Q&A: Author Sylvia A. Harvey’s new book explores how families are affected by mass incarceration

Q&A: Author Sylvia A. Harvey’s new book explores how families are affected by mass incarceration

In Sylvia A. Harvey’s new book, The Shadow System: Mass Incarceration and the American Family, the author explores how mass incarceration creates immense obstacles for not only those inside, but for the families who live and love beyond prison and jail walls.

While recent criminal justice campaigns such as the Connecting Families movement have drawn attention to how private prison phone services create financial burdens for people who want to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones, Harvey’s book explores some of the less mentioned ways the carceral system can strain and sever familial ties.

The book hones in on three people’s stories—Dawn in Kentucky, Randall in Florida, and William in Mississippi—to explore how the criminal legal system impacts family bonds in unique ways depending on one’s race, gender, and the nature of the crime they were convicted of. In creating full portraits of each of these families, Harvey sheds light on how state and federal policies, as well as racist and sexist social attitudes, can not only impact individual lives but also ripple through entire family units, touching everyone from a parent to a partner to an unknowing child. 

Harvey sat down with Prism to discuss her book, which was released this spring and is now available through Bold Type Books.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Tamar Sarai Davis: You open and close the book discussing your own father, who was incarcerated, and the ways that impacted your life. Given your personal relationship to the subject, did you have a clear sense of the specific issues that you wanted to explore before you began reporting and writing? What are some of the other new themes that emerged as you were spending time with these families that you knew you had to include? 

Sylvia Harvey: Because I feel that there has been, obviously, coverage of mass incarceration, my original thinking was I wanted to report on children of incarcerated parents. What does that look like for the children? We’ve got 2.7 million children that have parents behind bars. And I think that it’s been a population that is largely ignored or unseen, so the question was: What’s happening to them? What does this look like in terms of education? What does this look like in terms of stigma?

But there’s also the issue of age, when it comes to children. Children aren’t able to articulate exactly what they’re thinking or what they’re feeling in a way that a kid can carry a whole narrative. In interviewing some of these children, I just realized there’s no way to tell this story without telling the larger story of the entire family. So the question was, outside of the person that’s incarcerated, how does this make its way through the whole family? I really wanted to just illustrate how families as a unit are either surviving or being torn apart as they deal with incarceration. It was really like, let’s go out there and see what’s happening for families and along that journey, learning some of the issues that arose or that became common.

Obviously, I was thinking, what does this mean for Black men? What kind of structural racism and biased legislation is at play for this demographic that we know is hit the hardest?

In Louisville, I mostly focused on white women, looking at what it meant for white women impacted by the opioid epidemic, and how that’s impacted their lives. What does it look like now that incarceration is touching a demographic that at one point was probably perceived to be untouchable?

In Kentucky, I looked at what this means for returning citizens. What does it mean to be labeled a felon? What does it mean to not be able to get a job? What does it mean to not be able to get an apartment? What does it mean for your children to go into foster care and everything you need to get those children out of foster care?

In Florida, it was the matter of what does a life sentence look like? And why are we issuing life sentences? How does that impact the family structure?

Davis: I was really intrigued by your discussions on the more nuanced but profound ways that prison strains family ties, such as the idea that people can feel underappreciated for taking care of their children alone while their partner is inside, or the ways that short visits make it difficult for kids to broach difficult conversations with their incarcerated parents because they know that they won’t have enough time to mend any disagreements that might arise. What new legislation, programs, or societal shifts might address some of those less explored ways that incarceration stifles familial bonds? 

Harvey: I feel like there’re so many really big issues that we haven’t even been able to tackle, but I think that one of the things that would be really helpful is therapy. I think for the family member on the outside—the mother or the father that’s dealing with the incarceration—I think that there’s no real access to mental health. How do I discuss feeling burdened by going on this prison visit? How do I tell my partner that I don’t want to continue in this relationship because [of] what it’s doing to me mentally, emotionally, spiritually? I think that there isn’t enough room for conversation around that.

And I think that for people who are inside these facilities, it’s the same idea, like what kind of programming do they have? How can you start to think about, “Okay, how can I support the mother of my child? How can I be more understanding? How can I consider the burden that she has of raising our son or daughter on her own?” I think sometimes you’re so caught up in “Oh my God, how do I deal with the brutality that’s happening inside the facility?” There are so many things I think they are dealing with and there isn’t space for them to even think about that.

I think that one of the programs that I mentioned early in the book, The Children of Inmates, in Florida is a program that goes inside these jails, much like the Babies and Brains program. That’s a program that’s teaching these incarcerated parents about development, about how to take care of the child, about how to broach some of these topics that are difficult. I think more programming like that should be happening.

Davis: I was really interested in Dawn’s story and how all of these different issues from domestic violence to social expectations around motherhood combined to make her experience unique. Can you speak a bit more about how women experience incarceration and why, in your opinion, women’s experiences are obscured in national conversations about mass incarceration?

Harvey: The percentage of women who are impacted by incarceration is really small compared to men. I don’t think that overshadows what they deal with, but it’s mostly men who are in prison—though the number of women has been increasing over the last 10 years.

Some of the specific things that happen are, first if we look at the level of access to the outside world, you go into these visiting rooms where women are incarcerated and they’re mostly empty and if they’re not, it’s Mom coming in, or it’s your sister coming to visit, or Grandma coming to visit. So it’s mostly women supporting women once they get locked up. You go into a male facility and that facility is filled with women because women are supporting the men, whether it’s their partners or their parent, Mom is there, girlfriend is there, sisters are there because we assume this almost as our job, as our responsibility, as our duty to make sure that they are supported and that they survive this experience, and I don’t think that the commitment is the same for women once they are incarcerated.

I think a lot of mothers also have to deal with [wondering] what is going to happen to my child if the father is not present or willing to take them? If there’s no mom or grandma to take care of [the child] and if they indicate that they don’t have that support system, then the child goes into foster care. Then we’re looking at the Adoption and Safe Families Act and what it means to be incarcerated for an extended period of time. If your child is in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, then the state has to file a termination of parental rights and in some states it’s even less than 12 months. So then you have to deal with, how do I get the child out of foster care? How do I make sure that the foster parent or the child welfare system is supporting me by bringing my child up to visit? You’re just kind of there figuring it out on your own. 

Davis: I wanted to spend a bit of time discussing this particular moment that we’re in right now and the eruption of interest in the impact of the criminal legal system on Black people. Even though a lot of these protests are explicitly around policing, how do you think that they will impact or change the system broadly past this moment?

Harvey: I always think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, and he said it so long ago, I can’t even imagine that it’s still true, but he said that the riot is the language of the unheard, right? So I think that the most recent murder—for us to see this level of lethal brutality, by the police—I think was really just a trigger. It was, like they say, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I think that this is really a combination of Black people just having survived centuries of oppression. It’s not just policing; we could look at all these other things that are happening too. We’ve been under siege forever and it hasn’t gotten much better.

That’s why I focus on a couple of different systems in the book—some of our most important social institutions in this country. We can think about the criminal justice system, the child welfare system, the healthcare system, the education system, and in all of those, Black people are still being oppressed, we’re still fighting for freedom.  

Davis: I think that the intersection between all of these different systems, from education to child welfare to the criminal justice system, is something that you illuminate really well in the book and I think that’s what good storytelling can do—it humanizes issues and can help us see how people’s lives sit in the crosshairs of all these systems. That brings me to something that I noted when reading your epilogue: You mentioned that over half of the state prison population is composed of people who have been convicted of violent and serious crimes, but we tend to shy away from talking about that. How do you hope that the book and introducing readers to these characters will change public attitudes towards people convicted of violent crimes?

Harvey: This is hard, but I think the reason I chose these serious crimes is because I think we need to understand how people get to these places and we need to think about whether or not we believe in redemption. The fact is that people are supposed to be rehabilitated inside these prisons and are not being rehabilitated. We can’t just put them in prison and throw them away and forget about them. I just don’t think that is effective and I think that illustrating the fuller life of these people and using their stories [helps us understand], how did this person get here?

When we think about Randall, he said to me, “I don’t know why you’re picking me because I’m not a sympathetic character,” and I was like, “This isn’t about sympathetic characters. This is about real people and illustrating your journey. You have been convicted of a serious crime and we have to acknowledge that, but also we want to think about how we got to this point.”

We go back to his childhood and think about, where were Mom and Dad? Was Dad around? How many jobs did Mom have to work and how far away from home are those jobs? How much money was she bringing in? What does it mean to be a latchkey kid?

And then what does it mean to be in school and get into trouble or get into a fight and not be taken to the principal’s office and reprimanded or talked to in a way that makes sense, but instead we impose this zero tolerance. What was that first instance of him being arrested in school, and what does that mean for him? I think looking at that first interaction with the juvenile justice system is very telling, because now you’re in the system and now [you’re] already labeled as a troubled kid. The system throws away all of these kids to just make it easy.

All of these things are connected. We have to look at how underresourced neighborhoods impact young people, how poor schools impact these young people, and I just thought it was important to illustrate these small things that really had a huge role in where he ended up.

Davis: Your point about Randall not considering himself a “sympathetic character” is really interesting. What has the response been from him, and other formerly or currently incarcerated people and their families to your book?

Harvey: People who are incarcerated—specifically the people who are in the book—cannot get hardcover books in their facility. So because they can’t get hardcover books, they don’t even know what the book says. I was thinking maybe I can find them a pdf and print it out or something but Ruth, [the wife of William], told me, “No, no it’s okay, I’ll read it over the phone and we’ll enjoy it.” I think for her it’s really emotional to be taken back into her life.

She told me, “To see my naiveté, to see that I believed them when they said that he should take the plea deal and then he’ll only have to do 10 years and he’ll come home.” To think that there was a time that she believed in our judicial system. I think that was really interesting to hear, but mostly people are happy to have their stories told.

Tamar Sarai Davis is Prism’s criminal justice staff reporter. Follow her on Twitter @TheRealTamar.

Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by our national media. Through our original reporting, analysis, and commentary, we challenge dominant, toxic narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to build a full and accurate record of what’s happening in our democracy. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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