By Rebecca Ginsburg, EJP Director
September 27, 2013
A former Wells of Hope student, now at a high school in Kampala, discusses the social impacts of having an incarcerated parent. Today the circle was completed. After visiting fathers on death row and women in the maximum-security women’s facility on Tuesday, and their children at the Wells of Hope residential school on Wednesday, today we drove to rural areas within a three-hour drive of Kampala to meet the children’s guardians and their siblings (i.e. those siblings not enrolled with them at Wells of Hope Academy). It made sense before—the need to provide education for children whose families might otherwise be unable to afford school fees, due to their parent’s incarceration and their family’s plunge into extreme poverty; the advantage of supporting close contact between family members on the inside and the outside; and the value of keeping hope alive for incarcerated parents whose own lives appear to be so devastated and whose personal prospects so compromised. At least there are possibilities for their children to pursue their dreams. But it really, really makes sense after today. Today we sat on the floor of a house—I would never call anyone’s home a hut—with a grandmother whose daughter is serving 10 years. Her eyes glowed as she showed us photos of her family, including her daughter when she had been free. She was wearing civilian clothes and smiling broadly into the camera. I remembered her daughter, Naomi, crying during our meeting earlier in the week as she listened to another woman discuss the pain of being sentenced to 60 years and then learning her daughter had sickle cell anemia and being unable to care for her. (As it happened, we saw the daughter the following day at the school. She’s doing fine, though if Wells of Hope hadn’t picked her up and gotten her medical care, she likely would have died.) Naomi’s mother told us she earns some money by preparing and serving food, and she goes to visit her daughter as often as she can. She was last there in June. The grandmother of a Wells of Hope student, with photos of earlier days on the table in front of her. As she spoke to us her grandson came in. The grandmother told us that Naomi’s two youngest children, this boy and another, had been 1 and 2 when Naomi was sent to prison. They didn’t remember her, and when she took them to visit Naomi in prison they cried upon learning that Naomi was their mother and not she, the only mother figure they remembered. We also visited a grandfather who is caring for his 4 grandchildren. Both of his sons are in prison and he himself served two years as well, for the same incident. It involved a series of attacks, revenge on top of revenge seeking revenge. It’s easy to decry such violence. But his two sons sought to punish their mother’s killer, and it’s easy, too, to understand their passions. While the grandfather was in prison, a neighbor took care of all the children, for the son’s wives had fled and remarried, leaving their children behind. When he returned, he took over his six grandchildren’s care. Then Wells of Hope came, and offered to send two of them to boarding school. I admired his decision to let them go, and told him so. His eldest granddaughter had been old enough to be of help to him around the house. But, as he told us today, he wanted her to have a chance at a future. So he agreed to let her leave the household and took over the cooking himself, which he does when he comes in from the fields. He’s 74 now and a subsistence farmer. Because he doesn’t participate in the cash economy, he doesn’t have money to send the children to school, nor to feed or clothe them properly. I realize that sounds like a cliché. But I’m not talking about shoes that are too big or pants that are too small or dresses that are out of style. The children’s clothes were full of holes and tears and, in two cases, literally falling off their bodies. The children themselves were exceedingly small for their ages, probably due to malnourishment. At first they appeared listless and dull, but they perked up and began to laugh after I and others played with them a little. Showing a child a photograph of herself in a video camera viewfinder always brings a smile, and that was good to see. Three siblings of Wells of Hope Academy students, living in the rural areas. After they got used to our presence, they asked me to take a group photo of them. Although it’s not Wells of Hope’s standard policy, we left the grandfather with money to purchase soap. We were told that the grandfather cried the last time a Wells of Hope worker came to visit him. The workers check in periodically and, though they’re not social workers, it seems they’re often one of the few people that the grandparents feel they can confide in and share their feelings with. (Grandparents are the typical caretakers of households devastated by incarcerated. They pick up the pieces and try to hold things together.) This, too, is what the women at the prison expressed a longing for—someone to talk to. They told us that they wished they could have regular visits by someone who would listen to them. I have some lovely photographs now that remind me of the frailty and the strength of human bonds, and of how much we rely on social attachments to keep us going. There’s a photo of a boy at the Kampala high school, which we visited on Thursday, peering intently at a photograph of his younger sister, whom we’d snapped the day before at the academy. (Older children are sent to boarding high schools in town, since the Academy only goes up to eighth grade.) I have a photograph of Rebecca’s older sister at the same high school. She was pleased to know that Rebecca and I had spent time together the previous day and that she was doing well. But, even more compelling are the photographs that don’t and can’t exist, the family portraits that haven’t been taken—not only because some families are so poor they can’t afford soap let alone cameras—but also because the families are forcibly separated by penal incarceration. Incredibly, it’s a system that is meant to separate families. This pain is no accident. Penal incarceration operates through isolation and segregation of the convicted. In other words, we can talk about the system being “broken” in such-and-such an aspect, but in its fundamental workings, whether in Uganda or the United States, it works precisely as intended. The grandfather hasn’t visited his sons since they were sent to prison 3 years ago. He can’t afford the bus fare. He asked the Wells of Hope worker to tell them he says they should “be encouraged.” But this is crazy! I wanted to say over and over today. You can’t remove one person from a household and expect that single person only to be impacted. We’re caught up in reciprocal bonds of care and responsibility. This is not to deny that there is sometimes a need to confine a person for public safety reasons, or that conditions in a particular household might actually improve when certain individuals leave it. But my experience suggests that’s not the typical case and it certainly wasn’t the story today. I hope we–as EJP and as a society–can talk more about these things.