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This winter, before the pandemic changed everything, Brittany Jefferson spent weekdays at a call center, putting in hours through a work release program as she neared the end of a four-year stint in prison. About once a week, after Brittany finished work, Christine Zuniga, her kids’ grandmother, would be waiting outside with Victoria, 13, and Alejandra, 6.

children of incarcerated parents
Brittany Jefferson says one of the hardest things about being incarcerated is not being around to help her children with their education. She tells them: “You only get one education, so you really need to be focusing hard if you want to do something successful in life.” Credit: Christine Zuniga

The four of them would grab food at a nearby chicken restaurant, then catch up. Conversation sometimes turned to how the girls were doing in school. Victoria had trouble reading; she said her letters moved around. She was getting more individual attention from teachers since Christine had relocated the family from Oklahoma City to suburban Tuttle and its better schools, but social life could be difficult: Kids at school insisted Victoria didn’t have a mom. She begged Brittany to join her for lunch at school once she was released.

Then the pandemic hit. The girls’ schools closed, and Christine, 64, was reluctantly cast not just as their primary caregiver, but also as their homeschool teacher. Brittany was put on lockdown at the women’s correctional center, without her job or family visits. Since entering prison this time, she’d signed up for every class, every volunteer and work opportunity, every chance to reroute her life and prove she was ready to be a mother. But with the coronavirus throwing the world into chaos, it didn’t feel like enough; she worried that Christine wasn’t staying on Victoria about her schoolwork and grew more distraught that she wasn’t there to help. 

More than 5 million U.S. children have, or have had, a parent in prison or jail, according to one estimate.

“I am so ready to go home and be the super mom,” said Brittany, 32. “But it doesn’t work that way.”

More than 5 million U.S. children have, or have had, a parent in prison or jail, according to one estimate. Oklahoma, despite recent steps toward criminal-justice reform, imprisons more women per capita than any other U.S. state. For children of incarcerated parents, the toll can be significant. They are more likely to fall behind academically, drop out of school and go to prison themselves. With instability at home, concentrating on coursework can be challenging, and kids sometimes face stigma at school.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, these family separations have deepened. When the virus began to spread, prisons closed to visitors, and the facilities became epicenters of the disease. Those raising the kids of incarcerated parents — foster parents, grandparents, extended family — are often older, and, like Christine, worried about their health. Adding nonstop child care and homeschooling to the mix has been difficult, and in some cases devastating.  

“I am old, I don’t have the patience it takes to homeschool,” said Christine one April afternoon. “I love them,” she said of her grandchildren. “I want to make them happy. But [Victoria] needs her mother and her father. And they are not there right now.” 

Critical Condition

The Students the Pandemic Hit Hardest

The coronavirus pandemic closed schools and launched a national experiment in remote learning that has been chaotic and stressful for millions of American families. But in some households, the shift to homeschool was particularly catastrophic. In this series we profile vulnerable children whose education was already precarious and how the disease has exacerbated gaps in opportunities and resources for communities already on the edge.

Related: From prison to dean’s list: How Danielle Metz got an education after incarceration

Brittany grew up in Texas and had her first child when she was 16. She left school, started abusing drugs, and cycled through rehab, prison and jail. Her oldest daughter, Lela, was a few years old when Brittany met Christine’s son Alex, and they had two girls together. Christine took in Victoria when she was two, and she’s been raising Alejandra from birth. 

“I love them. I want to make them happy. But [Victoria] needs her mother and her father. And they are not there right now.” 

Christine Zuniga, grandmother, Tuttle, Oklahoma

Christine recognized parts of herself in her daughter-in-law. Growing up in Texas decades earlier, she struggled too. She married at 14, had five children, endured abusive relationships and spent a few years in prison on drug charges. She worked physically demanding jobs until 2003 when she was injured, went back to school for office administration and found a job working for an attorney.

children of incarcerated parents
Brittany Jefferson with her three daughters: Lela, Victoria and Alejandra. Jefferson is awaiting release from prison this year and says she cannot wait to be “the super mom.” Credit: Christine Zuniga

“I used to talk to her all the time and tell her, ‘In order to love somebody else you have to love yourself,’ ” Christine said of Brittany. “I myself went through a lot of counseling to find out why I was the way I was.” 

Christine welcomed the chance to raise the girls differently than she’d raised her own children. But she also saw how much her grandchildren needed their parents. Alex, 40, is incarcerated in Oklahoma, too, and like Brittany, he is expected to be released this year. But because of the coronavirus, the girls haven’t seen him in months.

When Brittany went to prison this time, it felt different than previous stints. “I was just so ready, I was just so tired,” she said. “God didn’t destine me to be a prostitute, a drug dealer, any of that. He destined me to be a woman of virtue. I had to get clean in my mind of everything.” 

While in prison in McLoud outside of Oklahoma City, she took classes, volunteered as a mentor to at-risk youth and worked for a brokerage firm, where she rose to an information technology administrator position. She’d received her GED years earlier while incarcerated in Texas. When she got her own life more under control, she finally had space to focus on her kids.  

What she learned was worrisome. Victoria was struggling in school. When they lived in Oklahoma City, Christine had given her practice spelling tests and Victoria would add extra letters to the words. “I would get really frustrated,” said Christine. “I didn’t understand.” Then her oldest son Mark told her he’d struggled in the same ways, that his letters moved around too. “Back then it wasn’t labeled dyslexia though,” Christine recalled. “You were labeled as being lazy.” 

Some of Christine’s family is from Mexico and she grew up speaking Spanish. Victoria can understand the language, but she doesn’t speak it. Christine started to worry that the teachers were overlooking the girl’s poor reading skills because she’s Latina, and they thought she was new to English. She decided to move the family to a house in Tuttle, 30 miles from downtown Oklahoma City.

Alejandra began attending an early childhood education center, and Victoria started getting the extra support she needs through an individualized education plan for students with disabilities, Christine says. But reading remains a challenge.

Brittany wanted to help. “I try to stay on [Victoria] that you only get one education, so you really need to be focusing hard if you want to do something successful in life,” she said, but her words could only carry her children so far.

“It’s really hard to parent from behind bars because I’m not there and I can’t say, ‘You need to sit down and do your homework.’ They will say, ‘Mom, you’re not even here.’ ”

Brittany Jefferson, mother, Oklahoma City

“It’s really hard to parent from behind bars,” she said, “because I’m not there and I can’t say, ‘You need to sit down and do your homework.’ They will say, ‘Mom, you’re not even here.’ ”

When she did see her kids, they called their grandmother “Mom,” she said, not her. She tried not to feel hurt.

Christine Zuniga is raising her granddaughters Victoria and Alejandra while their parents are incarcerated. When the coronavirus hit, she became the girls’ homeschool teacher in addition to their primary caregiver. Credit: Christine Zuniga

When the coronavirus ended in-person education in March, Alejandra’s school sent home games and simple exercises Christine could help with. But guiding Victoria on her assignments was far more challenging. She bought the girl a few books to help her stay fresh on her skills. But on days when Christine’s bones ached from past surgeries, it all felt insurmountable.

Still, she is grateful for their four-bedroom house near the highway on the outskirts of Tuttle. It has a porch and a front yard where the girls can play with her tiny Chihuahua. The park, and the water parks and much of the world beyond that yard have been off-limits.

Related: Pipeline to prison: Special education too often leads to jail for thousands of American children

Momentum for criminal-justice reform has grown in recent years, in part because of the harms that come to children from locking up their parents. This past November, Oklahoma commuted the sentences of 527 low-level drug and nonviolent offenders. The state holds roughly 26,000 people in its prisons, however, and advocates say the legislature is falling short on promises to deliver real change.

Children of incarcerated parents say their families’ involvement with the justice system can complicate education in a variety of ways. Steven Montoya, who is 27 and grew up in Queens, New York, recalls how much he struggled in classes because of anger over his mother’s incarceration. Few of his teachers knew how to handle his behavior, he says. Once, his mother’s parole officer dropped by his school, which set off rounds of bullying.

Francie Ekwerekwu, an attorney with the nonprofit TEEM (The Education and Employment Ministry), in Oklahoma City, said teachers sometimes get frustrated with the behavioral issues of children of incarcerated parents and suspend them, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We have to stop acting like the incarcerated parent does not exist.”

Alexis Mansfield, Women’s Justice Institute

Having a parent behind bars can also affect a child’s self-esteem. Ekwerekwu was 16 and a top student when she learned that her father was incarcerated. He and her mother, who raised her, had decided to wait until that age to tell her; she’d grown up believing he was in his home country of Nigeria. “I don’t know if I would have been able to be an Advanced Placement student had I known where my father was,” she said. “When I did find out, it made me question whether I was deserving to be sitting with those kids in my AP classes.”  

Parental incarceration can also harm a child’s literacy, since parents aren’t present to read to their kids. To help, some organizations have started programs to film incarcerated parents reading and deliver the videos to their children.

Alexis Mansfield, a senior adviser of children and families with the nonprofit group Women’s Justice Institute, said that schools need to do more to involve incarcerated parents. In a forthcoming report, her organization recommends that teachers hold conferences via video with incarcerated parents when possible and send parents copies of their children’s progress reports.

 “We have to stop acting like the incarcerated parent does not exist,” Mansfield said.  

Another challenge, she said, is that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to move homes and schools, and school officials may be reluctant to enroll them midyear either because they are unaware of their obligations under federal law or prefer not to enroll a student they see as potentially troublesome. 

Related: Protecting or policing?

This spring, Brittany submitted paperwork that would allow her to be released under GPS monitoring. If the paperwork wasn’t approved, she would remain incarcerated until December.

Brittany said the correctional center had been doing a good job of keeping people safe from the virus, but the situation was unnerving. “Everyone is ready to get off the block, move around,” she said. “But the whole country is in lockdown.”

Once she is released, she plans to move in with Christine. Her own mother intends to relocate from Texas to Oklahoma with Brittany’s oldest daughter so they can all be together.

At first, Brittany hopes to get a job in IT. It’s what she’s been trained in, and she’s talented at it. Longer term, her goal is to work as a resource support specialist for vulnerable women and youth. That way she can turn her experience overcoming prison and drugs into an asset, she said, instead of having it “just go down in the void.”

“I want them to go all the way through school, through high school. I want them to have friends, I want them to go to sports, the things I never got to experience.”

Brittany Jefferson, mother, Oklahoma City

But the coronavirus pandemic has complicated reentry from prison. TEEM has had to pause its resume-writing and interview-prep classes for people leaving prison (Brittany participated in one such class last year). And the pandemic has darkened the outlook for people searching for work. That’s a particularly troubling scenario in Oklahoma, where people often leave prison saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt from court fines and fees, said Kris Steele, TEEM’s executive director.

“Even in the best of circumstances it’s so difficult and challenging,” he said. “I fear that we are setting up people to fail.”

By early June, months into the lockdown, Brittany started to worry she’d be stuck inside forever. She was typically fastidious, tidying her cell multiple times a day. But now she could barely bring herself to get out of bed.

“I just wasn’t hearing news of when I’d be able to go back to work or be released,” she said. “I felt so unattached from everything.”

For three days, she barely ate, in hopes it would help her reset. That next morning, her case manager called her into the office. Brittany’s employer at the call center was bringing people back to work and she’d been cleared to return. Brittany asked the case manager about her GPS monitoring approval. She’d been approved for that too. She could be released as soon as June 30.

“Hearing my name was approved for the GPS has changed everything for me,” she said. “I’ve been able to put some plans into motion instead of just daydreaming.”

She’d spent years imagining what kind of mom she would be.     

“I want to be as hands-on as possible and give them as much strength and support and encouragement as possible,” she said. “I want them to go all the way through school, through high school. I want them to have friends, I want them to go to sports, the things I never got to experience.

“They need their mother in their lives,” Brittany added. “This version of their mother — not the old version.”

This story about children of incarcerated parents was produced as part of the series Critical Condition: The Students the Pandemic Hit Hardest, reported by HuffPost and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter. 

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