws a picture and sends it to me. This one was really special, because without me ever telling him the theme of my quince, he still illustrated an amazing print of his own Alice in Wonderland. There were playing cards, a cat, trees, and me as Alice in the center. I really wished he could have been there for the party. A dad is supposed to be there for his daughter on her quince.

Now I’m 15 and I haven’t seen my dad in over a year because he is so far away. It shouldn’t be this hard to go visit him, especially when we only get three hours together. We used to get phone calls from him. The visits used to be five hours long and I was allowed to hug him. Then he got put back in solitary. Because he’s in solitary he can’t even get a phone call. That’s inhumane. He can’t have contact with anybody else. I can’t hug him. My grandma can’t hug him. We can’t sit around a table and just talk and be a part of the same conversation. Don’t I have the right to speak with, see, and touch my dad?

When I get to see him again, I’m going to tell him about the plays I have been performing in and how my first year of high school was kind of great. I’m going to tell him about my new friends and my plans for the future, like going to college and traveling the world doing theater. I hope that in a few years he will be out and we can go camping like he said we would. I just can’t wait to talk to him. When I do I’ll make sure to tell him how much I miss him.

My father has been in and out of jail ever since I was a toddler. I remember one time when I was 12 or 13, my dad came home from jail after being gone for a long while. I was extremely nervous because I’d only gotten to see him through glass and all of the sudden I was going to see him without it. I was in my room watching a movie when my grandma yelled out, “Valeria, mira quien vino!” Valerie, look who came! I ran out of my room and there he was, in his square, black glasses and Polo hat. When he saw me, he grinned so big I saw all of his teeth. He looked different—buffer and more tattoos. I ran to him. He picked me up and spun me around. I held him really tightly.

That’s when I thought that my life was going to be better. I imagined my dad would finally get a good job, live in a big house with my brothers and sister and I, and be with us all the time. At first we were together a lot. He took me and my brothers to Chuck E. Cheese’s, to the fair, to his apartment, anywhere we wanted to go. I remember one night I was up late watching a movie. It was midnight and I was craving Wing Stop, so I called my father. He got out of bed and went and got it for me. That’s one of the reasons I love my father—he goes out of his way to make his kids happy.

But in not too long, things started going wrong. He began selling cannabis, even when I was with him. I would see him pull out a little bag of green stuff, hand it to a guy, and get money back. I was angry and disgusted, because I felt like he needed to respect that, as his daughter, I didn’t need to see him doing those things. I didn’t say anything though, because I didn’t want to make him feel bad. Soon I started seeing him less. He wasn’t showing up to his court dates or seeing his parole officer, and that’s when everything became a mess.

He was on the run from the law for about a year. He thought that he was gonna be slick and wear wigs and shades and not get caught. I knew he was going to get caught eventually, because I watched a lot of criminal shows, and they all got caught. I used to cry to him, beg him, “Dad, turn yourself in, you’ll get less time, everything’s gonna be okay, just turn yourself in!” But he would never listen to me.

One morning my mom was in the living room with me and my grandma when she got a phone call. As she talked I listened. She kept rolling her eyes and frowning her lips, so I could tell she was hurt and angry, plus, when it comes to my father, she’s always hurt or angry. She hung up and started talking rudely about my father. Then I got upset. “Why doesn’t he call me? Why did he all of the sudden call you, when he never calls me? I always have to call him!” Then my mom said, “Honey, your dad’s in jail. He got caught, I’m sorry.” I froze, my eyes were wide open and I was completely still. I was on the couch, just sitting there, trying so hard to not cry. I was shaking and my throat started hurting because I kept holding everything back. My grandma saw the pain in my eyes and she asked me, “Do you wanna cry?” I kept shaking my head side to side. Then she told me, “Valeria, si quieres llorar, llora. Llora porque no está bien que todas tus lágrimas estan dentro de ti.” If you want to cry, cry. Cry, because it’s not good for all your sadness to stay inside you. When she said that, something unlocked inside me and I cried for hours until my eyes were so sore they hurt.

My father’s incarceration ruined what made me the happiest girl in the world—being with my dad. I felt like my dad could’ve gotten his shit together and he could’ve done better. It made me really disappointed that he didn’t get it together when he had the chance. Even still, my father is my hero and my best friend. Now that he isn’t with me, I feel empty, like a part of me left with him. Now that he’s gone, I don’t have my person to talk to about everything, or tell secrets to or laugh and giggle with.

It took a really long time for his actual court, when he would finally get sentenced. But eventually the day came. It was a Wednesday, and I told my grandma to take me out of school to bring me. Most of my family was there, except for my brother. I didn’t tell him that I went, because I knew that if I did, he would want to go, and I knew he wouldn’t be able to handle it. The judge read the letters that me and my brothers wrote. In the letter I spoke directly to the judge. I said my father protected me and my brothers, never letting us see him angry or upset. I wrote about how he would go out of his way to try and make us happy, even if it meant staying up all night with us to make us feel loved. After the judge read my letter, she spoke directly to my father and said that I was a very smart and bright young lady. Then his lawyer told the judge that I was there. The judge told me to stand, then asked me why wasn’t I at school. “I wanted to see my dad,” I replied. She got mad I wasn’t in school, but then she told my father to get his life together, because he had a lot of support. She even made him turn around to look at us. After court, I asked my grandma, “How many years did he get?” “Tweny-six,” she told me. I couldn’t believe it. I was so mad. It felt like my anger was growing bigger and bigger, like a blowfish about to pop.

Before my dad was sentenced, I tried to talk to him as much as I possibly could. My grandmas would take me to see him. We would all be in the tiny room talking to him, then I would get ten minutes to talk to my dad alone. We would talk about how I’m doing in school, how I’m doing in debate, and how everyone in the family is doing. I felt horrible seeing him like that, in his orange clothing and handcuffs. What felt the worst was seeing him through a glass window and not being able to touch him. All I would get was his hand and mine, pressed together on either side of the glass.

The emotional distance between me and my dad was horrible for me. Now, two years later, it still is. Ever since my father left, I feel like I haven’t been happy. I’m angry that I don’t get to see him because he’s far away in Indiana. I understand that he has done some wrong things and he needs to pay the time, but the least they can do is place him in a prison that’s closer to me and my siblings. I have the right to see my father. I have the right to talk to him in person. And I have the right to hold him.

The anger that was born in me the day my father was sentenced to twenty-six years still lives inside of me. I’m angry with the world, and I’m angry with how my father’s incarceration is affecting me. It’s been two years since my dad was sentenced—twenty-four to go. I’ve been through a lot for a fourteen-year-old. There were times when I was really depressed and even suicidal. No one knew I was suicidal, not even my mom. Feeling that low was really scary.

My grandma put me in therapy at school. I went once a week for the last two years. Therapy was hard for me because I didn’t feel comfortable explaining to a total stranger about my problems. I wanted to know who my therapist was, but therapists won’t tell you about their personal lives. So I asked her easy stuff, like her favorite color (purple), where she’s from (Canada), and what she does besides counseling with kids (counseling with adults). Knowing these things made me feel like she could open up to me. In return, I was able to open up to her—mostly. I still tried my hardest not to cry in front of my therapist and I didn’t tell her that I was suicidal. Therapy helped me learn that if I stop being so angry and complaining about the world, I might just be a happier person. I also learned that it’s okay to cry. I even do once in a while. Being helped by a therapist made me feel like my right to support during my parent’s incarceration was honored.

I deal with my depression and suicidal thoughts by posting quotes of how I’m feeling on an Instagram account called ill_be_here_always. You can follow me if you like. I also talk to my boyfriend and listen to a lot of Taylor Swift’s old country music to try to keep myself from going insane. The biggest thing that saved me was policy debate. It’s really fun to argue over real-world problems even though I have to put in effort to actually get work done. It’s where I let my voice be heard. I’ve met really cool people, and they’ve become like a second family to me, and with my dad gone, I really need that.

For all of the therapists, I’d like to share some of the things my therapist did that made our sessions less difficult for me. I really liked it when there were toys in the room. Some of your patients may be angry or nervous, and for me, when I had a ball to touch or squish at my therapy sessions, it made me more relaxed. As I mentioned in my story, one of the most important things my therapist did was answer some not-too-personal questions about herself. That made me feel like she wasn’t a total stranger and I could talk to her. Some of your clients might not like to cry in front of people, so then they don’t cry in therapy. And like my grandma told me—it’s bad to hold your feelings inside. Every time I wanted to cry, my counselor would close her eyes. That made me feel more comfortable. The final method my therapist used that I found helpful was playing nature music in the background, then asking me to close my eyes and breathe in and out for a minute. It really helped me when I felt angry and frustrated. The last thing I want to say is thank you. Thank you for being there for youth like me, and for letting us know that there are people who actually care.

I think it is so important for a father to be there when there child is born, to see their child be brought into this world, but mine wasn’t there for me. That really made a dent in my life, knowing he was in a jail cell while I was being born. Before I was 12, I loved my dad to death and I didn’t care what anyone said about him, I still cared for him. He was in and out of my life, going to prison for dumb things. Every time he was out, I would have so much fun seeing my dad. My mom never let me go visit him in jail, even though I wanted to so badly. He used to send me birthday cards, Christmas cards, letters, poems and pictures of me that he drew. I always used to write him back. Staying in touch with my dad, at that time, felt good. I still respected him because I was so young, but as I got older, I slowly stopped writing him because I realized how much he hurt me and my brother. We would talk on the phone, not very often, but I always kept in touch with him. Him and my mom never really got along but if they did, it was only for a short period of time.

My older brothers didn’t really like my dad for past things that he did. When he used to get out and come over, moods changed quickly. I got really excited to see him; of course I was a daddy’s girl. But it wasn’t long until he would leave again. In 2012, my brother got shot and killed in Vallejo, California. This made a huge dent in my family. It was like we lost a puzzle piece to our five piece puzzle. He was such a good person and everyone loved him. Losing him impacted a lot of people. After that, I just shut down. I didn’t want to deal with anything anymore. I finally decided that I needed to get rid of all the negative things in life. I realized that my dad being incarcerated was a negative impact on my life. He wasn’t doing or saying anything that was helpful for me. I wasn’t going to just sit there and waste my time on someone that keeps messing up and making me go through the pain that a young innocent girl should not go through all her life.

I know my dad loves me, but he doesn’t try to be a good father. I have forgiven him more than enough times for him to fix things, but he just keeps doing the same things over and over. I have no more faith in our relationship because I know it’s just going to keep failing. I have no respect for this man at all. He has hurt me and my family too much. The way he treats my mother is the most horrible thing that I witness. He thinks he’s better than everyone else and puts everyone down, even though he has no job, nowhere to live and has just gotten out of prison. That’s the thing about him, he is so selfish and doesn’t care about anyone but himself. When he speaks to my mom, it’s like he wants her to get mad. He speaks about my deceased brother and that’s a really sensitive thing with my family, it’s like he just doesn’t care. He makes her feel so bad about herself and what she’s doing to raise her children, even though he can’t take care of us, because he’s too busy continuing to go to jail. I just want him to realize that him being in prison for most of my and my brother Devon’s life has affected us. But for me it isn’t a bad thing, I let all of the negative things out so I don’t need to worry about that anymore.

Living as a McGriff, especially as Shawn McGriff’s daughter, put a label on me as his daughter, because of his incarceration. As the child of an incarcerated parent, I have the right not to be judged, blamed or labeled because of my parents’ incarceration. I feel like it is wrong to judge somebody by their father that is in jail/prison. One day, just my brother was at my house while it was getting raided, the police never told us why, but we found out it was because of my father. I don’t think my home, where I sleep at, should get raided for his mistakes. Also one time I told the officer my name, and they said “Are you Shawn McGriff’s daughter?” and I was thinking does it matter that I’m his daughter?  Parents being incarcerated affect their children and their lifestyles.  It also makes me feel like I can’t live as my own person because of my last name and the history behind it. Being this young with a parent in jail, makes you feel like you’re different from all the other kids. My father doesn’t even know I feel this way, but I don’t think I need to. I don’t feel like wasting my time on telling him because I know if I do, he’s not going to change. I don’t want to share that with him and then find out he’s back in jail, then I would be really hurt.

Being a child of an incarcerated parent is very hard. I think that the police, judges, security guards, really anyone that has power over young people need to listen to kids stories and they need to stop judging us by our parents. The police need to realize that our parent already being incarcerated affects us enough, so how they’re treating us is not helping the situation. They need to understand the type of things we are going through before they label us by someone who has ruined our lives so much already.

My mom is my world. She does everything for me and my brother. She is my mother and my father. She works so hard for us and I appreciate her so much for that. I know she wants the best for me, but my dad seems like he doesn’t care. He will never understand how hard my mom works to be a good parent. And whenever he gets the chance, he tries to make it seem like he’s doing the right thing, when he’s not and never has. The last time I saw my dad before he went to prison for four years was when he picked me up and took me and my brother to the mall. After that trip, we found out he went to jail and the car that he took us in, was stolen. When I heard that, I was shocked. I will never be as stupid as him. I never want to be like him. His kids should be his first priority, but apparently we’re not.

My life has been hard enough while he wasn’t in it, so me going ahead in life, doesn’t need him in it because I know it will just worse. He just needs to keep doing what he’s doing because my mom, Devon and I are doing fine. I can’t wait until I graduate high school and then college and become what I want to be in life so I can show him I was perfectly fine without him. He’s going to regret not being there for me or Devon. I want him to feel guilty in himself because his choices really affected his children’s lives.

After high school, I want to go to college and become an OBGYN. I want to go to UC Davis or Alabama State University. After that I want to attend a medical school so I can get my degree and start working as a doctor. I have always had love for babies, and I think bringing them into this world is the greatest thing you can do. I have one niece and three nephews and they mean the world to me. I would do anything for each and everyone of them. Ever since my first nephew Jahmon was born, I fell in love with babies. I have a six year old niece, Imani, and she is just beautiful. I don’t get to see her that often but when I do, I just love being with her. My youngest nephew, Zion, moved to LA with his mother so I barely get to see him.  My nephew Marshawn lives with me most of the time, and he is literally like my son. I just think it is the best thing to be able to bring someone in this world and have a passion for it.

In life, I think it’s important to not back down. I like to keep going and move onto better things. After my brother died, I was just going to give up, but I realized that I need to keep going and not be stuck on something. I know my brother wouldn’t want me to back down, so I didn’t. Whenever I face challenges, I keep doing it I don’t stop and give up. This situation with my dad made me realize I also can’t back down because it is not something that is going to help me further in life. Backing down means you’re giving up. Giving up is not a title you want to be known for.

The reason why I am in Project WHAT! is because I want to be heard. I want children to stop being judged by their last name. I want people to understand how much we actually go through. Project WHAT! is helping me be more open about my story. It is important that people listen to this because it is a hard topic to share with different people, coming from my perspective, and if it wasn’t for Project WHAT! then I would have never thought of telling my story because I thought nobody would care or nobody would listen. But now I am ready to be heard.

I was so excited; I was lying in bed rubbing my feet together. I was up late waiting for Daddy to come home. The next day was my first day of kindergarten, and I knew he would be there to take me to school. I was his baby girl and I was spoiled to death. He always seemed to surprise me with something. I remember one day he picked me up from school, and when I got home he told me to look in the closet. I pulled the door open and there was a cat waiting for me. He was golden with hazel eyes and I loved him dearly. I named him Lucky. At five years old I already knew how he got it. I knew my parents stole and robbed to provide for me. They weren’t afraid to do it in front of me.

When morning finally appeared, so did my daddy. It was time to get ready for school. My mom began to comb my hair, and boy did it hurt! I am mixed with African American, and my mommy, being Caucasian and Latina, didn’t know how to handle my hair. My dad yelled, “Stop, Jamie, you’re hurting her!” My mom demanded he be quiet or comb my hair himself. He took the brush and gave me a matted knot in the middle of my head, but just knowing that he didn’t want me to hurt was good enough for me. Then he dressed me up, making sure I looked just how I liked—girly, in purple and pink. He bedazzled me in jewelry, a plastic polka dot white and purple bracelet, earrings, and rings. I felt like the princesses from one of my books.

Mommy and Daddy didn’t get along too well. Their fights led to things being thrown and broken and Mommy having big bruises. One day when I was four or five they argued about cigarettes. I stood in the doorway, listening to the screaming and cussing, my big brown eyes staring blankly. I shut them tightly hoping I could make everything disappear like a game of hide and seek. But they just kept going, and by the time I opened my eyes, tears were falling down my cheeks. I knew it was over when Mommy threw a shoe at Daddy, and Daddy pounced on her like an angry lion that had gone too long without food.

It hurt me to see my parents abuse each other. It hurt even more that they didn’t consider how my seeing it would affect me later. They didn’t think that one day I would be sitting in class, trying to be successful in a way they never were, and I would get a flash back to their fighting that would make my stomach turn. Soon Daddy stopped coming home. When he would pick me up, he took me to his wife’s house. He never married my mom so seeing him with another woman and hearing him call her his wife was upsetting to my four-year-old heart. To top off my confusion he still kissed my mom and they went in their room, closed the door, and shared each other’s bodies. He was doing this with both women and I began to believe it was a normal way of life. I wanted to have a baby and share bodies with a man just like him.

At five years old I knew too much. I knew my mom was addicted to substances and she couldn’t really be the mother she wanted to be. I knew in order to make it and be happy we had to steal. I knew my mother was lonely and felt like she needed a man. Sometimes I wish I could’ve been enough for her. I knew that Grandma had a drinking problem, and that she was drinking away her whole family that she’d lost in the blink of an eye in the famous Jonestown tragedy. One day I was lying on the couch with my grandma when we got a phone call from my dad. He said, “Mo Mo, Daddy’s in jail, give the phone to Granny.” I didn’t trip; I just knew he would be home soon. What I didn’t know was that that phone call would mark the beginning of his ten-year incarceration.

I became a different person after my dad went away. In middle school I became bitter and violent. I remember my dad used to get into fights on the streets. He always told me, “If someone hits you, hit them back.” Well, I guess I took that to heart, because after he left I started fighting a lot. Every time I fought, my mind went blank and I lost control. I would think about him and I couldn’t feel anything except emptiness and loss.

Around eight or nine years old I started blocking my dad out. I stopped writing, sending pictures, and started dreading his return date. We never had interesting phone calls. When he did call I didn’t even get to hear his voice. It was an operator reading what my dad typed. Then, when I finished responding and wanted his reply, I had to say, “Go ahead, Operator,” so the operator knew I was ready to send the message to my dad. How was I supposed to tell my dad what I really felt through an operator? It was bad enough that the last time I saw him I was seven. My family never had time to take me to see him. They couldn’t find a day to take me for eight years. I began to forget what my father looked like. I didn’t know how tall he was compared to me. I couldn’t even remember what his voice sounded like. Didn’t I have the right to see, speak to, and touch my father during his incarceration?

I have very few memories of you not in jail. I tried to forget them all, but I get flashbacks that I can’t control. I’ll just be sitting here and out of nowhere the memories come seeping in and I can’t get rid of them. One thing that always seems to come across my mind is your and Mommy’s fights, how you guys used to beat each other and go rounds like I wasn’t even there. I remember how Mommy got thrown into the laundry closet and the time you bit her. I remember how Mommy hit you with shoes and clawed at your skin. Those are the things I remember about you, Dad. But I also remember that no matter what type of guy you were to the world, you loved me. Why did you have to be away for so long? Why didn’t anyone realize I need you? Go ahead, Operator.

How was I supposed to connect with you? How was I supposed to tell you that your little girl needed you? You wouldn’t have been able to come. How was I supposed to tell you my mother let a man come in on a whim and take over our whole lives? Or that he didn’t allow me to hang out with my friends? How could I express to you that this man that came in and beat his daughter in front of us? He would be up all hours of the night on the phone degrading my mom and I, saying I was fast because I like make-up and scented lotion. He never failed to remind me I would pay for it one day and he was right, I did. How was I supposed to tell you your little girl was raped at age thirteen on February 16th, by someone she didn’t even know? My innocence was taken away and I’ll never be the same. I don’t know myself anymore, and I always feel dirty no matter how hard I try to feel clean. Ever since then I suffer from stomach pains and the doctors can’t even tell me what’s wrong. Sometimes I feel like drinking and smoking my life away. I needed you, Dad, and you weren’t there. How was I supposed to tell you that, Dad? Go ahead, Operator.

Today you constantly remind me how I’m not the person I used to be. You want me to be this innocent five-year-old, but she never existed. I’m sour and mean and I don’t care. How could I care about anything, when I don’t even know who I am anymore? How can I remain happy and joyful? It seemed like every year of your incarceration you would tell me you’d be out the next year. I got so used to you being away that when you finally came home when I was fifteen, it wasn’t exciting or eye opening or amazing; it was just whatever.

It’s only been four months since my dad got out. But sometimes it still feels like I’m still talking to an operator on the phone. I want to say how I truly feel but I just can’t because I got used to distancing my life from him. When he found out about the things I went through while he was gone, he acted out in anger. His reaction upset me, and he has a hard time coming to terms with that. I know he wants to tell me he’s upset with himself but has too much pride or fear to do so. It feels like he’s a stranger. Being with him feels awkward, like we don’t have much to talk about. It’s like the operator is still here with us transmitting messages.

Dad, even though you’re home it doesn’t feel like you’re my dad. Rebuilding what was broken for ten years is scary, right? Are you scared too? I miss you, Daddy. I missed you then and I miss you right now. Go ahead, Operator.

I was born on July 21st 1999, and I was raised by my grandmother from birth, so I didn’t really know that there was something different about my life. I always knew my grandma was my grandma and not my mom, because I saw my mom off and on since she was in and out of prison and jail. One of the reasons my mom would go so often was due to her use and selling of drugs. When she was out, she would come and stay with me at my grandmother’s until my grandmother told her it was time for her to leave. My grandmother did not like having her around. She kicked my mom out when she was 11 years old, and years later, even after that I was born, she still wouldn’t make an exception and let her stay.

My grandmother raised me well. She taught me how to behave around people, like saying “please” and “thank you.” My life would not be as well off as it is if it was not for her. She did not make my life perfect, but she did what she felt was best for me. She made home-cooked meals and made time for me. She let me be a kid and learn from my own mistakes. Like, if I wanted to do something, she would warn me what could happen, but in the end it was my choice. I feel learning from your own mistakes is the best way someone can really grow.

My grandma always made dinner for me and told me to be home by dark or call her if I was going to stay out late. Looking back on that, I see that it was her way to show that she cared. She also let me watch scary movies with her. That was how we spent our time together—sitting in the dark on our couch with a blanket. When the movie was over, if I was scared, she would let me sleep in her bed. My grandma was always there. She helped me be a better person. She was my guardian—she kept me safe but let me learn as well.

My mom was around when she could be, but she was in prison so much that my dad left when I was four and my sister was born. From what I was told he loved me. My mom said that he would say things that he shouldn’t, like he would tell me to go get him a beer and then call me a name. But he didn’t want me to leave his side. My mom has told me that he loves me, but I wouldn’t know myself because I do not have memories of that time. He meant well. He just did not know how to show love. That is kind of how I am too, so I am okay with that.

After years of addiction, my mom finally got clean and now I am in her care. It feels weird to be with her. She is so much more demanding and protective than my grandma. I don’t really want to do anything around the house for her because of this. With my grandmother, I was able to do almost anything. I helped with whatever I wanted to, like taking out the trash and things of that nature. I could do as I pleased, staying out or sitting in my room. My mom tells me to do a lot more, like cleaning the house and the dishes, when I am not the one who dirties them. And she expects it done almost immediately. I am not used to that.

With my grandma I only had to deal with one sister, and she was able to do things for herself. But with my mom, I have a brother and two sisters, and only one of them really takes care of herself. I don’t really like being around kids, so I just hide away in my room and let my mother or sister take care of them. But then I get yelled at for doing nothing or for not helping as much as she wants, just for her to turn around the next day and say I help so much. She confuses me and makes me mad so often. I don’t really know what to do.

I just close myself in my room and watch YouTube or listen to music, which are my favorite things to do. Speaking of music, I found a group called “I.C.P.” (Insane Clown Posse). They talk real and are outcasts, kind of like I am. They have become my family. When I listen to their music, it makes me feel not so alone. They come off as violent due to their graphic lyrics, but if you pay attention and really listen, there is a greater meaning. Their music is about cleansing the world of bad, meaning bigots and rapists, and making the world a better, safer place. I.C.P. has made me so much happier and calms me a bit when I am angered. It is crazy how music can change your life for the better, making you think and realize you are a part of something more.

My mom not being there as much as she should have been when I was a child has made me question her ability to tell me what is right and what is wrong on multiple occasions. But I listen because she is my mom and I love her. I wish I could say that I am mad at my mom for not being there, but I’m not. I feel crazy like a psychopath because of it. It would be so much easier to be mad and tell her, because it would be over and done with. But I’m not mad. I don’t really care, because I like my life. I feel she could have possibly made it better but I’m not mad or sad. Everything turns out the way it is meant to even if it sucks. That is why I don’t trip off of anything. I just go with it, like the flow of a wave.

Being in Project WHAT! and writing this story is like therapy and makes me feel as if a stress has been released, because I don’t really talk to anyone about this stuff. Even though I didn’t feel bad in the first place, this job makes me feel better. One of my favorite things to do is help people, and I feel like I will eventually be able to help people with their problems. I’m glad my mom told me about this job.

When I was getting ready to move in with my mom, I went back and forth on the idea about moving. At times I don’t want to live with my mom anymore, but other times I am glad that I am. Sometimes I miss my grandma, but it’s usually not on my mind. I go up to see her every once in a while, but not as often as I would like because it costs a lot and is a long trip. My grandmother probably didn’t think I should live with my mom. She never thought highly of my mother. Another reason might be that I am already 15 and my mother has already missed so much. I feel my relationship will improve with my mom because we are living together and it is already getting better than it once was. Something I’ve learned is that you have no control over what happens in your life. So there isn’t a reason to get upset over things. My mom was incarcerated. Things happen. I have no reason to look back on the negative.

It was 3:57 a.m. Where are you, Daddy? I sat up on my queen-size, Care Bear-themed bed, looking down the hallway, listening to the bass rumble the trunks of cars and screeching tires fill the night with danger. Every evening my dad would stretch out on his stomach on my bed and I’d lie on his back as if he were about to give me a piggyback ride. That’s the way we watched our movie of the night. I’d fall asleep smelling his Chanel Blue cologne and listening to his long, deep breaths, only to wake up in the middle of the night and see that he was gone, out roaming the police-taped and candle-lit corners once again. As a seven-year-old, it didn’t really bother me. I knew he’d be back in the morning. He always came home to take us to school before returning to another day’s “work” in the streets. He’d sell drugs all day and night, then turn around and lecture anyone willing to listen about the people of Oakland being able to recite an entire Mac Dre song, but not one line from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s world-renowned “I Have a Dream” speech. This was my dad.

In the morning, I rush out of bed and into the living room. “Hey, Da–” He isn’t in the living room, wearing only boxers and his beautiful smile. I had been dreaming. I’m not seven years old. I’m eleven, and my dad has been gone for about a year now. It’s time me, my mama, my younger sister and brother wake up, so we can get ready for school and work. My dad has always been in and out of prison. This is the first time I’m old enough to realize that he’s actually in prison, not on vacation, as my mother used to tell me. I wish I could call my dad and hear his deep, soothing voice, but I can’t. So, suck it up, Jakaela, no sad emotions to be displayed today, or any day. Off to school I go, making sure that everyone is smiling this early in the morning by cracking jokes and bringing up the positives in life, just like my dad used to.

I’ve become immune to that sick empty feeling that bullies its way through loops in my stomach—the feeling formed by my father’s absence, my mother’s distance, and my teachers not paying attention to me. Every recess I stay in class after the other kids go outside to play. “Ms. Graham, can I tell you something?” I ask my fourth-grade teacher. But she doesn’t respond, her attention focused on the piles of workbooks and ungraded math sheets. “Later on today. I have important papers to go over,” is the response given to me from all the staff I attempt to reach out to. This leaves me with no choice but to keep going about my day, blocking out my emotions. All of this growing up I have to do, teaching myself to be an independent eleven-year-old, all because of my dad’s incarceration. Why doesn’t anyone seem to care about the children of incarcerated parents?

Even my weekends are affected by my father’s incarceration. I’d pick school over getting up at four o’clock in the morning any day. What kid, or human, for that matter, likes to wake up that early to be hauled into their mother’s roaring green Ford, only to drive hours away and sit in the freezing cold dark, waiting to get their last name on a piece of paper? All that, and your visit isn’t even guaranteed due to Santa Rita Jail’s limit on the number of visits per day. To my mom, getting a visit is like having a chance to meet the Queen of England. To me and my siblings, it is like walking through a haunted house. The large heavy doors guarded by goblins in black, towering over us, telling us to take off our shoes, jewelry, all things metal, and walk through their detector. “We’re going to see my daddy!” my little brother tells one of the creatures. “Shut up and go to your mom, kids,” it replies. We walk down a long hallway, hearing echoing voices. I sit in the waiting room, making sure not to touch anything, afraid one of the other goblins will see me and try to eat me. Eventually one hobbles over and speaks to my mother. She turns away from the goblin and tells us we’re leaving. No one bothers to tell us why we aren’t able to see my dad. What have I done wrong this time for them to keep him away from me?

I lie in bed staring at the cracks in the ceiling of my room, thinking of how stressful my life is without my dad here to tickle my rib cage and make the pressure go way. A thunderstorm of emotions builds inside me, growing bigger with each memory that passes through my mind: the time you showed me how to draw a money sign, the plan we came up with to scare mom by placing a rubber rat under her pillow. The thunderstorm is determined to wreck through the custom-built barriers in my throat and behind my eyes Why, Daddy? Why aren’t you here? If I wouldn’t have asked for Jordans or that pink four-wheeler, would you be a doctor instead? I’m sorry for asking for too much. Fighting back tears with the strength of a wounded soldier determined to make it home to his family, I eventually fall asleep.

The morning after my emotional battle in bed, I drag my eleven-year-old body down the halls of Piedmont Avenue Elementary School. I feel myself reaching my breaking point. I’m not smiling or laughing. I keep my distance from everyone, even the younger kids on the black-matted playground, who usually wait on me to hand them my green M&M’s from the king-size pack my mother gives me every morning. I sit underneath the trees on the moist grass area near the preschool. A group of girls from my class walk up to me, expecting a loud greeting, but receive nothing. “I think she’s sad because her dad doesn’t want her anymore. He doesn’t even drop her off now,” one girl whispers as they walk away. That’s it. I can’t take it anymore. Jakaela, stop! I scold myself. It’s okay. He loves you. No he doesn’t. He left me! He hates me! I made him leave. I begin sobbing uncontrollably. All of the pain, heartache, and letters full of truth, which I never had the courage to send, come flowing out of me. I am afraid to cry because of the icky throw-up feeling stuck in my tummy, but I can’t stop. Hours go by. I probably miss our math test and the Reading Buddies’ season with the volunteers. I think eventually my teacher will come searching for me, but she doesn’t. No one does. Why is it that even when aware of my father’s incarceration, no one thinks to ever check in with me or even listen to me when I try asking for their support? Shouldn’t someone help me deal with all of this? Don’t I have the right to support as I face my parent’s incarceration? That’s when I realize my feelings don’t matter. Up and to the bathroom I go. Time to wipe the blood off of my shield and get back to war.

Home, at least that’s what my mom refers to it as. To me, it’s just another battlefield filled with illusions and distractions. Mama goes straight into her room with the door closing behind her. Won’t see her for a while. She’s been such a stranger since my dad went to prison last year. If we didn’t look identical I probably wouldn’t even recognize her. She’s gone from a size sixteen to a size ten in just a few months. I barely see her. The times when I do see her it’s awkward, not only because she never looks up from the ground, but because I can’t look at her without having a flashback of the day my daddy was taken. The rare times she does talk I don’t hear her words. When she looks at me or speaks to me, I just see her falling apart on the day my dad was captured. I remember her screaming, questioning God and herself. She caught me peeking through the crack in the door, so I ran to her side, attempting to comfort her. I squeezed her as hard as I could, rubbing her back like the way she used to do when putting me back to sleep after a nightmare. She continued to sob and scream as if I weren’t even there. I know she appreciated me for doing this because after she calmed herself, she held me for thirty minutes before getting up and leaving to roam the streets as my father’s replacement.

Now that I’m older I understand what was going on. I wonder if she feels alone like me, but that I’ll never know. You see, my mom is like a one-way street. She consumes all the heavy things speeding towards her, but never releases any emotion back. I never thought about it before now, but I want to be just like my mom when it comes to my emotions. Today we’re closer than any other mother-daughter duo, mainly because of my father’s incarceration. When either one of us is down or slacking we’re there to motivate each other. I honestly believe that wouldn’t have happened if my dad hadn’t been gone for those four years.

Today I’m fifteen, and I’m still the same girl laughing and joking on the outside and constantly fighting myself on the inside. My dad has been out of prison for two years now, yet I still miss him. He’s not the dad I used to dream about. He’s changed from hugs and kisses to loud music and demanding our submission. Where did you go, Daddy? Err, Dad? Sir? It’s me! Your baby girl! Your money queen! Your princess! What made you become so different? Help me, Daddy. I’m dying, too afraid to show you the tears I’m crying. Now before I go to lie in my shrunken twin-sized bed with whatever sheets and blanket I can find, “Daddy, what movie do you want to turn on?” doesn’t leave my mouth. Instead, neglect fills my already broken heart, because by the time he gets home it’s time for everyone to get up and dressed. When I am able to stay up late enough to see him get home, we turn on a movie, get our cups filled with peach tea. But not even halfway through the movie, his head is tilted back on his chair, mouth wide open, eyes shut, leaving me with no other choice than to go lie down myself. Alone in my bed, surrounded by the gunshot-filled night, I am once again having to fend for myself, as my nightmares continue to win the fight. It’s 3:57 a.m. Where are you, Daddy?

My parents have always been the people I admire and look up to for everything. I remember, as a baby girl, cruising around the city in my dad’s bright red ’68 Impala, my sister and I in the back and my mom in the passenger seat with my dad’s arm wrapped around her seat, bumping oldies or rap music with the top down. The men posted in front of the liquor store gazed at my dad’s car with jealous eyes when we rolled past them. As each birthday, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s celebration passed over the years with my dad in prison, I held onto that memory of Sunday driving with my dad.

When I was little, I noticed my daddy wasn’t around anymore, and I had no choice but to deal with being away from him. At three years old, I remember one of the first times my mom, my older sister, and I went to visit him. My mom walked to the center desk of the huge quiet building and returned to my sister and I with a clipboard full of papers. I still remember the sound of her black high-heeled shoes tapping the hard, polished floor. There were framed pictures of police officers and badges lined up against the wall. I thought to myself, “My dad is here? Jail?” But it wasn’t. It was more serious than jail; it was prison. I was so confused because it seemed to me that my dad would never do anything bad. “Mommy, where are we?” I asked. Immediately, her facial expression changed from ordinary to serious. “Your dad will be going to school here for a while to learn a few things.” Her response left me quiet. I felt like something was being kept from me. That something turned out to be my dad.

Eventually my dad was moved, from being close by, to an all-men’s prison hours and hours away. They moved him so far from us that when we visited we had to leave home before sunrise. Three hundred miles away was nothing to my mom. The four hours there and back were completely worth it to see my dad, whether it was a contact visit or peeking at him through a glass window, speaking through the phone.

My whole childhood consisted of visits. Every time we would be one of the first people in line for visiting hours to avoid how long those lines get. Besides getting to see my dad, there was nothing fun about visiting. We would stand in line watching the sad faces of the families who weren’t able to see their loved ones that day because their shorts were too short or their shirt color blended in with the inmates. We were surrounded by obnoxious guards and the stares of emotionless police officers, who didn’t know anything about our situation. Once we were in the visiting room, we would wait patiently in uncomfortable blue plastic chairs for my dad to walk through those doors.

He looked different each time, his hair and facial hair grew quickly and they often switched his uniform colors from tan to orange. I always sat on his lap, and every visit he would hand me a comb and tell me to brush his short hair. We would play board games, dominoes, and make houses out of playing cards. The guards would give my parents a warning each time they got too close or kissed each other.

As for life without my dad, we wrote letters often and talked on the phone almost every night. My letters were always short and simple, but I’m sure he loved seeing what my child brain was thinking and what my baby hands could write. He would always tell me he loves and misses me and that he never wants to be away from us again. “Don’t worry about me when I don’t call. It’s hard to get ahold of the phones here. But I think about you all day everyday,” he would write to me. I could tell he really hated being there and that he had a lot of regret about whatever he did.

Not knowing why my dad went away bothered me a lot. My mom never told me why he was arrested and I still don’t know the reason why. I think she did that to protect me so I wouldn’t overthink things more than I already was and be worried. We had a lot of support from both sides of the family, but I would have rather had my dad around than think of him all the time. Almost everything reminded me of him. Whenever we would drive through a tunnel, my sister would tell me to hold my breath until we reached the end and then make a wish. My wishes were always for him to come home.

My dad’s absence affected my mom by making her closer to my sister and I. We went with her everywhere to handle things about my dad—court, visits, the lawyer’s office. As a kid I could see there was a lot on my mom’s shoulders, and that she was stressed out from playing both mother and father. She worked until 6 pm, and still managed to cook Filipino meals for our dinners. She took us shopping, on family outings, and other things we should have been doing with my dad. I felt left out that my dad wasn’t home throughout my childhood to share his Mexican side with me, speak to me in Spanish, and teach me the language. My sister knows Spanish, but I don’t.

I experienced all of this before I was even eight years old. My life changed dramatically when my dad was released. I felt more complete than ever, like his release was the last piece to my puzzle. I was finally able to throw a birthday party with us together as a family again after so many years. He got a job as a construction worker, and since my mom was already working, the extra income from his job helped us move into a new house we all loved. I had a bedroom all to myself for the first time ever, and we were finally doing things as a family again. Then, out of the blue, our happy family went downhill.

I remember being in the backyard with my newborn kittens, not even ten years old. I walked into the house, only to watch our front door get kicked down and two cops bark at my mom like pits, asking her why she wouldn’t answer the door. The chain lock was broken and there was a huge hole in the door. My mom was vacuuming and is deaf in her right ear, but of course they took that as an excuse. They were obnoxious and careless, tearing up our house and leaving everything a mess. They ignored my sister and I on the couch. My sister finally asked what they were planning to do. “We’re going to have to take her in,” they said, after spending all that time in our house without saying a word to us.

Both of my parents went to Santa Rita Jail when I was 11. My reaction involved many different feelings—upset, sad, scared, disappointed, but never shame. I love my parents, and no matter what happened or what will happen to them, I will never turn my back on them for something they did. People learn from their mistakes and I knew there was a reason they had to be in there. I got through it by telling myself it was only temporary.

With my dad, and now my mom, not around, my older sister and I stayed with my two aunts in their townhouse, which was a positive experience. We sometimes ate out, prayed the rosary every night, went to mass, and had something planned every day. But it was nothing like life with my parents. At Santa Rita my sister and I sometimes had to talk to my dad through a glass window. Visits with my mom were through a glass window too, but luckily I qualified to have contact visits with her in a gym with other moms and their daughters. My mom was in a cosmetology program that allowed me to see her and touch her. She did my makeup and hair, and it would have been perfect for my sister to be a part of it, but she was over the age limit by a year, so when she visited it had to be through a glass window, which felt unfair to my mom.

After about seven months my mom was released, but my dad had to serve more time. At one of his court dates, my sister wrote a letter to the judge asking her to release my dad early. She explained that her high school graduation was coming up, that she would be the first in our family to graduate, and that she wanted my dad to be there to see that accomplishment. But the outcome let her down. Sentencing laws do not require judges to consider children when they make decisions about their parents. I really hope that judges can understand their decisions have effects on our lives.

My parents play an irreplaceable role in my life and in my sister’s life. Our relationship with them is vital, important, and essential. Don’t I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my parent? Some police officers and judges don’t think beyond people’s actions, or think about their families and children, and the way it could affect them. It didn’t even seem like my sister and I mattered to them.

My parents’ incarceration brought challenges into my life. It has been hard to calm my anxiety and stop being so worried all the time, but overall I’ve learned a lot from these experiences. I felt like I was stuck on a roller coaster. The ongoing pattern of being separated from my parents was traumatizing but life-changing. It motivated me to be clean-handed and pure, making all the right decisions, and leading me to do things that are important over things that could get me time behind bars.

My father was incarcerated when I was a baby. Trips here and there to a place that looked scary, and was as busy as BART during commute hours. It had tall gates with spikes on them and people standing high with guns. This seemed to always be the place I’d visit with my mom and older brother, Frederick. I was unsure on how I was supposed to feel. Driving to see my father was fun, exciting and long. The sights of a continuous freeway with hills as dry as desert dust to the right and left of me. Playing games of I-Spy with my Mom and brother seemed to always make the car ride more bearable. Going to this place they call “Jail” to meet someone named “Dad”.

At this time I was very young and I didn’t understand why I was forced to call someone Dad that came and went. I’d see him a few times a year, and then the next year not at all. The thoughts going through my young mind were why does Daddy stay here? Why is Daddy writing me letters on yellow paper I can’t read? When we arrive to the Jail my mother would always say “keep your mouths shut and don’t say anything stupid while we’re in here.” Frederick and I would always respond “ok mommy.” After parking and walking to the front entrance my mom would tell us to go sit down on the wooden bench while she checked us in. After she checked in we would always ask for the bag of quarters she would carry in when we went on visits so that we could buy snacks while waiting for our visit. Sometimes it took hours in the hot scorching sun. After waiting we’d go through the metal detector while my mom was searched and patted down and checked for inappropriate clothing. I’d watch our items go through a long machine with little rollers at the end. When the plastic container came out it had all of our shoes, belts, sunglasses and our bag of quarters. As we walked to the next building I would always hold my Mom’s hand. Scary armed policemen would stand tall with their chest pumped out as we walked to the next building where my father was. Nannnniii!!! I hear him call, I run to him hoping I don’t fall. He hugs me tight and says “I love you.” I think to myself “I don’t even know you.” Looking into his eyes, someone once described as a thief, a father and another black man for society to hide, to fund their secret agendas.

Here I am 17-years-old, looked at as if I’m just another statistic of an incarcerated black man. I try to succeed in a world looking down at me, always telling me I’m not capable of leading. I tell myself every day that I am a strong African American young lady that refuses to be identified as “Ratchet” or “Classless” and “uneducated”. Don’t I have the right not to be judged, blamed, or labeled because my parent is incarcerated? I want to share a letter that I believe should be heard by Police, Judges, Law Makers, Educators, the Community and most importantly the man I call my Father.

Dear Dad,
I want to start off where you left me. A one-year-old trying to walk. I always looked for you when I looked up, but before I fell you weren’t there. The time I was left at school without being picked up because my mother had to work full time to provide a healthy life for your two fatherless children. Or even the time I was touched inappropriately by your own cousins. I always looked for you when I needed help, but like always, you failed to be there. How about the time I was trying to be a big girl and learn to ride a bike without training wheels, you weren’t there. Good thing Frederick was there to help me when I fell and stubbed my toe. I looked for you to pick me up, hug me and tell me everything was going to be ok, but you weren’t there. My first day of Kindergarten was the one to remember but oh yeah I forgot you weren’t there to experience that either. At the age of 8, I began attending a summer camp called Project Avary. Project Avary is a camp for youth with incarcerated parents or family. Avary was a second family for me because I discovered that I was not alone, that there were other kids out there like me. I was able to meet a lot of cool people that shared similar experiences. Going to Avary was a good opportunity for me to share my story and to hear others. Project Avary has supported me in many ways, now I am no longer ashamed or afraid to tell my story.

June 14, 2009 my life was changed forever. I tragically lost my little brother Drew to a drowning at my older brother’s birthday party. His passing has changed my life in many ways. I have learned to appreciate everyday God gives me. God has given not only my family but me many blessings. Despite the loss of my little brother and my Dad’s absence in my life I continue to stay positive. June 12, 2013 was one of the happiest days of my life, when I was promoted to high school. I was sitting on the turf of my new school waiting for them to call my name and there it was Alannah Williams the principal announced. After getting my promotion certificate I looked to the stands wishing you were there screaming my name, but you weren’t. I felt abandoned, but I held my head up high and kept a smile on my face. To overcome the sadness of not having my father in my life, I am participating in numerous sports and activities. Such as basketball, volleyball, track and field, Positive Steps and Project WHAT. When I’m on the basketball court my pain is non-existent. When I throw the shot put I let out all the anger and all the times I let your absence destroy me mentally and physically. When I go up for a block, I think of blocking all the negative things that try to take over my life and stay positive. Sports has helped me develop mentally, physically and emotionally and has helped pave the way to possibly obtaining a college scholarship. It is very disappointing and discouraging to not see my father at my games or track meets cheering me on . Every day I tell myself that everything is going to work out, it just takes time. God has given me the opportunity to be a strong, intelligent African American woman.

Although I have come across many challenges I’ve learned to rise above and overcome them. But without the love and support from my family, teachers, friends, coaches, mentors and God I wouldn’t have the strength to overcome these obstacles. I am learning to follow my dreams and to believe in myself. Every day is an new opportunity to improve and to succeed in whatever I put my mind to regardless of my circumstances. I am in control of my own destiny!