Host Introduction: The dramatic rise in the U.S. prison population over the last quarter century has come with an equally steep growth in the number of kids with incarcerated parents. A recent study shows that among African-American children born in 1990, more than one-quarter have had a parent go to jail or prison by the time they become teenagers. 15-year-old Radio Rookie Keith Tingman knows just how difficult it is for kids when their parents are arrested.
Narration: My mom is short and pretty. She's a respectful person--not the type to hurt somebody's feelings or do something bad.
Keith: Mom what you making?
Mom: I just took some steak out the oven.
Narration: She cooks dinner for us every night.
Mom: And some rice and peas, I'll make that later.
Narration: We play a lot together. When I'm in a funny mood I fake punch her on her side and she does it back. Or sometimes my mom and her best friend bother me...
Keith: I didn't even make a muscle yet!
Narration: ...like asking me to make a muscle.
Mom and Friend. Wowwww!
Narration: My dad is a DJ. He could be in the living room throwing and scratching songs. Or he could be watching my little brother, he's autistic. But five years ago something bad happened and I was separated from my dad and my mom.
Keith: I'm Keith I'm a Radio Rookie reporter I'm going to interview my mom. So today I want to ask you about the incident that happened on my birthday April 25, 2004. Like, how did you feel that day?
A: Oh wow. Sad, hurt, scared, nervous.
Narration: On my 10th birthday we were walking up a hill from the supermarket near our house. And two guys stopped us and asked us questions about a lost wallet. We told them we didn't know where it was and they started accusing us anyway. Two policemen came out of their car and asked my mom questions.
Mom: The cop goes "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you robbed somebody." I'm like "What!?"
Narration: Then they just put the cuffs on her.
Mom: And I seen all the anger in your face and that's right. Right now, umm...It's getting a little emotional for me right now, because I remember that day clearly like... For a person who never did nothing, never committed any crime or anything like that, to be charged with something like that.
Narration: I get frustrated seeing my mom cry and thinking of her sadness about what happened. My mom only cries once in a blue.
Mom: I want to work, I don't have a job, people tend to look at your record. All the reference I have. They don't look at that, they look at possession of stolen property. What about you? How did you feel?
Keith: I felt mad, I was angry
Mom: Why was you angry?
Keith: I didn't want to see you get taken to jail.
Narration: I never talked to anyone outside of my family about it until this year. I started going to The Next Generation Center, a friendly place for teenagers. They have programs like drumming, arts, and cooking. Kids also hang out play cards like UNO.
Girl 1: I am not cheating!
Narration: In the center, I had a feeling other kids had parents who were incarcerated. So I went and asked them.
Keith: Do you know any part of your family who been incarcerated?
Narration: I felt nervous because I'm not used to going up to people and asking them questions.
Boy 1: I could say more than half, including my pops. But he was gone for a while when he came out he missed out on a lot. He felt he had to catch up on that. So he wound up leaving the house.
Girl 2: I'm always used to having father around--I always call him up daddy come get me I want to go shopping, let's go to the acarde. But I can't do that because my father is in jail. So I feel sad about it.
Boy 2: Unique! I need an ID.
Narration: I know this one kid from summer school. We sat at the same table, but we didn't know much about each other back then.
Keith: Alright, I had a story in my family was taken away from me because they was arrested. Do you ever have an experience like that?
Boy 2: Yes, my mother and father had a fight and I sit there and watch them. As the cops came I was sitting in the house by myself no parents until they came back.
Keith: How did that affect you?
Boy 2: It affected me bad because I had to sit there with me and my sisters crying. There was nobody watching us but our brother which had to go to work every day.
Narration: Every day for ten months, I couldn't see my dad and I was really missing him. My mom only stayed in jail for a day. My father missed everything: when I started school, Christmas, my mom's birthday. But, I didn't tell anyone at school because I was embarrassed...kids might have teased me, or something. "Ohhhh, your dads in jail!!" I wanted to keep it to myself. And so did my friend from summer school.
Boy 2: I guess it was something inside for me and the family to do. Not everyone else to know.
Keith: Did you go and see him?
Boy 2: No. I never went to go see my father because I was afraid.
Narration: I remember I was nervous the first time I visited my dad. We took a long bus ride to Riker's Island. There were so many gates for the guards to open. The guards walked us to him. My dad wore a grey uniform. When we said goodbye he hugged and kissed me.
Sophia: Now let me ask you a tough question. Are you scared your mom and dad are going to get away again?
Keith: Yes. I would be scared.
Narration: Sophia Strong works at the Fortune Society. She helps families when parents are incarcerated.
Sophia: But they're not in the tank.
Narration: She has a fish tank in her office,
Sophia: I got two missing fish, the bigger one too.
Narration: But she couldn't find some of her fish.
Sophia: Do you think someone came in robbed them?
Narration: Anyway, she told me there was a guy whose four year old daughter was searched when she came to visit him in jail.
Sophia: This is not a good world for kids. It's depressing, it's institutionalized, it's formalized. It's not a kid's world, period. It is a form of trauma to be separated from a parent. This is the kind of stuff that doesn't really leave you.
Narration: I asked my sister Keyorra if she thought what happened on my birthday changed me.
Keyorra: You kind of changed a little, but I think it's because you thought it was your fault. You felt guilt.
Narration: I do feel guilty about what happened. We wouldn't have been out that day if it wasn't my birthday.
Keyorra: Maybe it made you think different of your father.
Keith: Why you say that?
Keith: Because he was the cause.
Narration: I was shocked because she never mentioned she thought he picked up the wallet.
Keith: Wait, why do you say he was the cause?
Narration: She blanked out for a little bit. I don't think she wanted to go into more details.
Keith: You can skip that question.
Narration: It's kind of awkward to me also because I believe he's innocent.
Dad: That's one of the baddest days that happened to me in my life. If I could rewind that day and fix that day it would be way much better. That was also your birthday. It turned into a horrible day, one of the horriblest days of my life.
Keith: How did you feel in jail?
Dad: Oh man. I felt depressed. I would phone y'all every night. Sometimes a lot of the nights y'all got a lot of frustration out of me.
Narration: My mother told me, "don't think of it as going to jail, think about it like he's on a vacation." I tried to believe it. Then one day in fifth grade I came home and my mom called me and asked me for something. And I didn't go to her. I was about to ask her "what do you want from me?" Then I tilted my head to the side because I saw someone standing next to her and it was my father. I ran to him and gave him a big hug. For WNYC, I'm Rookie Reporter Keith Tingman.