On May 29th, when people in Louisville and across the nation marched in protest of the most recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, LFJA community photographer Layfierre Mitchell knew it was a historic moment. He “stands behind the movement,” he says, because “he is living the movement” and “some people have to be involved.” On June 23rd, he returned to downtown Louisville to photograph “Injustice Square,” at 6th and Jefferson Street, still being occupied by people demanding justice for Breonna Taylor.
“My pictures are a platform for me to influence how people feel. Pictures are a visual representation of the world.”
“Having a camera is sharing your experience. When I take pictures I want the camera to show what I saw.”
“When I do photography, I have to think about how my pictures are going to look after I take them. I think that taking my pictures is like giving a gift.”
“When I take pictures of people, I am always thinking about the people seeing the pictures and what they will think of them. That means you have to empathize and put yourself in the place of the viewer.”
On June 17th, Louisville Family Justice Advocates, ACLU-KY and The Bail Project-Louisville created a Virtual Forum centering on author and journalist, Sylvia A. Harvey’s important new book: The Shadow System: Mass Incarceration and the American Family. The Forum, linked here and below, integrated a keynote from Harvey, first-hand stories from Christina Walker and LeTonya McNeal, two courageous mothers featured in the book, State Representative Attica Scott, and Amanda Hall, ACLU-KY Policy Strategist. This powerful combination inspired participants to reimagine family justice and consider what it means in our community.
As Harvey demonstrates, the shadow side of mass incarceration is its impact on families, especially children. As incarceration increases, child welfare programs in states across the nation become shadow systems of the criminal legal system. Family Justice policies and practices operate in the intermediary spaces between these two systems, often filled with barriers and blind spots.
Harvey explains, “These systems are not communicating because they have distinct missions.” The criminal legal system’s mission is not the safety or well-being of the family, but to punish individuals. In the process of punishing one person, whole families are thrown into disarray. At the same time, what should be the safety net for the family — the child welfare system — hasn’t yet figured out how to truly protect children and does not take into account the challenges of parents and caregivers who want to reunite with their families after incarceration.
Harvey’s research for her book brought her to Kentucky. Here, as in many states, the “child welfare system” includes Child Protective Services, mental health services, foster care, adoption, care by extended family members, psychiatric hospitals, and an array of residential programs and group homes. When a parent is charged with a crime, judges, social workers, and court staff also make decisions about removing children from caretakers deemed inadequate.
Kentuckian Christina Walker shares her story of how her children were removed from her custody 3 days after she was arrested for failure to appear before a judge for nonsupport. After her release from jail eighteen days later, she spiraled into substance abuse, drew more serious charges and was adjudicated into a recovery program in another city. Being distant from her children prevented her from visiting them weekly and meeting other requirements of child welfare programs. Finally, faced with termination of her rights to custody of her two children, she agreed to their adoption.
Harvey’s book highlights families in two other states, Mississippi and Florida, and in all 3 locations, she points to stark racial disparities in both the carceral and child welfare systems. LaTonya McNeal shares her story as an African American woman about the racial and economic inequities she experienced in both the criminal legal and child welfare systems.. Growing up in the housing projects of Chicago during the War on Drugs, she witnessed disparities in policing and sentencing for poor African Americans. Like Christina, she was incarcerated and lost her children. After being adjudicated into a recovery program in Louisville, she saw visible racial disparities in community access to medical services and educational programs. She also witnessed harsher penalties for African Americans when they relapsed, inevitable in recovery. Disparities in incarceration, sentencing, recovery and reentry of African American parents are inextricably linked to disparities in the welfare of children.
Harvey’s book is a wake up call not only to reimagine but also to remake Family Justice in Louisville. Mass incarceration and its shadow system of child welfare hits Kentucky’s children hard. Currently fifteen percent experience the incarceration of a parent. Since 2014, the state has seen massive increases in child removals and currently has the highest rate of child neglect and abuse in the country. The number of safe and healthy foster homes has not kept pace with the rapid increase in the number of children removed by the state. Until recently, Kentucky has relied on residential facilities and group homes, the least safe and healthy alternative for the children.
What does remaking Family Justice look like? During and after the Forum, participants identified key policy changes for remaking Family Justice in our community:
State Representative Attica Scott supports requiring the Kentucky State Legislature to create Racial Impact Statements for all pending legislation to eliminate disparities.
Kentucky Youth Advocates asks for prioritizing investments for children who have experienced abuse and neglect by supporting kinship caregivers.
Lessons Learned From COVID-19 and Criminal Justice
COVID-19 brutally demonstrates that local incarceration is not only about criminal justice; it is also about community health. Even before the pandemic, national health experts and the American Bar Association connected incarceration and public health with calls for holistic actions to address the root causes of both.
The massive challenges of COVID-19 call for powerful and caring responses. The convergence of COVID-19 and our criminal justice system reveals fundamental inequities, demanding strong and corrective actions. The Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness Center for Health Equity originated a simple yet powerful image of a tree to guide actions for improving community health.
This Health Equity Tree below, created by graphic designer Daphne Walker for LFJA, illustrates how individual health conditions are linked to root causes including criminal justice, and both are fed by current and historic systems of power.
The Health Equity Tree links the root causes of COVID-19 to individual health outcomes depicted as leaves, which indicate wellness or illness. Like a tree, individual leaves are linked to root causes like employment, income and local criminal justice systems. Employment and income, for example, are root causes of the health of individuals who are incarcerated in our local jail. When any of us are unable to pay bail and must await trial, even though the courts cannot operate in a timely manner, the health of everyone in our community is affected.
The Health Equity Tree also asks us to consider the soil that feeds the roots, essential to the growth and development of the trunk and its leaves. COVID-19 shines a brutal light on racial inequities in the soil shaping our individual and community’s health. At a recent forum, Louisville leaders spoke publicly about how historic systems of power like segregation and redlining are causing significant racial disparities in illness and deaths due to COVID-19.
Like COVID-19, criminal justice policies and practices are unequally punishing Black community members. More than 1200 men and women are currently incarcerated in our jail even as positive cases among corrections staff are increasing, endangering everyone inside. Of the 1213 people confined in the Main Jail Complex on April 27th, for example, 614, over 50%, are identified as Black. This is 2.5 times the 20% rate of our Black population, a significant racial disparity.
The Health Equity Tree also teaches us how our community can recover from COVID-19 through more healthy and just local actions. Nurturing the health of all individuals require immediate caring and equitable actions. For example, when treating individual health, the root causes of access to health services, neighborhood development, income, employment and the criminal justice system must also be addressed to be fully effective. Most importantly, we must put community first and examine and address systems of power, the soil in which our trees of health are planted, that create disparities in the root causes that feed our collective health outcomes.
“One thing is, in this country, if you’re not in the narrative, you’re not going to be in the policy.”
Reverend William Barber on the Political Power of Poor People, Intelligencer (Dec 5, 2019)
In the Health Equity framework, family violence and incarceration are leaves on the tree of health that we can easily see. The criminal justice system, involving policing, jails and prisons, the judiciary and re-entry, are the root causes that shape the behaviors we see. Unequal systems of power constitute the soil that is not always readily seen that feed the roots of the criminal justice system.
If the stories of people most directly affected by violence and incarceration are not told, the policies we develop for our communities will not be equitable. Systems of power are sharply revealed in the story of York, unrecognized for his contribution to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and denied his freedom long afterwards. Now, our job is to create a new narrative that challenges long-standing systems of power while making our criminal justice systems more equitable for all.
At a public presentation at the University of Louisville Law School on Monday, March 2nd, Historian Charlene J. Fletcher proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the telling of history matters. Ms. Fletcher is a scholar focusing on black women’s history in Kentucky, a survivor of domestic abuse, and an advocate for social change. Her powerful presentation, combining experience, activism, and research, demonstrates the importance of lived experiences in transforming our criminal justice systems.
Fletcher focused on now recovered histories of two women: Lila White and Fannie Keys Harvey and their stories of abuse, resistance, and confinement during the 1890s and early 1900s in central Kentucky. Lila White suffered severe abuse from her ostensibly respectable family, resorted to arson, and was confined first in prison and then a mental institution where she died. Fannie Keys Harvey, deeply impoverished, committed a string of petty crimes and fought back against her abusive husband and the police officer that arrested her. She went in and out of prison and lived to testify in 1897 against the conditions in the state prison in Frankfort that housed both women and men then and until 1937.
These powerful personal stories, so important in themselves, also become a window into the systems of power that link domestic violence with incarceration in our city, state and nation today. As a young woman, Lila White worked as a domestic, one of the few jobs opened to black women. She was only one generation removed from slavery, yet black women today still face inequalities in both job opportunities and wages. Lila’s abuse came from her own family, and she suffered long in silence, fearing shame, stigma and reprisals. Today, it is estimated that only about half of domestic violence cases are reported. Fannie Keys Harvey grew up and lived in a section of Lexington that had no sewers, clean water or adequate housing. As income inequality increases today, there is still too little understanding of how poverty can be a root cause of crime and violence.
The stories of Lila White, Fannie Keys Harvey and all confined African American women matter. As Reverend William Barber, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, points out, “if you are not in the narrative, you’re not going to be in the policy.” Changing the narrative means examining the systems of power that maintain inequitable social conditions based on race, ethnicity, gender identities, economic status and physical abilities. Louisville Family Justice Advocate’s (LFJA) work is challenging current stereotypes about who is incarcerated and why, now and in the past. LFJA asks: Whose story is being told and how is the story contributing to creating policy?
On the morning following Hasan Davis’ powerful performance of YORK: Explorer at the Kentucky Center, Louisville Family Justice Advocates and Partners for Education, Berea College gathered for our third of four collaborative learning exchanges. Participants included teams from Louisville and Berea who work in health, criminal justice and the arts. Some have direct experience with the impact of incarceration. All are committed to connecting our home communities across the rural/urban divide in our state.
Hasan co-led this exchange with Dreama Gentry Davis, the Executive Director of Partners for Education. Both served as Children and Family Fellows at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Together, they combined arts-based strategies for energizing creativity with the Casey Foundation’s powerful Results Count framework. Working together, Louisville and Berea participants spent the morning building trust and imagining and mapping shared strategies for capacity building.
Hasan introduced us to a River of Life art-based exercise that explores the successes and challenges that inform our current place and work. Each of us drew/mapped/graphed/illustrated our own river of life on a large sheet of paper. All designs or depictions were welcomed, and everyone’s river was unique. Drawing our river became a clear and visual way to explore the currents that shape us. Sharing what we drew with each other built trust and unity; especially around the advocacy work all of the participants care so much about.
Building on that trust and unity, Dreama presented an introduction to Casey’s Results Countframework. She challenged us to think harder about the population we are focusing on in our work, asking who is at the heart of the central goal of our organization? You must be clear about the population you are serving to build the results you want. Through careful clarifications, it became clear that our focus is children and their families with incarcerated loved ones in our community. In other words, children are at the heart of LFJA as an organization.
While building results-oriented leaders to carry out our goals, Dreama pointed to the importance of recognizing that we all operate at three different levels in our social change work: individual, role, and system. The River of Life exercise helped us understand our individual motivations and values. Next, we discussed the importance of being aware of what role we are playing, or in other words, what hat we are wearing, in any given interaction. Are we speaking as a friend, co-worker or advocate? Likewise, it is important to be clear on what system we are trying to change. For example, the criminal justice system, encompasses policing, judicial decision making, incarceration, and re-entry.
And this artmaking and results-thinking happened all in one three-hour session! We all left more inspired and informed than when we arrived.
We witnessed: the power of art to express our deepest feeling; the importance of building trust and working in collaboration; and the importance of being clear about our role and impact at the system level. This session lived up to the title of our Collaborative Learning Exchange about justice, health and hope in each of our two communities in Kentucky.
The health of children and families with incarcerated loved ones in Louisville Metro is at the heart of our organization. We use a health equity framework to guide our analysis of the power systems that shape criminal justice in Louisville.
Using the health equity framework means LFJA must work on all three aspects: children’s individual health (leaves), root causes (roots) and systems of power (soil). Collecting and analyzing health outcomes and root cause data is essential, and understanding systems of power is equally important. Personal stories, past and present, are creative pathways to realizing how systems of power develop. Through stories, we see how individual choices are shaped by the soil and roots where they are planted.
When he was a young boy, Layfierre remembers his Dad being around some. He popped in and out of his life for a while. His father had multiple run-ins with the law and was in and out of the justice system. Layfierre hardly ever saw him. At one point during his teenage years, his Dad seemed to be totally absent.
Layfierre says he didn’t really have a childhood. He was always watching his nieces and nephews. He knows that is not what his childhood years should have been like. Now he knows that many people who grew up in a single parent home often experience the same situation. As a teenager, he felt like he missed out on a lot. Now he knows the importance of taking care of his family and being able to help them.
Layfierre didn’t finish high school due to what he calls “a communications problem about the school roster.” He was in a predominantly white HIgh School, when the principal sent for him. The principal told him he was not on the roster for that school, so he had to leave.
Young black men have
to be very careful
Lafayierre didn’t try to get into another school or go to college. He just stayed home and “did a lot of nothing.” When he was turning 18, he began having a lot of anxiety. Family experiences were causing him stress, so he focused on calming down. He played a lot of computer games to help him relax and took long walks at night.
“Young black men have to be very careful if you want to have the same kind of life that others do,” he says. He believes ,“You have to put all your cards on the table if you are ever going to end the game of racial stereotyping. In the words of one of his songs, ‘I didn’t choose this life, but I am rolling with it like a rebound’.”
If your reality is
someone else’s imagination, you don’t have any reality of your own.
“Music is a good way to talk about life,” he says. He also likes writing poetry, but he doesn’t
think it is as respected as an art form as Rap or Hip Hop. ”In poetry, you
think about the meaning,” he points out, “in RAP you are thinking about if it
Now in his early 20s, Layfierre has earned his G.E.D.,
learned job skills and become a gifted gardener. An artist at heart, he is
focusing on drawing and photography. He says when he is drawing everything
slows down. He is super focused. Sometimes, he says, he can express himself
better by drawing than capturing an image in a photograph.
At first, his photography was more about capturing an idea so he could remember and be inspired by it. Many of his early photographs were mainly for him, but now he creates more images for others. Photography is his most positive artwork. He believes without it, he might have ended up being in a dark place.
Layfierre exhibits his drawings and photographs, and he is
making some sales. When asked if he thinks having an incarcerated Dad
influences his art, he says people might understand his images better if they
know about his background. He likes it best when viewers get their own ideas
first. Then, he can explain to them. He is expressing his emotions and state of
mind, so he thinks viewers knowing his story may be necessary.
One thing for sure is that he does not want to be defined by who his Dad is. As a “Junior,” he has the same name as his Dad. So he “has to think of him” every time he writes his own name. I don’t want to be a statistic,” he insists, “doing what my Dad is doing now.” So he is going to stay out of jail for sure.
Layfierre says some of his friends may think he is weird,
but really he is claiming his own personal freedom. “If your reality is someone
else’s imagination, you don’t have any reality of your own,” he says. “I mean,
who do you think is going to give you the answer?”
The Special Project Team is happy to provide this FREE resource for strengthening protective factors and resilience for children and youth with incarcerated loved ones! The artmaking leaders use these 12 activities, along with Sesame Street resources, every week in the Vistors Lobby of the Louisville Metro Jail, so we know children and caregivers enjoy doing them. Also all of the art are can be made with free recycled or low cost materials.
Health professionals now recognize that having an incarcerated parent is an Adverse Childhood Experience. Protective factors are especially important for the health and wellbeing of children facing these adversities. When children can express their individual strengths and engage in social interactions incorporating protective factors, the result is dynamic forms of positive adaptations, which build resilience. https://www.health.state.mn.us/communities/ace/resilience.html
The Mayo Clinic
Health System also identifies problem-solving skills as important individual
assets enabling children facing Adverse Childhood experiences to build
resilience. They describe these skills as recognizing a problem, creating and
choosing action steps and producing a solution https://mayoclinichealthsystem.org/adverse-childhood-experiences/problem-solving-skills-and-self-regulation.Taken together, the protective
factors and problem-solving skills embodied in The Special Project art
activities provide concrete supports for children and caregivers with incarcerated
Kentucky has the second highest rate
(15%) in the nation of children who have had an incarcerated parent. This rate
is nearly double the national rate of 8%.
Having an incarcerated parent is an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), a form of trauma. This trauma can lead to toxic stress, which can harm health. For example, Alex, a character In Sesame Street feels sad and agnry because his father is incarcerated. I just miss him so much. Sometimes it makes me want to pound my pillow and scream. See the Health Impact Report on our research page for more information.
In Louisville, Metro, as in many cities across the country, there are significant racial and socioeconomic disparities as people of color and their children are most impacted by incarceration. Jefferson County Census data shows that while Black males age 18 and older represent only 9.2% of the population, yet this demographic group accounts for 31% of bookings and 43% of the incarcerated population at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections in 2018. This is in sharp contrast to the more proportional representation, either in booking or in custody, of White males 18 and over in Louisville Metro.
The significant overrepresentation of incarcerated Black males creates racial disparity as Black children become significantly affected by parental incarceration. In Louisville Metro, the growing effect of parental incarceration on children’s health and wellness makes action by our community imperative and urgent.
Having an incarcerated parent does not have to be a life
sentence for children in Louisville. Together, we can create a healthy future,
for example, by:
providing trauma informed education and trainings for parents, teachers, police, judges, juvenile and corrections staffs,
consider alternative sentencing in District Courts for defendants who are custodial parents,
creating innovative practices for strengthening protective factors for children and youth with direct experiences of parental incarceration
developing more family friendly policies and practices in our local criminal justice systems.
Louisville Family Justice Advocates is a “new” coalition, yet it is more than two years in the making. And 10 years before that, The Special Project, a lead partner in the coalition, originated weekly artmaking sessions with families in the Visitors Lobby of the Metro Louisville Jail beginning in 2008.
Now, across the country and in our own community, more people are waking up to the devastating impact of mass incarceration. According to the Sentencing Project, incarceration in the US increased 500% over the last 40 years. There are now 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails. An estimated 5,749,000 children have had a parent in jail during their childhood.
Kentucky is the second highest in the nation—15%–of
children who have had an incarcerated parent, nearly twice the national rate of
8%. Kentucky also has the second highest rate of female incarceration in the
US. Almost 71% of females in state custody are mothers with minor children.
Parental incarceration is now known to be an Adverse Childhood Experience,
which can be traumatic and have lasting negative effects, such as toxic stress,
on children’s health and wellbeing.
Doing social justice work on the scale and pervasiveness of
mass incarceration and its impact on children can be overwhelming and may seem impossible
to address. Especially now, when
communities at the local, state and national levels are polarized to the point
of contesting whose realities are real. AND when print, visual and social media
outlets portray different versions of what is news and what is true.
In the midst of this chaos and division, Louisville Family Justice
Advocates is a newly emerging coalition dedicated to more fair and equitable
policies and practices for families with incarcerated loved ones in Jefferson
County. Purposefully grassroots, LFJA
starts with criminal justice reform from the community up, where we work face
to face to reduce mass incarceration. As
a community-based coalition, we are innovating, evolving and out-right
borrowing social justice principles and democratic practices to help us reclaim
civic equity, empathy and reality.
Here are four principles and practices for doing social
justice we are using in these trying times:
“Nothing about us
Wikipedia traces this phrase to Poland in the 1500s. Who ever
used it first, it is critical for criminal justice reform today. JustLeadership
USA, which includes national Fellows from Louisville, rightly stresses that
people with direct experience of incarceration must lead criminal justice
reform because they understand the current system first hand.
Focus on creating
knowledge & solutions
With the breakdown and profiteering of news sources today, social justice organizations can help fill the gap by creating new knowledge and solutions that work at the grassroots level.
Over the last two years, the Special Project expanded its weekly artmaking activities to working for more fair and equitable policies and practices for children and families with incarcerated loved ones. In 2018, the Special Project partnered with Metro Louisville Center for Health Equity to produce a Health Impact Assessment showing how parental incarceration harms children’s health, especially children of color, in our community. Combining research and solutions, the report recommends corrective local actions to address this urgent public health concern.
Develop & maintain
a strong equity analysis
According to Nation Public Radio, the “word of the year” for
2018 was “social justice.” Based on my
personal experience, there are about as many definitions of social justice as
there are people talking about it, pro and con. Social justice is a great
concept, yet meaningful change requires a strong equity analysis linking
individual behavior, social, economic and cultural root causes, and the systems
of power that feed root causes and behavior.
An equity framework enables comparative analysis and reveals
disproportionate impacts. For example, all children may be harmed by parental
incarceration. Yet, an equity lens reveals that children of color in Jefferson
County are disproportionately affected because of the racial disparities in
impact, alignment and artmaking
Coalition is another word that carries lots of different
meanings. Clearly, a coalition involves
more than one group or organization, yet often how and why of coalition work is
not readily apparent. Collective impact is a strong component that requires
taking time for careful alignment of goals and actions. Artmaking is a valuable
tool for inspiring new ways of thinking, social connections and energetic engagement,
although way too seldom taken seriously in doing justice.
Focusing on our local criminal justice system, LFJA is
working on two positive actions to directly improve the health of children with
incarcerated parents: 1) a pilot program for District Court judges to consider
Family Responsibility Statements when a defendant is a custodial parent: 2) making
the case for improving conditions for family video visitations and consider
alternative technologies and practices.
Doing justice amid chaos and division requires ordinary
people to take extraordinary actions to address mass incarceration and other
pressing social injustices. The more we
share strategies and develop mutual support, the more hope there is for
substantive social change now.