Recently, a picture has been floating around the Internet of a children’s book called “The Night Dad Went to Jail: What to expect when someone you love goes to jail” by Melissa Higgins. The book cover features a portrait of “Sketch” the main character whose father is arrested for breaking a law. Many of my friends who have seen the book cover have shared commentary on how the book represents the break down of American cultural values and suggested we are “teaching our children the wrong things.” I do agree that the book represents a breakdown in American values, but not the ones people are accusing the book of disregarding.
Sadly, the United States has become the leader of incarceration in the world and it is incarceration that is undoing the sanctity of our communities. not books. Unfortunately, if we don’t begin to prepare children and adults for what has become the virtual inevitability of dealing the prison system, we’ll be attempting to live in a fairy tale. We have come to the point where real life non-fiction is necessary for children and adults.
About a year ago, I learned that a classmate, Ahmariah Jackson, from my college days was co-authoring a book. This didn’t surprise me, as he was one of the most critically astute brothers I encountered at Morehouse. But when I learned that the book was on surviving prison, I was caught off guard. Ahmariah Jackson and IAtomic Seven’s book “Locked Up but Not Locked Down: A Guide to Surviving the American Prison System” is a crash course in surviving the judicial gauntlet from arrest to post-release. Both Jackson and Seven share accumulated wisdom on what to eat, not to eat, who to speak with, who to avoid, how to remain sane, etc. using information collected from surveys with a number of prisoners at different levels of imprisonment…including Jackson himself. In the beginning of the book Jackson reflects, “As a Morehouse College grad with a good, solid background and a promising future, I found myself in the belly of a beast I had never dreamed of meeting.” Their book is not a road map to going to prison, instead it is a map of how to get out and stay out of the prison industrial complex.
Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” argues that the Black middle class and Civil Rights old guard alike have become so fixated on policies like Affirmative Action that we have failed to stem the tides of mass incarceration. As we mobilize against destructive policies like mandatory minimums, we must also do our community the service of talking with our children and adults about the costs of prison. While it is easy to ignore the imprisoned or presume their guilt justifies being trapped behind bars, it is not wise to do so.
Instead of judging and admonishing, we must engage in meaningful and honest discussions about incarceration, community re-entry and healing. These conversations are not meant to usher a new generation into prison, rather they are meant to help our people to avoid getting ensnared. Failure to be proactive about discussing mass incarceration in intimate spaces would be akin to advocating for abstinence-only education. It is understandable to prefer that teenage sex or imprisonment not occur, but it is irresponsible to suggest, “just don’t do it” is an adequate tool for stemming the occurrence of undesirable events. It is going to take a hard dose of real life non-fiction to help us confront the realities many of us are dealing with and move these conversations from the level of policy to the personal.
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his official website