Our families may be reluctant to talk about the rebellious cousin or mysterious uncle who’s been “away” for years, but the fact is that while the United States possesses only 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it incarcerates nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. It’s no surprise then that a disproportionate number of men and women behind bars are also people of color. Today, many Blacks in America are faced with dealing with having a loved one who is doing time in prison. Bringing this into our living rooms are reality shows like VH1’s Love and Hip Hop New York (LHHNY) and Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA), whose fans watch creative, yet authentic ways in which African American families mediate the realities of mass incarceration on the shows.
Reality television often feels like scripted drama with poorly trained actors and tired storylines. Yet, with record-breaking ratings for cable television and a viewership that is consistently active, LHHNY and RHOA are powerful platforms giving voice to pervasive concerns that many might prefer remain hidden away as “dirty laundry.”
LHHNY features rappers Remy Ma and Papoose who are no strangers to managing family and love while a partner is away. Remy was a rising rap star when her career came to an abrupt halt following a 2008 assault conviction. After serving nearly seven years in prison, she returned home to her husband Papoose and their children ready to reignite her career as one of the newest members of the LHHNY cast.
“Even though I was physically free, mentally I was locked up too,” says Papoose. “Being forced to see my wife suffer every day, year after year, is a level of confinement by itself.”
Following her release, Remy endures lingering feelings of disappointment, hurt, and resentment. Her mother, mother-in-law, and sisters weren’t as supportive as she would have hoped. “When you’re locked up for so long you start to build up this wall that becomes impenetrable,” explains Remy. “You don’t even want to let people come behind it no more, especially the ones who should have been there from day one.”
Incarceration can take an emotional toll on the entire family. Remy’s sisters were angry that she wasn’t around when they needed her the most. Her son Jayson was an angry seven-year-old when she left and stepdaughter DJ, was a teen who increasingly got into physical fights. Papoose’s mother, Irene, was concerned that her son was sacrificing his life and career providing unwavering support for Remy by making frequent visits to her in prison. “It was hard for us out here too,” explains Remy’s mother, Maddie. “I can’t really afford to go up there every day.”
Maddie is not alone in her struggle. In the groundbreaking report Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families, researchers found that phone and visitation costs were a significant barrier to staying in touch with an incarcerated family member.
Remy represents a growing yet overlooked population affected by mass incarceration—women and mothers. Black women are incarcerated at three times the rate of White women, and nearly two-thirds of women in prison are mothers to a minor child. While Remy was away, it was up to Papoose to hold things together for their blended family. “Prison traumatizes families, not just the individual. You don’t just incarcerate the person who is getting locked up,” he says.
Despite these challenges, Remy and Pap were charged with the task of helping a fellow LHHNY couple prepare for an impending imprisonment. During a dinner, Remy shared her struggles with her co-stars, Yandy Smith and her husband, Mendeecees Harris, who is now serving an eight-year prison term on drug trafficking charges.
Last season, fans watched as Mendeecees navigated being a good husband and father to his four children while anticipating a prison sentence that could have sent him away for up to 20 years. The couple anxiously argued about how to keep their family in tact while awaiting the judge’s decision. Underneath the quarreling existed a fear of what will happen while Mendeecees serves his time and the inevitable changes his absence will cause to their unit.
Although Mendeecees is happily married to Yandy, his four children are by three different women and his blended family had to be included in the arrangements for his incarceration. In episode 11, Mendeecees calls a family meeting including Yandy, his mother, Judy, the mothers of his other two children, Erika and Samantha and Samantha’s mother, Kim. The goal was to ensure that Mendeecees continues a relationship with his kids while in prison. However, Samantha, the mother of his eldest son, had reservations and questioned whether or not it was appropriate to expose a young, Black boy to a prison environment. What impact would it have on him? Will it make incarceration seem normal? Her concerns are not unfounded. According to the advocacy group, the Sentencing Project, one in three Black men will be incarcerated during his lifetime and these fears will be faced by other Black mothers.
Phaedra Parks, a 44-year-old attorney, entrepreneur and star of the RHOA and her estranged husband, Apollo Nida, have a different story. Apollo is currently serving an eight-year sentence for fraud in a New Jersey correctional facility. Phaedra is trying to figure out how to co-parent, not only with a partner who is incarcerated, but also with a person she’s divorcing.
While the relationship with her husband has dissolved, Phaedra wants to help her children maintain a connection to their father. Her family’s circumstances are not uncommon. Black children are twice as likely as White children to experience parental incarceration. Early in the season, we watched as Apollo’s sons, 2-year old Dylan and 5-year-old Ayden, reacted to his voice over the phone. But Phaedra is also hesitant to bring her boys face-to-face with a system she’s working hard to ensure they will never encounter. She finally decides to allow her boys to see their father as the family makes the trip up North near the season’s end.
While not without healthy doses of drama, the stories that have unfolded this season on LHHNY and RHOA offered an intimate look at people’s resilience and efforts to maintain loving bonds despite painful circumstances. Unfortunately, until the mass incarceration system undergoes the radical change it direly needs, this form of separation will only continue to be a growing plague set to destroy even more Black families.