My Mom Is Out of Prison, But I’m Still Not Free

The Trauma of Having an Incarcerated Parent Is a Life Sentence of Its Own

An illustration of a pay phone inside an open flowery luggage. To the upper right of the illustration is a dark-skinned left hand presses against a glass. Near bottom right is a card that almost makes out the word "mom" placed inside a flowery heart.

“With a glass wall between us, we used the time to silently fall apart, together,” writes first-year Columbia University student Angel Gilbert, recalling visiting her mother in prison. Growing up with an incarcerated parent has motivated Gilbert to reform the criminal justice system. Illustration by Be Boggs.

This article is a co-publication of Zócalo Public Square and State of Mind, a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University focused on covering mental health.

I was 12 when I went to prison. Though Mom was the one behind bars, it felt like the system shackled me, too.

Visits to see Mom at Los Angeles County’s Century Regional Detention Facility were rare. Even when I managed to find an adult to take me, I wished I didn’t have to love her this way. Pressing the black visitation phone to my ear, only tears escaped. With a glass wall between us, we used the time to silently fall apart, together.

I am just one of millions of young people who have had an incarcerated parent. For each one of us, the consequences of America’s incarceration crisis are personal and profound; we are more likely to experience a number of physical and mental health conditions, from depression and anxiety to asthma. Today, as a student at Columbia University hoping to become a lawyer, I am ready to be our advocate. I want to inspire criminal justice reform in order to alleviate the system’s lasting impacts on families of the incarcerated.

Mom is a Mexican immigrant who arrived in Los Angeles in 1991. She brought with her an 8th grade education and pennies but also daring eyes full of dreams. America quickly humbled her. She ended up working long shifts as a cashier at a Chevron gas station.

When she got home, she’d tell me all about the customers who came in. She was yelled at for simply doing her job. “Go back to your country,” they told her. Even though America rejected her, Mom was determined for my three sisters and me to belong.

“An A, why not an A+?” she would ask me after my teacher returned a test. I didn’t understand what the big deal was.

Now, as I look back, I know Mom’s toughness was motivated by love. She taught me that I didn’t have room for error; I had to work twice as hard as my white, affluent peers to be taken seriously. It is thanks to Mom that I am still a proud academic perfectionist.

Mom is, and has always been, my beloved. As she began to struggle with addiction, when I was just 12, I made sure Mom was fed and cared for. But I knew what she really needed was something I couldn’t give her: rehabilitation.

I was hopeful when Child Protective Services eventually got involved, but they only made a bad situation worse. A social worker simply showed up at my middle school one day and told me I wouldn’t be going home, because I was entering foster care. A police escort took me to my younger sisters’ schools to break the news to them gently. After all, the social worker told me, it was my “responsibility,” since I was the oldest.

With a Spanish accent and an inadequate lawyer, Mom had the odds stacked against her. As I had been busy serving my sentence in foster care, she started serving hers in prison.

The most painful part of this traumatic experience was that I didn’t get the chance to tell Mom bye. With me gone, who would make sure she was okay?

All I could do was focus on my little sisters. My twin, Ariel, and I became their maternal figures. We cooked food for them, stayed up late when they were sick, told them “I love you.” We were simply there.

As my sisters and I moved from foster home to foster home, Mom lived with my grandpa, where her addiction intensified—and made her the perfect “criminal,” as far as police were concerned. They stopped Mom one day, searched her, found a screwdriver in her purse, assumed it was a weapon, and whisked her off to jail.

Many incarcerated moms look like mine. The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, reports that Latinx women are 1.3 times more likely to be incarcerated than white women. With a Spanish accent and an inadequate lawyer, Mom had the odds stacked against her. As I had been busy serving my sentence in foster care, she started serving hers in prison.

After several years, when Mom eventually got out and regained custody, life didn’t get much better for us. Twenty-seven percent of formerly incarcerated people, according to data published in 2018, are unemployed—and she was one of them. A box on a job application signalled an automatic rejection: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

She eventually got a job as a babysitter, making around $250 a week. The gig helped put food on the table and pay the rent, but I envied the child she babysat. Why did she get to be held in Mom’s arms?

To help make ends meet, I juggled a few jobs in high school. I volunteered with various foster care, feminist, and racial justice nonprofits, which I began to call my family. They empowered me to tell my story. I made speeches to California legislators and helped pass a juvenile justice reform bill. I participated in research that helped expand higher education for foster youth.

I am the safety net for my family. I want more for us than sharing a one-bedroom apartment forever. So, hammer in hand, I shattered the walls. Statistics suggest I should have been held back, or dropped out of high school altogether. I’m lucky to be among the 2% of children with incarcerated moms who will graduate from college. Even when you are wealthy and white, it’s rare to get into Columbia, with its 3.73% acceptance rate. As admissions decisions are released this spring, I’m not expecting many kids like me to receive acceptances here, if they even applied.

Being complacent about these inequities is the real crime. Since 1991, the number of children with incarcerated mothers has increased by 131%. Throwing more moms in jail is not the solution to underlying problems, like addiction and mental illness, that require rehabilitation and treatment. My mom was still an addict post release, just an addict with a felony. Given that kids in foster care are more likely to end up in prison themselves, I easily could have joined her.

Mom tells me to move on. She often comforts me with words like, “We’re together now Angel, let it go.” But when she hugs me tight, I can feel she’s afraid to lose me again. In a way she already has: I’m on the other side of the country. Most kids look forward to college as a time of independence, but I’ve already been on my own for far too long. Mom didn’t regain parental rights until I was almost 18 years old. At least my younger sisters get to grow up with her.

My emotional pain will never truly heal. I still flinch when someone knocks too loud at the door, because that’s how the police and social workers always arrived. I know someday when I am a lawyer, tears will cascade down my cheeks as I walk through the courtroom doors. It was in court that my lawyers gave me a teddy bear, every six months, after denying me parental reunification.

All of my experiences ensure that I will fight harder for my future marginalized clients. I know what it means to be seen as a criminal because you’re Black, a woman, a foster child, and the daughter of an incarcerated mom.

I was 12 when I went to prison. I wonder when I’ll be free.

Angel Gilbert graduated from Culver City High School in 2022. She and her sister Ariel are first-year students at Columbia University in New York City.


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