Growing Up With an Incarcerated Parent

This is the story of a young man. A story that takes place not too far from where you stay.

Jimmy Russo is 17 years old and a senior at his high school. For the sake of his story, he has asked for his name to be changed to remain anonymous. His father, Allen, has been incarcerated ever since he was one, leaving his brother and sister when they were young teenagers, as well as his mom.

“His absence has just become apart of my life,” Russo said. “It’s difficult to miss someone you don’t really know.”

The last memory Russo can recall of his dad was visiting him in a correctional facility somewhere near Victorville, CA, and seeing him in front of a large Disney mural painted across the wall of the visiting room. Little did he know this would be the last time he could recall ever seeing him, or even what he looks like. But that mural is what made the memory stand out. From that point on, he was raised by a mother and the environment that shaped him into what he is today.

“There are some things that just come with having a dad in your life and I didn’t get some of those things, but as a kid I didn’t realize it that way,” Russo said. “It pushed my independence and in a sense I grew up quicker because of it.”

Jimmy is one in 28 kids that currently has an incarcerated parent in the United States. And statistics show one in 14 will have a parent incarcerated at some point during their childhood. 40 percent of these children grow up with a parent that has remarried; Russo is one of these kids. However, for personal reasons he has chosen to keep his stepfather out of the passage.

When asked, what stigma comes with having a father in prison? Jimmy contemplated.

“Sometimes I think I just never had anyone there to teach me how to be a ‘man’,” he said. “And people assume it’s something I can’t learn on my own. What I know now is that I have learned from everything I don’t want to become, and reassure myself that my values and actions are better than the figures that I have seen before me.”

Jimmy mentioned that there was a time, when he was around 14 or 15, where he reached out to his father via a few letters and he wrote back, followed by a call.

“His voice when he spoke was nothing like I had anticipated,” Russo said. “I almost didn’t recognize who I was talking to, that the voice I was speaking to assisted in my creation. It was timeless, I can still here pieces of his voice in the back of my mind.”

I asked him if he remained in contact with his dad but he responded simply with “I don’t think I have it in me to establish a relationship with him over the phone, I don’t think I am in that position mentally.”

Even with half the support system at home, Russo still found support in friends and people that have been through similar hardships and struggles. Also, people that have shown him respect and compassion, mentors and advisors, seem to hold a special place in his heart because their support impacts him just as much.

“I found deeper connections with my friends that understood what I was going through and accepted and made me feel comfortable no matter what our situation was, Russo said. “The support we gave each other made our bond even stronger. I could talk to them about things I couldn’t with my family and get there outside honest opinion. Sometimes it helps to here someone tell me what I think I already perceived, it helps me to know if I am doing the right thing.”

I then asked the kid how his father’s absence has his affected his relationship with his family… this topic seemed to stir more emotion up.

“My family has been through a lot more than I have with this guy, especially my mom,” he said. “Half of me wants to know the story behind it all, but the other half does not want to tear healing wounds. Nobody really spoke much about him so I pretty much just gathered bits and pieces by myself along the way. As for my siblings, his actions definitely left them emotionally jaded, yet they still managed to open up about certain things and stories because I’m assuming they thought I should know something about him. And as for myself, I have maintained, desiring to someday know who this man is for first handedly, to hear another side of the story from the main character.”

It was clear I tapped into parts of Russo that he had left untouched for a while, so I ended with one final, simpler question. ‘If you had one thing you could say to your father now, what would it be?”

“My father is expected to be released into a halfway home by mid-2019, meaning he will have more privileges and may even be able to attend events, it is undetermined whether or not he will make it to my graduation; but one of the things he told me on the phone was that he would try with everything that he had. I don’t want to expect anything because I know in his predicament the circumstances are unpredictable. It would be the first milestone in my life he attended and if he was there I would ask him, where do we begin?”