WHAT! is This About? Helping Children Stay Connected to Their Incarcerated Parents

Photo from Project WHAT exhibit titled “The Sentence Unseen: Celebrating Resilience,” which runs through Jan. 23 at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland. Courtesy of Ruth Morgan.

When she was three years old, Zoe Willmott’s mother and uncle were sent to prison.

For the next several years, she went to California State Prison, Solano, every weekend to visit her mom. Two decades later, Zoe became the manager of Project WHAT! (We’re Here and Talking), an Oakland-based program which works to increase visibility and services for the children of incarcerated parents. Though only in her 20s, Zoe has the quality of an old-souled matriarch.

Project WHAT! draws attention to the fact that when people go to prison, they leave behind a community impacted by their absence.

“Because of the way this society has been set up where we treat prisoners as bad people, their children sort of have gotten forgotten,” Zoe says.

Like the best journalistic endeavors, Project WHAT! operates on the belief that to hear someone’s story is to create the possibility of becoming accountable to them. Using stories, the project highlights the services and policies that all of us can promote to help 2.7 million American children sustain relationships with their incarcerated parents.

Each year the organization trains youth of incarcerated parents to become advocates by helping them write and publicly present their life stories to community groups.

Zoe Willmott at her Project WHAT! office.

When the project started in 2006, Zoe, then 15, was a youth advocate. The story she presented focused on her experience spending massive amounts of time in the visiting room at the Solano prison. She remembers the place as traumatic: guards yelled at her and stood by the door during her visits.

At the start of her second year as a youth advocate, Zoe noticed one of her longtime friends sitting across from her at a Project WHAT! meeting. Neither had known that the other had a parent in prison. She describes seeing that friend as the moment when she was struck by both the prevalence and the stigma of parental incarceration.

In her current role, Zoe’s primary task is overseeing state and local policy work. One recent policy success was to lower the visiting age in the San Francisco county jail from 18 to 16. Part of the impetus for the policy change was Project WHAT! research, which revealed that high school students in the foster care system were not being taken on visits to see their biological parents.

The project has also instituted “goodbye visits” in the San Francisco county jail for when a parent is about to be transferred to a state prison somewhere in California. The goodbye visits are a series of three meetings between parent and child in a private room without a guard. The first allows the parent to explain where he or she will be located; the second involves making a plan for staying in touch; and the third serves as an official goodbye, since many youth can’t afford traveling to prisons outside of the Bay Area.

Selections of letters from an incarcerated father to his daughter. Displayed in the Project WHAT! exhibition titled: “The Sentence Unseen: Celebrating Resilience.” Courtesy of Ruth Morgan.

Another central part of Project WHAT!’s work is having youth advocates tell their own stories to people in jails and prisons. Every few months, advocates lead a series of workshops with the TRUST program, a self-run support and enrichment group for men in San Quentin State Prison with life sentences. TRUST participants, who Zoe describes as an “incredible group of human beings,” invite Project WHAT! as part of their “communication with family curriculum.” After the initial workshop, men in TRUST often bring in photos of loved ones and tell the advocates about being inspired to make phone calls, write letters and arrange visits with people with whom they’d lost contact.

When I ask about the moments that have most impacted her during her work as Project WHAT!’s manager, Zoe mentions a time when she chaperoned a group of advocates who were giving a TRUST workshop. When one advocate didn’t get clearance to enter the prison, Zoe ended up filling in and sharing her own story about her mom’s incarceration and subsequent release. At that time, she felt “a little numb” toward her mom — she says their relationship was “surface level” because they hadn’t discussed the hurt in their shared past. Zoe tells me that the men in TRUST demanded that she focus on deepening her relationship with her mom.

Only a year has passed since Zoe acted on the TRUST members’ advice. She says things were “really hard for a few months,” but that she now feels closer to her mom than ever before. At present, the two talk frequently and see each other at least once a week.

When I ask Zoe to tell me more about the TRUST program, she mentions that the participants recently did a food sale and donated the proceeds to Project WHAT!’s college scholarship fund for youth advocates.

“When people who are incarcerated making such little money are giving it to a program like this, that’s selflessness,” she says.

In another workshop, a TRUST participant asked two Project WHAT! advocates if either of their fathers had ever apologized to them. Both advocates said no.

The man, himself a father, said, “Will you please accept this apology on my behalf?”

Zoe makes clear that not all of the men in the program are fathers, but that a focus of Project WHAT!’s relationship with TRUST is the idea that incarceration should not determine people’s ability to form family bonds. Accordingly, Project WHAT! presenters stress that while incarcerated you can still be accountable to others as a dad, family member, mentor or confidante.

Project WHAT! got me thinking about this view in moral philosophy that, because we only punish people we deem capable of taking responsibility, punishment can be a way to respect and even humanize someone. Obviously, the responsibility that comes with human relationships is not a punishment. But in many cases, I think we affirm the humanity of incarcerated people when we acknowledge that they can and do take responsibility for relationships in which people depend on them.

Photo from Project WHAT exhibit titled “The Sentence Unseen: Celebrating Resilience.” It runs through Jan. 23 at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland. Courtesy of Ruth Morgan.

[this story originally appeared on Ripple.News]

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