Both of Mailee Wang's parents were incarcerated for part of her youth, her father for two years and her mother for much of her life. Now 30, she recalls what it was like, particularly after her mother was released.
"Having a prison mentality is real … It doesn't shut off and that's what I lived though with my mom," says Wang. "The trauma that [the incarcerated] experience, it's chaos when they return home."
After her father was released from prison, he had the support of his family, which Wang says made a difference in his reentry. Because of his family, he knew he would have a place to live; he was also able to find employment. Her mother, though, suffered from mental health problems, was not employable, and did not have the help of her family.
"I know what worked with my dad. I know what's possible," she says. "Having family there is so important."
Children and youth who go through the experience of having an incarcerated parent are forced to become parents themselves at an early age, according to Wang; they have to figure out how to take care of not only themselves, but also their parents after they are released.
Today, Wang is the program and policy director of Project WHAT!, part of the advocacy organization Community Works based in Oakland, which provides training for service providers on how to effectively serve children and youth who have or have had an incarcerated parent. She spoke at a community forum on Friday held by New America Media that put a spotlight on the experiences of "children of reentry" – children and youth whose incarcerated parents have returned home.
The forum showcased a series of video portraits of parents coming home, as viewed through the eyes of their children. The filmmakers included Jean Melesaine, Daniel Zapien, and Andrew Bigelow of Silicon Valley De-Bug, David Meza and Anthony May of Richmond Pulse, and Valerie Klinker of New America Media.
Melesaine's video profiles Steeda McGruder, age 30, and her two daughters; McGruder gave birth to her daughter Malaysia while incarcerated. McGruder now runs a support group for formerly incarcerated women in Santa Clara County called Sisters That Been There.
"I had painted a vision of what it was going to be like. I got the house ready, I stocked it with food," says Steeda, who is African American, of preparing to be reunited with her children. "And then they came home, and they ate the food, and then the toys were played out … I only thought to that point. And now we're beyond that point and we're struggling."
More than one in ten children nationwide have a parent under criminal supervision (meaning that they are in jail or prison, or on probation or parole). One in fifteen African American children has a parent who is currently in prison, as opposed to less than one percent of white children.
Responding to the film about McGruder at the forum, Jessica Flintoft, a division director of the San Francisco Probation Department, said that the justice system "probably could have not sent [McGruder] to prison," especially when she was pregnant with her daughter.
"The criminal justice system is nothing but a series of decisions, and we can make different decisions at every turn," she says.
She points to programs that work with the Probation Department to help parents stay connected to their kids, like Cameo House in San Francisco, which provides transitional housing and support to single mothers who have recently been released from prison and have children under the age of 7.
Flintoft says that children of parents in the criminal justice system are three times more likely than their peers to become involved in the criminal justice system themselves, which points to a need for alternatives to incarceration, as well as more services and programs that address the needs of children of reentry.
Nell Bernstein, who coordinates the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership and is the author of "All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated," says that "post-prison punishments" are instrumental in high recidivism rates that keep parents separated from their children. Felony drug offenders, for example, are banned from receiving General Assistance or living in public housing; there's also a "huge array" of jobs from which reentering offenders are legally restricted, she says.
The California Department of Corrections reported in 2012 that the recidivism rate (the number returning to prison within three years of release) for the formerly incarcerated in California was 65 percent.
"Before we start helping, we just have to stop hurting," says Bernstein.