On Alcatraz Island, A Testament to the Unseen Impact of Incarceration

In the New Industries Building on Alcatraz Island, window panes that have broken in the years since the prison closed have been left shattered. Walking through the exhibit The Sentence Unseen: Portraits of Resilience, which opened there on June 13, the crumbling space could be seen as a reminder of the devastation to families when a parent goes to prison.

The show features testimony from children of incarcerated parents and art created by
parents in prison. Produced by Community Works, an arts, education, and restorative justice program based in Oakland, Calif., the exhibit is hosted on Alcatraz by the National Park Service and will be on display through July 1, with a smaller display on view in the Band Room through July 31.

Kmani Baxter, Project WHAT! youth advocate. Credit: Ruth Morgan
Kmani Baxter, Project WHAT! youth advocate. Credit: Ruth Morgan

“Children of incarcerated parents are a silent population,” said Zoe Willmott, manager of Community Works’ Project WHAT!, a leadership program for children of incarcerated parents. “So many people are incarcerated, especially in California, and so few people are talking about it.”

The exhibit, funded by the Walter S. Johnson and Zellerbach Family foundations, includes large-format photographs of young people who are among the estimated 2.7 million children of incarcerated parents in the United States and art installations created in collaboration with incarcerated parents.

“Despite their loss, despite what their parents have done, they love their parent and still want to be connected whether it’s through letters or contact visits,” said Community Works Executive Director Ruth Morgan, who served as the photographer for the project.

Founded in 1997 and guided by the principles of restorative justice, Community Works seeks “to interrupt and heal” the impact of incarceration and violence through programs in the jails and community, youth-led advocacy efforts, and alternatives to incarceration.

Project WHAT! member Arvaughn Williams, 16, whose inscription on his portrait describes his memory of going fishing with his father before he was incarcerated, said, “We want people to know that these youth matter, our voice matters, and that we are here. ‘We’re here and talking’—that’s what Project WHAT! stands for.”

Through youth-led trainings and advocacy with law enforcement, teachers, social workers, and policymakers, Project WHAT! works to raise awareness about the experiences of children with incarcerated parents and to improve services and policies that affect them.

Desirae Sotto, Project WHAT! youth advocate. Credit: Ruth Morgan
Desirae Sotto, Project WHAT! youth advocate. Credit: Ruth Morgan

“We tend to dehumanize the person who is incarcerated,” said Willmott, who participated in the program as a teen, “and that helps us not think about the person’s family or children who might be suffering in their absence.”

“I feel like we’re changing the world,” said Malaya Moore, who at 14 is the youngest member of Project WHAT!.

Indeed, major changes have already been implemented in San Francisco as a direct result of the group’s most recent advocacy effort, in which they held focus groups with 150 human service providers and interviewed 100 youths between the ages of 12 and 25 who have experienced parental incarceration.

Of the resulting policy recommendations, four are already being implemented to improve access to visitation and communication, and to safeguard children at the time of their parents’ arrest.

On June 8, San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi signed into action the group’s recommendation to lower the solo visiting age for a youth visiting a parent or sibling in a San Francisco jail to 16, making San Francisco the first county in the state to do so. The sheriff also signed off on additional measures to help maintain the parent-child bond during incarceration, such as allowing a child a private contact visit with their parent prior to the transfer from a county jail to a state prison.

George Gascon receiving an award for his commitment to restorative justice, seen through a broken window in the New Industries Building on Alcatraz. Credit: Jack Bennett
George Gascon receiving an award for his commitment to restorative justice, seen through a broken window in the New Industries Building on Alcatraz. Credit: Jack Bennett

“The criminal justice system in this country has been negligent in punishing the children for sins of their parents without caring to understand the ramifications,” Mirkarimi said in a statement sent to The Chronicle of Social Change. “Improving public safety means also being future focused, and to me this means embracing a children first policy, especially for children of incarcerated parents and guardians.”

“The new visiting policy will especially help kids in the foster care system who might not have someone to take them to see their parent,” said Project WHAT!’s Williams, who is an artist, model, and poet. “We have a right to see, touch, and have a lifelong relationship with our parents.”

Also being implemented is Project WHAT!’s recommendation that all San Francisco Police Department officers be trained and required to follow protocol on how to reduce trauma to children when arresting a parent.

Williams hopes visitors to The Sentence Unseen will hear the group’s message that, as he put it, “We are greater than our experience of having an incarcerated parent. Just because our parents made mistakes, it doesn’t mean we’re going to do the same thing. We stand for something much greater than being part of a system that keeps people down.”

The “Watch Me Grow” section of the exhibit features visual diaries in the form of growth charts created by young people to document milestones in their lives such as the first day of kindergarten and the first prom. Next to each milestone is a notation about whether their parent was “here” or “away” at that time.

Also on display at Alcatraz is multimedia artwork by incarcerated men and women, many of whom are parents, created collaboratively with visual artist Dee Morizono. One piece, Enfolding Families, a mobile of delicately interconnected blooms, was created with over 100 participants in county jails through facilitated workshops that explored family legacy and the impact of incarceration.

At the opening, Community Works presented awards to individuals and organizations who embrace restorative justice. Project WHAT! alumnus Tony Shavers, who read his poem “I Remember” about his relationship with his father before and during his incarceration, received a Community Justice award for his work in creating a college scholarship fund for Project WHAT! participants.

Awards were also presented to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley for their restorative justice diversion programs. Through Community Works’ Restorative Community Conferencing program in these counties, over 150 young people have been diverted from the criminal justice system. The San Francisco Youth Commission also received an award for their restorative justice work.

The portraits and other parts of the exhibit will be available for display at other sites after the exhibit on Alcatraz closes. Interested organizations should contact Community Works.

“I want us to take this global,” said Project WHAT!’s youngest member Malaya Moore.

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Melinda Clemmons
About Melinda Clemmons 23 Articles
Melinda Clemmons is a freelance writer and editor based in Oakland, California.

1 Comment

  1. How long must children suffer for the sins of the father(parent)? God is merciful shouldn’t we be as well? I wish I could have seen the exhibit I would love to see something like this in Oklahoma. A few years ago I wanted to start a quilt project in the prison with the names of children killed in state custody. Now that I have returned as an adjunct professor for inmates I may have to find a way to incorporate this into my instruction. Thank you for piece well done.

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