Breaking the Chain
Supporting Families with Incarcerated Relatives
By Jesse Duthrie
The aroma of cheese pizza fills the air and an acoustic version of Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” plays over a speaker from the back of the room. A man sits down with a slice, takes off his hat, and begins to pray. People come in one by one and, skipping formalities, hug each other and welcome one another to the group.
Once everybody has taken a piece of pizza and filled their cups with soda, Giselle Jacobs starts the group with a warm welcome. Since there are several newcomers to the “Breaking the Cycle” support group, she gives a brief history of her work. In the spring and summer of 2010, community dialogues were held at the Hartford Public Library. A range of Hartford citizens attended the dialogues; from state representatives and city officials to formerly incarcerated persons and law enforcement officials, a diverse crowd voiced their concerns on issues related to children of incarcerated parents and the criminal justice system.
Out of these discussions came an action forum that targeted specific issues pertaining to children of incarcerated parents, which, in turn, eventually led to the creation of the group, “Breaking the Cycle.” It started in Giselle’s home, but by June 2011, they found a centralized meeting space at North Star Center for Human Development.
Affected by the incarceration of her own parents, Giselle says, “Since day one, I’ve wanted to volunteer.” She’s been a pivotal figure since the startup. During the meetings she moderates the group, keeps the dialogue open, and leads the topics of discussion. Once she has introduced herself, she directs the man sitting next to her to tell his story.
Tommy grew up with incarcerated parents, and after drug use and illegal activity, ended up incarcerated. After years of recidivism, it’s his goal to be there for his children. As he says, “My kids need to gravitate towards me, rather than to the streets.” He makes clear that he understands one of the greatest problems for children with incarcerated parents is their inability to understand the situation they are placed in.
Each person in the circle shares his or her background. After awhile, the stories start to show common themes. All but one of the people sitting in the circle has been incarcerated. Greg, a 49-year-old stepfather, had been in and out of prison for 15 years. Now his wife is in jail and he is responsible for taking care of his stepchildren while she’s away. He explains that the children are upset, and they don’t understand their mother’s situation.
Dialogue continues this way for another half hour. One woman’s mother, father, and grandmother had been incarcerated. Another man had 12 convictions under his belt. But as the group’s discussion moves forward with regards to children of incarcerated parents, a larger dialogue starts to take place. It is a dialogue that is familiar, from Bridgeport to New London to Hartford and back: the system is broken. People begin to grow frustrated or angry when they speak about not being able to find work or housing after incarceration.
Giselle has to calm the nerves of the group that, for twenty minutes, has ranted on about the substandard conditions of prisoner reentry. She introduces Julius, who goes by the nickname “Wave.” A thoughtful and well-spoken man, he begins by explaining his history and purpose for attending the group. He shares that, “There must be urgency in breaking the chain. If there is no strategy in breaking the chain, there will not be change.”
As similar as each person’s stories may seem, it’s the slight differences that make “Breaking the Cycle” a worthwhile group. In these differences people can see how their own issues relate to those around them. They can receive advice, admit wrongdoing, or simply broach issues they’ve never spoken of before.
Wave’s grandson, Wave Jr., sits quietly beside him. Eventually Giselle convinces the younger Wave to open up. He shares that he’s never been in jail, never wants to go to jail and has come to the group to “learn how to stay out of incarceration.”
The room, like that of a Baptist church, fills up with people’s verbal appraisal of what Wave Jr. has just said.
“Amen’s” and “That’s right!”