Illustrator: Thea Gahr
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.
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.
It’s 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 I’m rapping in the mirror I see movements that I’ve seen him do even though it’s not conscious, I’m 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 isn’t any subject he doesn’t know about. They used to call him Professor X. When he’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t call again.
Growing up, nobody in my family would tell me what my dad was in jail for. I wondered if they didn’t 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 wouldn’t change my opinion or love for my father. But not knowing anything causes me hurt and worry.
Right now my father is in jail and no one will tell me what is going on with his situation or when he might get out. I’ve overheard family members and friends of my father say he has three strikes. I don’t know if that means he would get life or a long time locked up. It’s sad to know those are his options. But I would feel stronger knowing one way or the other what’s going on.
I think my family members are hesitant to tell me information about my dad because they want to protect me. My auntie writes him letters, but when I ask what the situation is she won’t say anything, she just says to write him myself. So I wrote my dad a letter recently. I told him how much I missed him. I told him about a school assignment where we had to write a children’s story and I wrote mine about my dream of going to the studio and rapping with him, showing him what I can do. In real life I’m always shy to rap in front of him, smiling too much to even start. I told him about the documentary I’m in, about my music with the Oakland youth program Beats Rhymes and Life. They filmed me at my house rapping in front of a poster of my dad and talking about him. I told my dad about that in the letter. I asked my dad how he was doing in there and if he knew when he would be released.
I received a letter from my dad the following week. He told me how much he loved me and how proud he was that I was doing something positive. But he didn’t mention anything about when he might get out. I don’t know if it’s because he doesn’t know when he’ll be released or if he’s just not telling me. I think if I visited I could ask him and look in his eyes to see the truth. But it’s been hard for me to visit for a while because I was on an ankle monitor myself.
I got arrested for the first time after my friends got in a fight with a woman on an AC Transit bus. The police arrested me right from school, two months after the incident, saying they had me on video camera on the bus. They put me in an unmarked car alone with three big guys. I was scared, thinking they might hit me or rape me. They didn’t have uniforms so I wasn’t even sure they were really police. The police told my mother I didn’t do anything but I was considered an accessory because I was with the girls who got in the fight. They were trying to charge us as a gang because we got on the bus together coming from school and we got off at the same place. I was taken to juvenile hall for three days. I never want to go back now that I see how they treat the youth in there. Luckily I had the support of my mom and Tomás, my Beats Rhymes and Life teacher, who wrote a letter to the court vouching for me. When I left I told the probation officer and the staff on the unit, “I’m not coming back,” and they said: “Yeah right, everyone comes back. We’ll see you again.” Doesn’t it make it more likely that you will come back if they say that, putting that negativity out in the atmosphere?
Sometimes my future seems doomed because I’ve had similar obstacles in my young life to my father and others in my community. In my father’s family, all of his siblings except one have been in and out of jail. Sometimes I feel sick to my stomach trying to figure out how to reverse the curse.
Sometimes it feels like the education system is designed to set you up for failure and grooms you for a life of incarceration. I started my early education in Oakland public schools. I had a hard time focusing on my schoolwork because the kids were so hostile, everyone had to prove they were tough, and I had to defend myself most of the school year. The teachers and staff saw what was going on and they did nothing to stop it. I was outspoken, and I didn’t show a lot of emotions like smiling or getting excited when they felt like I should have, so I was told I couldn’t go to recess with the other children, would be escorted to lunch alone by an adult, and that they were going to order a psychiatric evaluation for me. I was only 6 years old. My mom fought for me but the treatment continued until she placed me in Berkeley public schools. My schools in Berkeley were not as hostile or as violent as Oakland. I didn’t have any fights. However, all the kids talked about how they treated the black students differently.
My father had trouble in school too, but he didn’t have anyone to look out for him because both his parents used crack cocaine. He had problems at home from not being fed properly and abuse. [Child Protective Services] got involved but they kept placing him back in the home. At school, instead of supporting him, they labeled him and isolated him, saying he was a threat to other kids at only 6 or 7 years old. Eventually, he ran away from home and school. He started running the streets, stealing food from stores to get by. At age 10 he was in Alameda County Juvenile Hall. His life in and out of jail began. By 16 he had released his first album. It was called Ward of the State.
My dad started using alcohol and weed at an early age to ease his pain. That just contributed to the cycle of incarceration. When he’s in jail, he’s sober, but once he’s out it’s all too easy for him to drink or get high. Seeing my dad out of his mind makes me want to hurl. His eyes are red, he looks terrible, and he’s not his normal self, the one with eyes wide open, smiling and making jokes. It’s hard for me to know that people in power allow drugs and alcohol in our communities and then profit from locking people up for making mistakes influenced by those poisons. Instead of incarceration, people should be able to go to some kind of program to deal with their trauma and addictions.
My dad is a messenger who uses his music to share knowledge with young people in a way that makes them really want to listen. He tells them not to call each other nigger, not to get trapped in the system, not to get addicted. But since he didn’t get support in his youth, it’s hard for him to stay out of those traps himself.
As for me, I plan to do everything I can to stay out of jail. Jail is not tight like I used to think when I was real young. I don’t want to follow in my dad’s footsteps in that way. But I do want to follow in his footsteps with his music and what he raps about, teaching people to do right.