If I don’t do it, then who’s going to do it?
by LaShanna Tyson, #LwC2019
November 8, 2019
When I went to prison, my children were 6, 7, and 8 years old; when I came out in 2011 they were 19, 20 and 21. I thought reunification would be all roses, but it wasn’t. Even though they had visited me every two weeks during my incarceration, my children rejected me. The Department of Corrections did nothing to prepare us for reunification, and we all had misconceived notions of what it was going to be like. Over the years since my release, my children and I have learned to respect one another and the different roles we are in now, but I never want anyone else to experience the harm we suffered, and that is why I founded Empowering Kids With Incarcerated Parents (EKWIP), a not-for-profit organization affiliated with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Orlando, Florida. Its sole purpose is to end the cycle of intergenerational incarceration through restorative justice, healing circles, and supportive services that are specially designed to meet the unique needs of the child, the caregiver—often an older sibling or elderly grandparent–and the incarcerated parent.
I work from the inside out. It all started when I was volunteering with another organization that arranges transportation for children so they can visit their parents. While at the Hernando Correctional Institution, the prison where I had once been incarcerated, I met the prison chaplain and told her I had designed a program for incarcerated parents. After some correspondence back and forth, she invited me to hold a series of sessions, and by the time I finished the 12-week course, the chaplain had so many requests from women begging to be included that we expanded the program.
At the core of the program is the “Looking Glass” support group. As part of my own healing I had to take a look in the mirror and see all of me—the good, the bad, the broken and the ugly—and forgive myself and those who had harmed me so that I could be a better parent and not perpetuate the cycle of harm. Each week, one or two ladies go through this process in front of a looking glass. They share what happened to them that broke them early on and how it affected their lives. From there, they can begin the process of healing for both themselves and their children. I get up every day with the ladies and the children in my heart and on my mind. I feel responsible for helping families get out of that dark space. I know that if children with incarcerated parents don’t get the support they need they have a higher likelihood of being incarcerated and causing other people harm and I don’t want that to happen. If I don’t do it, then who’s going to do it?
I plan to engage in more policy advocacy in the coming period, and recently worked on getting a Primary Caregiver Bill passed in Florida. The bill would allow judges to sentence parents of minor children to community alternatives rather than prison. It didn’t pass this year, but we have a legislative sponsor and we’re building community and organizational support for the next session. So we’re plugging away.
For me, Leading with Conviction is transformational. I feel like I’m growing and learning and hugely benefiting from the kinship I feel with the people in my cohort. I’ve been involved with organizations that just wanted to use me because I have a story, but they didn’t want any other part of me. It was a purely transactional relationship. JLUSA is the opposite.