Sadie Magazine: Response to Sesame Street's Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration Series

Written by Katy Otto

I followed up my interview with Sesame Street with an interview with Malissa Gamble, a Philadelphia woman who was formerly incarcerated and separated from her children. Malissa is a member of Decarcerate PA and the founder of The Time is Now to Make a Change.

Thanks so much for doing this interview with me. I interviewed Sesame Street earlier today about their new resources for children of people who are incarcerated. As a member of Decarcerate PA, an activist, and a formerly incarcerated parent, I wanted to start off by asking you to share a bit of your experiences and perspectives.

Malissa: I am a formerly incarcerated person whose daughters were in the car when I was arrested.  I did fifteen months for receiving stolen property, burglary (general), unauthorized use of a vehicle and morefifteen months too long.  My daughters were taken into the system. This caused a reaction in me—I didn’t want to move until I knew where my kids were. It was absolute trauma for the kids to see handcuffs put on me, to have me taken away right in front of them.  I had to go over to the police car and explain to my daughters what was going on, tell my kids I had to be gone for a while, and to go to school and that I would be back for them, for them not to listen to anyone who said otherwise. That I would be back.   

I was invited to a panel by Ann Schwartzman of the Prison Society on the topic of Children of Incarcerated Parents in Harrisburg. There were people from every county in Pennsylvania there and we were coming together to come up with solutions for the way things were happening from the time that folks were arrested, to their experience while incarcerated to their release.  In my case, I had to wait fourteen months for sentencing and was not even told what was going on—that was in the county jail. After that I got sentenced to one and a half to five years, I insisted on knowing what was happening with my kids. You can’t work on yourself without knowing what is happening with your kids.

My kids went to DHS and then they were found a foster care home. They were kept together which made me happy. It was the parenting instructor at SCI-Muncy, Kerns Barr, who helped me. She gave me advice that I still use today. I was to take these steps if I wish to get my children back. At first I was not able to be in touch with them—nobody told me anything. I didn’t even know if they were being fed. I got my first letter from them a few months into my stay.

I now have custody of my kids—I’ve been home ten years this coming August. My oldest daughter is getting ready to graduate and go to college, and my youngest daughter is home schooled.

We were very close and insular—most of the time I was always with my kids. I never left them, and I don’t know if they dealt with it really well, but they were waiting for me and trying hard in school. It was definitely traumatizing for them though. The look on their faces made me know it was time to make a change.

Katy: What did you think when you heard that Sesame Street had developed programming and tools for incarcerated parents’ children and caregivers?

Malissa: I thought—finally. Finally someone is taking a look at it. The panel I was on recently—Children of Incarcerated Parents, helped me to see a lot, to learn a lot.  They are an amazing group of people that are all working to make things better for the children.  I'm happy for that.  If the children are okay, in most cases the parent will be okay.  I know that I was.

Sesame Street has taken a good step. I wish that there was a mention in the program of the rights of parents to have visitation, the same rights non-incarcerated parents have. I still had rights and should have had my kids brought to see me. Incarcerated parents still want to be involved in their children’s lives. The truth is all of the cogs were not going in the same direction. I think with the work that Children Of Incarcerated Parents Group has done, things will begin to change even more.  We did some amazing work on this issue.  I think that Judge Clarke and Claire Walker, who I dealt with, are some amazing women.

Katy: What are some of your impressions of the videos and tools themselves?

Malissa: I think they are pretty good. I try to think about how women behind walls can be helped by these kinds of efforts. I had good fortune in finally being reunited with my kids, but not everyone has that. I’d love them to continue to reach out for more input from parents who are incarcerated as they continue to develop this. I was very glad to see them having the kids share how they feel. I appreciate that the tools were bilingual, as all materials should be.

Katy: What do you think some of the greatest struggles incarcerated parents and their children face?

Malissa: When you go in there, it is so dark inside that place. Most people have been so beat up by the time they get there, and then they get beaten up even more by the system. Then they beat up each other. There is sadness in there that I've never seen before. The bright spot for some of these women is when they see their children or when they receive mail.  The jail is very upbeat then. After visits, people were happy. They have seen their kids. But then the depression sets in. Resources are needed. We need everything from A to Z, jobs with livable wages, affordable housing, social services and more. These are real obstacles for families.

When my kids did come to visit, it was good at first. They were a little taken aback. I was in a uniform. I had to sit a certain way and could only hug them one time. It is hard because the kids want to keep holding on to you and you to them. It was great when you could talk to them, but when it was time to leave it was so painful. My baby daughter would cry and clench her feet under the chair. I would be forced to leave watching this. You can only hope that the person who brought them is explaining this to them and taking time to, because you can’t.

I think every person who can should have a visit from their kids. The courts and the system need to do more to get parents involved. There is a broadcast program called virtual visit (where families can visit each other over the screen)—we need more of these for people inside. They need to be enforced and happen more regularly. They will say that the prison is too crowded and that they can’t make it happen, but these kinds of visits are vital.

Katy: What are some ways you think these issues could be better addressed in our culture?

Malissa: I think things need to be looked at from the time the parent is incarcerated to the time they come. The caregiver could be the foster mother, a family member—but the parent still has rights, and that is rarely talked about. The parents rights are not taken away from them, they are suppose to have the same rights as someone who has never been in the system.  Families need to be more understanding of what the situation is. My family thought that since I was out of prison I was home, that I could do what they wanted me to do but I was in a halfway house for six months. There were rules that I needed to follow if I wanted to remain outside of those walls. I couldn’t get my kids at that point and my family didn’t understand. While incarcerated, I wrote my judge every week for fifteen months to get the things that I needed to let him know that I was working to get my children back. They (people working in the system) don’t explain a lot to you.

Fortunately, my judge worked with me to have the things that would help me to help myself and my daughters. The program that he assigned me to was for the children, but if you looked at it is was helping me also to become self-sufficient and a productive member of society. He asked the question, "What are you going to do with yourself? I stated that I was going to run my company.  He told me I was going to need a computer, fax machine, and printer.  He turned to the advocate and stated make sure that she gets those things first.  If more programs could be like the one he assigned me to, that would be great. He got me an advocate and a lawyer, the advocate stayed with me for a period of one year and challenged me, asking me questions, made me think, she was a very important piece of my and my children's lives.   He helped me come up with a plan to get my company going.  He made sure I was able to have visits with my children, and that I would be able to get to and from with no problem, DHS was involved working in conjunction with the courts, he literally made the program accountable for all the things that they stated that they provided to folks coming home to their program.  This was different.  I don’t think many folks that are incarcerated have this experience. I think it was because I wrote him for fifteen months, but some part of me would like to think that he did it because he really cares.

I’d also like to see parenting classes both inside and out of prison. There was no parenting class outside the walls that I knew of. People would benefit greatly from this.

Katy: What are you working on now through your activism and work with Decarcerate PA?

With Decarcerate PA we just walked from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. It was very grueling but I got to know the people very well. I didn’t expect to see and learn what I did going across the state. It was bad everywhere—we talked to educators and counselors, all types of people, and things were bad everywhere. I just kept hearing in my mind—Education not Incarceration. Decarcerate PA!  Whatever it took we were going to get our message to Corbett.  To the entire administration.  I saw that look in everyone's eyes, no matter what.  The coming together of this group of people was awesome.  Considering the fact that the only one that I knew before coming there was Hannah Zellerman of Philadelphia Fight, it was scary for me at first to go on the march, but it was all worth it once I began to get to know everyone. The conversations and learning about folks what made them tick other than Decarcerate was great.  I made a pact with myself to learn everyone's name by the end of the march.   

I run an organization called The Time is Now to Make a Change. We find useable resources for women —we created a Needs Survey Form, for which we send to women in prison to find out what they need before they come home. When women take steps, we see that they are invested and we try to help.

The Returning Citizens Voter Movement is another project I founded. There are so many people incarcerated who are now home. There are 400,000 formerly incarcerated or convicted people who do have the right to vote. That is our power, and that is what this effort works on. I’m now working to make Governor Corbett a one-term Governor because of how he has dealt with prison expansion and other issues. Some people are even given misinformation while incarcerated about their right to vote – and we are working to change that.  All across the state of Pennsylvania, there were pockets of formerly incarcerated/convicted folks that did not even know that they have the right to vote, we will work to change that also.

I’ve been traveling for the past two and a half years doing activism and organizing. There is a woman in California Susan Burton who inspires me a lot—each state requires different efforts of course, but we all need resources. A New Way of Life is her program. We also don’t see a lot of images and stories of formerly incarcerated people doing positive things in their communities. I want to change this.  We have some amazing things coming shortly.  It's the powers that be who state that they want to help but hey again I waited for the help to come and I'm still waiting.  I with all honesty could not go in there and see what was happening be a part of that and be given the opportunity to come home and not do anything about it or at least try.  The betrayal is so vast.

Katy: What do you want the public to know about incarceration and the experiences of incarcerated people?

Malissa: That it is a dark, dark place. You have to be strong to make it through there, and then come out here and try to put your life back together again.  One thing that I try to remember is that just because I'm working on behaviors and myself if you will, does not mean that everyone else is.  I cannot allow anyone to keep me stuck because they are.  I own my mistakes, I claim them, and I would like to move on with my life.  I have. It's not easy, however, I keep it moving forward at all times.   Help is needed in there. Help is needed out here too—and we are an important piece of the puzzle. Most everyone will be coming home, what are they coming home to.  We don’t need more jails, we need more programs to help people, more jobs with a livable wage,  affordable housing – stop beating people over the head. It is a constant beatdown. But we are working to Decarcerate PA!