Jeri Ross with her father; in the background is U.S. Penitentiary Leavenworth.
(Via Jeri Ross (inset); via Federal Bureau of Prisons)
Opinion from Community Voices

My father went to prison when I was 10 — I’m one of 2 million children with incarcerated parents

When Jeri Ross was 10, her father disappeared. Her mom and grandmother told her he was at a “training school,” but really, he was a notorious drug trafficker who was sentenced to life in prison. She and her sister spent three decades visiting him in various penitentiaries across the country. In 2019, Ross — a Santa Cruz resident for close to 50 years — published a memoir about her complicated relationship with her dad. Here, she reminds us that 2 million children in the U.S. have incarcerated parents. Speaking out, she says, “offers hope and healing.”

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When I was 10, my father went to prison for the first time.

My 12-year-old sister, Lyn, and I were told by our mother and grandma that he was at a training school in south Georgia. A few months later, around May 1963, I found a letter addressed to my grandma. I opened it.

It was from my dad. I read, “The time will pass fast. Before you know it, I will be out of this jail and out there with you and my girls.”

My heart raced as I put the letter back in the envelope just as I had found it. I didn’t tell anyone about the letter. I was afraid I would get in trouble for reading my grandma’s mail.

Days later, I finally blurted out to my sister that our daddy was in jail.

She ran into the house and told our grandma, who called us both into her bedroom for a talk. She confirmed that our dad was in jail and had us promise that we wouldn’t tell anyone, not even him. She said it would hurt his feelings. “It will be our secret,” she said. I couldn’t tell my dad whom I loved so much how afraid I was or how sad I was that he left me.

Through the years, I’ve tried to understand how I coped and adapted as a child being told to keep secrets about my dad.

No one asked me what it was like for me having my daddy in jail. I wasn’t included in conversations about him, which left me feeling confused and not sure what was going to happen to me.

I learned as a child how to stay safe by pretending I was all right when I wasn’t. I learned to fit in, to be accepted by others by hiding my confusion and shame. I learned to conform and cover up.

So when my father was convicted of narcotics trafficking in the 1980s and given life without parole, I didn’t tell anyone. I was now a young mother, enrolled in Cabrillo College and volunteering at the Santa Cruz Women’s Health Center.

I was emotionally devastated, yet it didn’t occur to me that I needed help.

I had become masterful at stuffing my emotions and convincing myself I was just fine. I didn’t really share with anyone what it was like having a father in prison.

Jeri Ross (right) with her father
(Via Jeri Ross)

I didn’t talk about how I struggled with the fact that my beloved dad, who taught me how to ride a bike and who always held my hand walking everywhere, had been involved in a violent, criminal business. A business where many people were killed, more were put behind bars for decades and countless others became addicted to cocaine and then crack.

I wondered if Dad saw it this way, but I never asked him.

I now realize that not asking was just another way for me to avoid my own feelings of disappointment, shame and sadness.

I had a choice. I could turn my back on him, or I could forgive him, knowing he was in prison for what he had done. He had been judged. He was serving his time. I was his daughter, whom he loved, and he was my father, whom I loved.

Jeri Ross and sister Lyn with their father
(Via Jeri Ross)

I chose to be loyal to my incarcerated father. I spent the next 32 years visiting my father in maximum-security federal penitentiaries in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Florida and Georgia. In the prison visiting rooms, you take photographs by buying tokens. You wait your turn to pose in front of various backdrops. No other photos are allowed. I have files full of prison photos taken through the years of Dad, my sister and myself.

It was always a highlight of our time together for Dad to be given the photos after our visit, then he would mail them to us. These are from Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas.

I visited him regularly until he passed away in 2018 at age 88. He never got out of prison.

On any given day in the U.S., there are over 2 million children who have a parent in jail or prison. So many families suffer from feelings of isolation.

I realize now, after writing and sharing my story in my book, “See You in the Sky: A Memoir of Prison, Possibility and Peace,” that speaking up offers hope and healing.

We can create community and support one another knowing we are not alone.

I was recently asked to participate in the video library project,“Impacts of Incarceration,” a newly launched online resource offering over 100 videos with topics including prison visits, trust, stigma, experiences in school, addiction, healing and therapy. Presented by the nonprofit Pathfinder Network, this channel aims to inform, empower and create meaningful change by sharing the stories, wisdom and resilience of individuals affected by the justice system.

There are a lot of us.

In a 2019 Cornell University study, researchers found that 45% of Americans — or nearly 1 in 2 — have experienced the incarceration of a close relative.

Jeri Ross has lived in Santa Cruz since 1972. She graduated with a master’s degree in public health from San Jose State University and worked for the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency for 20 years. She currently is a life coach and advocate for families affected by incarceration as well as author of “See You in the Sky: A Memoir of Prison, Possibility and Peace.”