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The Appeal Podcast: Generational Harm, A Hidden Cost of Mass Incarceration

With Chicago activist Celia Colón

Woman's hands through bars
Flickr/Tiago Pinheiro (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On this podcast–and in other coverage of the criminal legal system–we tend to focus, understandably, on the people behind bars and on parole. But in reality, this only shows part of the damage inflicted by mass incarceration. Generational harm refers to the second- and third-order negative effects of incarceration and the corresponding emotional and financial toll on prisoners’ families, and disproportionately on women of color. This social trauma is just now being seriously studied and reckoned with. Today we are joined by Chicago activist Celia Colon to discuss the true human cost of a system that nearly always leaves a trail of destruction.
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Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember you can always follow us at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter page and as always you can subscribe and rate us on iTunes.

On this podcast, and the vast majority of prison reform coverage in general, the focus is understandably about people behind bars and on parole. But in reality this only shows one part of the harm being leveled out by mass incarceration. Generational harm or the negative effects of incarceration on children are just now being thoroughly studied and reckoned with. These unseen negative effects and the corresponding emotional and financial labor disproportionately falls on women and children, namely women of color. Indeed, the second and third order harm caused by prison is almost too great in scope to comprehend and yet is rarely talked about. Today we are joined by Chicago activist Celia Colón to discuss the true human cost of a system that as a matter of course locks up first and ask questions later.

[Begin Clip]

Celia Colón: There’s minimal data that’s captured to talk about the harm, the  generational harm it’s put on our children and how they become adults with substance abuse problems and they become adults with mental health issues, which then become the next prisoners. And I feel like the system is set up to cause this harm.

[End Clip]

Adam: Thank you so much for joining us on The Appeal.

Celia Colón: Thank you for having me.

Adam: So this is a topic that sort of encompasses all criminal justice reform abolition, whichever path one takes, which is this idea of generational harm and the unseen cost of prison on families, specifically women, obviously specifically black and Latino women. One study by the National Survey of Children’s Health found that 7 percent of children living in the US have a parent who is currently incarcerated or previously incarcerated. One study by The Center for American Progress found that between 33 million to 36 million children have at least one parent who has a criminal record. Half of those have been incarcerated at some point. So much of the conversation is built around how prison affects people in it, obviously, which makes sense, but almost virtually removed from the conversation and something very few people talk about is the effect that has on those outside of prisons, namely women of color. Can you talk about, uh, in your work, the sort of human face to this, what are the qualitative issues that people deal with when they have a loved one, either in jail or prison?

Celia Colón: Right. So for me, what we don’t discuss and what needs to be discussed is criminal by association, the general racial harm that’s caused by the powers that be. And let me explain that a little. So when a parent is locked up, especially a mother, which usually let’s say about 86 percent of the women that get locked up are the primary caregivers of that family. Usually single moms, right? When you lock that mom up, you’re also locking up that child. And you can talk to any psychologist who, you know, has their own different ways of diagnosing trauma and its harm. But the one thing that is clear, no matter what psychologist puts its spin on it, is that trauma definitely is a threat to life. You know, when somebody undergoes any kind of trauma and any kind of abuse, physical or sexual, it really, really affects that person’s ability to cope on like so many levels, you know, the emotional and psychological long term effects and harm that that plays in the child especially, they’re dealing with so many things. They’re overwhelmed by pain. They are separated from the person that they love. So they’re dealing with grief. They’re dealing with depression. They are facing to be bullied and targeted in school as like a problem child or the, you know, the person with emotional problems. But nobody gets to the core of that. Nobody gets to the root of that to find out what’s going on. And anything that you can look up on the internet or in books, you’ll see that trauma definitely screws up an individual’s life for the rest of so their life and no one can like tell you or decide what your trauma is. It’s that own person’s, you know, that subject’s experience that determines whether it’s a traumatic event or not, you know, inside of you. And the way that it affects you in your ability to cope in life it just clearly goes across the board as to how it affects your everyday decisions and how you adapt and navigate through society. And this happens to our kids and there’s minimal data that’s captured to talk about the harm, the generational harm that’s put on our children and how they become adults with substance abuse problems and they become adults with mental health issues, which then become the next prisoners. And I feel like the system is set up to cause this harm. Exactly how it wants it to be set up.

Adam: Yeah. One of the things I thought was interesting in my research for the show was how little data there is. ” The studies we do have are relatively recent and they’re not very robust and so you have institutionally very little reason to actually research the effects and of course you can’t talk about something if you can’t measure it, if you don’t know what you’re really about, which is why I think it’s interesting to talk about specific stories. Now one of the, one of the issues at hand here is the idea of stigma. The stigma of prison has a social harm on children. From the work that you’ve done, is the focus on stigma in your opinion, the right way to sort of allocate our resources?

Celia Colón: I believe it’s abuse of power. It’s a betrayal of trust within the systems. It’s, it’s an entrapment. It makes you feel helpless, hopeless, lost. And then the children take on these same traumas because you are stuck and trapped by these things and no one talks about that. Like you said, you know, I’ll echo what you said. There’s minimal data because they don’t want us to learn the truth. They don’t want to talk about how all of these children that get displaced into DCFS centers or foster care centers then they become physically and mentally and emotionally abused, but nobody tracks that data because 90 percent of the time they’re black and brown kids or poor white kids. So to America, you know, they are a lost cause so they don’t go out and look for us when we become 11 or 12 or 13 and supposedly run away when these are the people that are then trafficked, you know, and then eventually escape and become substance abuse users or mental health patients or become a prisoner because they are in jail for living a criminalized life trying to survive.

Adam: So you do work with in Cook County jail with your organization, Giving Others Dreams, which is GOD. You’ve been working there since 2013. Can you talk about some of the work that you do within Cook County? I really want to put sort of a human face on this. You obviously don’t have to name names, but you can sort of give some examples of, of the trauma we’re talking about just so people get a sense of that it’s not just a bunch of numbers?

Celia Colón: Well it’s people and I myself am an impacted person. I was incarcerated when I was 18. I’ve been home, my crime happened over 25 years ago. I’ve been home for 18 years, was released in 2000, I’ve been doing this work for the last 17 years and I started doing mental health workshops, facilitating them using transformation art and storytelling inside the Cook County jail to help people learn how to heal themselves. Because the way we get past trauma is learning how to heal and giving people resources of how to find support systems and therapy and a way to adapt to the life that now has been pushed upon us. Right? Cause it’s an entrapment and you’re always living in that fear. So inside the Cook County jail, I see people in there like I had a lady in there the last time I was in Division 8 who had been back and forth for 22 years, trapped in this cycle of destruction. And she tells me, you know, ‘every time I leave,’ she’s like, ‘I’m scared that I’m coming back.’ That’s the number one trauma that stays with them. So they’re always in that trauma induced anxiety world where they never feel safe and they’re always in distress. You’re not supposed to live like that. A human body’s not supposed to be living in that fight or flight stage all the time. That totally screws up someone’s ability to think, it fogs up someone’s mind when they make choices and decisions that can be life altering and no one talks about that. And then there’s no help for that so they usually are given very low level jobs, which you usually will have to get two just to survive. Right? And then if you have two jobs, you don’t have time to be a parent. You’re blocked from housing. So therefore, that’s like a basic need, you know, criminal background check, if you have a criminal background, nine times out of ten you’re not going to get an apartment. That means your children are homeless. That means you don’t even get to have your children because you don’t have a home to put them in. And they stay within the system that’s hurting them. You can’t get a job, you can’t get housing. So therefore you can’t feed yourself. So what do you do? You gotta do what you gotta do to survive and then you’re criminalized for it. So it’s just an ongoing cycle of destruction that has been broken because we as Americans haven’t decided that the government that we are living under, when we look at the history, it was made and created by white supremacy. Old, you know, white male slave owners. And we have amended from that. But that’s not the America we live in today. You know, we’re diverse and our government should reflect who we are as Americans today. And it doesn’t, and it bothers me that no one is looking at the underlining root of the justice system. You know, it’s so punitive. It’s always about who committed the crime and how can we punish them instead of saying, wow, this happened. Why did this happen? How did this happen? How can we prevent this from ever happening again to anyone else? We’re not doing that. We don’t look at each other as people and individuals. We just slap labels on each other to downgrade or step on each other’s necks. You know? So someone is always in power and that has to change.

Adam: So yeah, let’s talk about this punitive system here. Cause I think when we talk about, for example, violence, most people don’t think of prison as violence. And one of the things prison abolitionists and prison reformers, the main thing they’re trying to push on people is that this is a form of violence.

Celia Colón: Exactly.

Adam: And that there’s a real human cost to putting someone in jail. And it doesn’t stop and end with even the person itself. As bad as that is that there’s this broader ripple effect, these kinds of second, third, fourth order effects. One of the things you mentioned, you touched on earlier was this idea that there’s a tail for the rest of your life. For the rest of your life you’re not given people first language you’re given “convict” “felon.” This idea that sort of for the rest of your life, no matter how much you’ve paid your quote unquote “debt to society,” you are this person. Can you touch briefly on from some of the work you’ve done, how this stigma, whether it’s applying for a job or applying for housing, how this can sort of make getting out of this trap more difficult?

Celia Colón: Yeah, so you know all the bad language from having a record. It divides people. It allows society to just slap a label on everyone. Like you know you’re a criminal. So when you think criminal, you think violent. You think somebody did something bad with not even knowing that person’s story or situation as to why that person was put into that place. And nothing divides people more than labels. And that’s the thing. It stays with you for life no matter how much good you do, when you come back and how much you serve your community and society, no matter if you get a doctorate degree or you become an attorney, everybody wants to label you for the worst mistake that you made in your life forever and then your children have to carry that shame, that conviction, that number, they carry it because right now in Chicago, I know it just started last year, 2016 I believe they finally passed that people with violent crimes can now get an expungement and everyone who’s ever walked inside of a jail door has experienced some kind of violence or harm. They have either been a witness to or a part of a violent traumatic event prior even going to jail. So we all have to look at what that kind of violence is and what that means to a lot of people because violence is in many forms and shapes and the systems that are in power, definitely abuse that power, push violence on everyone in the community because not only does it affect the person that goes to prison, right? It affects everyone connected to them, is either affected or infected by that person that goes to prison. And the community suffers as well cause you’re taking someone who could be a productive part of the community out of the community. So, you know, these minimum sentences, we have to think about them. Are they really, really keeping society safe or is it causing more harm and damage? And there’s tons of studies that show it causes more harm and damage. There need to be more diversion programs. There needs to be more look to the root cause of the problem and get these people treatment and help and resources. And that’s the thing. We lack them in the black and brown communities. We live in unsupported communities where criminal behavior is supported by the powers that be, you know, they’ve created these spaces all over the United States to keep the prisons full. It’s a money thing, you know, it’s all about money and how much the 1 percent can accumulate and keep.

Adam: Yeah. This really does speak to the kind of problems of neoliberalism. I, I don’t want to editorialize here too much, but this is sort of a reoccurring theme on the show of that we throw out terms like neoliberalism or capitalism. It’s not just sort of buzzwords that the prisons, that if you’re serious about ending or reducing mass incarceration or meaningfully reducing it, you have to talk seriously about not just the results but the causes. And the causes are a system and an economic system that leaves people with nothing. That leaves them with little support, little mental health, very little obviously financial support. This kind of very dog eat dog, get two, three jobs just to survive that, that this will necessarily correlate with what we view as being quote unquote “crime.” And I think it’s important you brought that up because um, you can’t have a strictly libertarian view of these things that you really have to have a social safety net that mitigates these things. Otherwise, like you said, you’re just perpetuating a cycle that dates back to Jim Crow days or dates back to slavery. It’s, it’s really the same sort of system. So we talked about this offline and you said you, you’ve personally been affected by these unseen generational harm effects of prison. Can you tell us about your story and explain just so people get a clear sense of the kind of moral stakes here that this is not an abstraction but really kind of harms people in ways that again, that largely go unseen?

Celia Colón: So my kid has been at this Catholic school for the last 10 years. I’ve been volunteering all these years. So in January I had to take a new background test because they have just adopted Chicago public schools’ new background system. So, I took the test, I didn’t have an issue. I’m supposed to be chaperoning my daughter’s eighth grade graduation in like two weeks, right? So they wait until it’s time for me to turn money in to send me an email to tell me that I can’t come. And I’m like, what? You know, I got the email from the teacher, like you can’t chaperone call Miss Rucker. And I’m like, what the hell is this about? So I called Miss Rucker and she called me back with the principal, who is a new principal, so this is like my third principal and he doesn’t know me too well, but the dean knows me there. She knows me very well. She wasn’t a part of the conversation. He was like, “I’m sorry I’m here to inform you you can no longer chaperone, volunteer or come inside the school unless it’s like, you know, picking up report cards or something like that.” And I’m like, what? He’s like, “yeah, due to your violent background.” And I said, “are you?” And I told him, I said, “are you fucking kidding me right now?” I said, “do you know who I am?” I said, “do you know what I do for a living?” I said, “do you know that right now you are creating generational harm?” And then I just, I busted out into tears. I’m like, “I committed my crime 25 years ago. My daughter wasn’t even a thought in my mind.” Right? “And I was an 18 year old lost person when that crime occurred, how dare you, you don’t even know me, but you’re going to judge me and label me for something that happened 25 years ago and now my daughter gets to wear this shame, this ain’t going to work.” So I hung up with him. I called the dean, I told her, man, this is a Catholic church out of all places, right? No judgment. Second chances. What about Jesus? You know, these things. I said, “you know, I’m not going down without a fight.” I was like, “do I have to contact an attorney?” I was like “I have a whole bunch of media people I know I’ll come up with Channel 2, Telemundo, like I’m coming.” She’s like, “don’t make no noise, give me a couple of days.” So the principal called me yesterday to tell me that I could finish this year out, but “don’t tell nobody.” He told the wrong person to keep their mouth quiet, you know? So instead of, um, you telling me to be quiet, I’m the wrong person to tell to be quiet. You know, like at the end of the day I even went and spoke to my Alderman, we had a, we had Senator Roberts, Peter Roberts came to talk about community issues and I brought this issue up and when I did, telling him about me being banned and you know, is there some kind of policy work he can do to amend what’s going on, there’s thousands who are that going to be affected. There were ten teenagers in there who came up to me and told me that they’re happy that I spoke up because their fathers and they know of other kids’ fathers and mothers who will not even do the background tests because they don’t want to embarrass their kids. So that means there’s so many parents not allowed to be parents and there’s so many children that are now going to suffer from trauma, which causes all of these fucked up psychological issues within themselves. And then they’re bullied. And right now they’re not even talking about, I don’t know if people looked at the numbers, how many black children are committing suicide.

Adam: Right.

Celia Colón: No one’s looking at that. Right? And no one’s looking at if they’re suffering from depression. When I was locked up, I had a friend whose daughter tried to commit suicide, even though she was with family, she felt lost and alone because she didn’t have her mom. Then my cell cellmate try to take her fucking life in jail, tried to hang herself off the top bunk. It didn’t work. She broke a few teeth. Yeah, but that’s just showing you the trauma, the harm that doesn’t never leave and then the powers that be are going to just implement this and tell you, you can’t be a parent and that you can’t be involved with your child. You’re banned from being a part of their life. Like what are you guys doing here? Do you even realize what you’re doing to these kids? I mean, fuck us. What are you doing to these kids? Do they matter? You know? They should because they can be the, the next astronaut. The next scientist that cures cancer or I mean they could be the next president, but you’re breaking their spirit. You’re breaking who they can be even before they’re given a chance.

Adam: Right. It’s important. People sort of understand the stakes and I think that something as sort of wholesome and benign as a field trip is now becoming an issue because of something that was 25 years ago I think should, should offend any moral person. So thanks for sharing that with us. I really appreciate it. And um, one of the groups out there that are sort of trying to do harm reduction and trying to mitigate these circumstances, I know that the federal government basically does nothing for families of incarcerated people. In fact it does do nothing. What out there are you seeing that’s on the ground with people you’re dealing with in Cook County that is making life slightly more bearable for some of these affected parties?

Celia Colón: Well, you know, there’s a lot of kickass not for profits and just everyday people who are actually taking the reins in in their own communities and getting out there and doing what they can to decreased harm. So like Kids Off The Block, Fierce Over 40, Girls Like Me Project, RAGE out in Englewood, Parents For Peace and Justice in Humboldt Park, The Healing Corner. They provide a lot of resources, uh, breaking the silence as far as trying to bring social workers and psychologists out to meet with grieving families, you know, creating supports systems for victims of violence, Moms Against Senseless Killing, MASK, you know, Moms Demand Action, The Women’s Justice Institute were working on a lot of political legislative work to help end mass incarceration for women. They have a plan of, you know, reducing the number by 50 percent in Illinois within seven years and I’m a part of their task force. I also am very proud of our state attorney, Kim Foxx, who has created a Returning Citizens Board. There’s ten of us, which are impacted people who are now on the board to talk to prosecutors and give them a human face to what they see on paper and share our story so that they can really start looking at the generational harm and the impacts that they are making in the communities that are already harmed. And we are giving policy recommendations for diversion programs, for change. So I’m proud of that. So there’s a lot of people out here in the city and even though the city is huge, we all who are on the ground doing the work, the grunt work, we all know each other. We’re always in the same spaces. You know, Cabrini Green Legal Aid, they do so much for so many. So want to give shout out to them as well. Paving the Way Project, they do awesome work as well. Kids Like Me Foundation that I do work with and they do amazing work. Um, Mujeres Latinas, you know, they help a lot with domestic violence and take people in for classes all over the city.

Adam: Well thank you so much. This was extremely informative and I really appreciate your time.

Celia Colón: Thank you for giving, you know, an opportunity for conversations like this to even occur. I think it’s really important that America hears from people who are impacted and people who are doing the work and also see the harm and are also feeling the harm.

Adam: Right. I really appreciate it. And this was fantastic.

Celia Colón: All right. Thank you. Have a great one.

Adam: Thank you to our guest Celia Colón. This has been The Appeal podcast. Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter and Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter page. And as always, you can subscribe and rate us on iTunes. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.