We recently had the opportunity to talk with Patrick Jones, author of the new Locked Out fiction series which explores the complex ways that parental incarceration affects teens, from physical absence to family histories of crime to stigmas and emotional health.
1. What inspired you to write the Locked Out series?
Three things. First, in my previous series (The Alternative) I had two books (Target and Controlled) which dealt with issue, although not as directly, so I’d done some reading of the literature. Second, you turned me onto the work of MN Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration Collaborative so that really got me deeper into the issue as well as allowing me to meet experts in the field and learn even more. Finally, this series, like all my current fiction, is aimed at reluctant male readers with a focus of writing stories about kids of color. As we know from the recent research based on the Minnesota Student Survey, teens that have incarcerated parents are likely to have lots of school issues, but also they are much more likely to be in alternative education setting which is where one would find a lot of those reluctant male readers of color. And I hope, a lot of my books.
2. From your perspective, what makes having an incarcerated parent more difficult for an adolescent, than a younger child? Or, is it more difficult?
I don’t know if it is more difficult for a teen than a younger child than dealing with any other sort of family issue which might contain many of the same emotions, such as grief, loneliness, and loss. But as the teens years are the time of identity formation, I think their much be much more worry of “will I turn out like him / her.” This is central to the book Guarding Secrets about a teen girl with a mother on death row. It is also a central issue in Returning to Normal about a parent returning home after ten years doing federal time, so his son hasn’t spoken to him. The other primary difference might be that often the truth is kept from younger children, whereas teens might be trusted – or might just know – the circumstance that has removed a parent from their life.
3. Have you received any feedback from your readers? How are the books received among children who have had similar experiences?
Not yet as the books just came out, but I did have some students at the Hennepin County Home School read the book Raising Heaven. Volunteers in the prison doula program also read that one. Students I had worked with at South St Paul Community Learning Center on The Alternative series also read the books when they were in manuscript format and provided some feedback, although none of those students had an incarcerated parent, but all of them had friends who were in that situation. Finally, Dr. Rebecca Shlafer read all the books in manuscript form, and then had graduate students also read them, so myself and my editor went over the U one day and Dr. Shlafer and her students provided us with great feedback. The kids these books are written for are not the kind to send an author email or write a letter, and since these books are only for the education market, it is doubtful that few teens have actually got their hands on one of the titles.
4. Many of your stories involve an incarcerated father. This is certainly representative of many children’s experiences as we know the number of incarcerated men far surpasses the number of incarcerated women. However, how do you think the experiences of having an incarcerated father compare to having an incarcerated mother? Are there unique challenges in each scenario?
I’m not so sure, but I wanted to mirror that ratio in the series as four of the five titles are about a father, and one about mother, and that one, as mentioned, is the most extreme. My guess would it would hinge on the gender of the child and that maybe for a young man having a father locked away might have more negative impact, similar it might be worse for a daughter not to have her mom around because of the identity formation.
5. Many of the characters in your books experience shame and guilt surrounding the incarceration of their family member. What are some ideas you might have to decrease this negative stigma attached to the incarceration of a parent?
I think that’s a tough one. In the books, it is not so much the shame of having a parent locked up that preoccupies the characters, but the fear that they will turn out like their parents. And the shame there isn’t so much being locked-up, but having committed a crime serious enough to require time locked away. Also, there might be something based on the nature of the crime and the type of facility. That is another reason I have the parent in each book in a different type of corrections environment: jail, county workhouse, state prison, federal prison, and death row at state prison. I think all of us who encounter kids in this situation need to say / show that we’re there for the child, it doesn’t matter where the parent is or what they did. The child is innocent.
6. Many people worry about intergenerational transmission of crime. The parents offended, so the children are doomed to repeat that cycle. What would you say to this rather negative outlook on the future of an adolescent with an incarcerated parent?
I would say (spoiler alert) they shouldn’t read the book Returning to Normal. This is actually a huge theme for me running through many of my books. I expressed it first by having a character in 2004 novel Things Change quote this line from a Bruce Springsteen song: “your born into this life paying for the sins of someone else’s past” and then later in the same song, “you inherit the sins, you inherit the flames.” The song, of course, is “Adam Raised a Cain.” I just finished writing a non-fiction book called From Cell Bars to Ankle Bracelets: The Changing Nature of Teen Incarceration and having a parent in custody is seen as a significant risk factor. In my book Cassandra’s Tears, I have a character say that life is a game of Uno and the goal to win / have a good life is to get rid of all of your cards. But if you say those cards are barriers to happiness, then having an incarcerated parents is like getting a draw four card; it adds to the weight. That’s a great deal also of what Doing Right focuses on, a teen boy who gets conflicting advice from his father who is doing time at Stillwater and his uncle, who he lives with, who is a successful businessman. He’s also got the negative influence of his peers. It’s a heavy card, but with access to caring adults, we can help these young people lighten that load.
7. What are your thoughts on an adolescent’s opportunity to visit their incarcerated parent? Is it a positive experience? A negative one? A mixed one?
In the book Target, the main character talks about how much he hates visiting his father and the prison itself. He says to his Mom, “I hate this” and she responds, “Good, you’re supposed to.” There is a similar line that is also the “punchline” of the book so I won’t reveal it. One of the most powerful scenes in Guarding Secrets is the final visit between the mc and her mom the day before her mom’s execution. So I think this is a case for redemption: I think it can be a positive if the incarcerated parent is aware they are a negative role model – in some ways – in their teen’s life and can use whatever leverage they have to make sure the path isn’t retraced.
8. Can you explain your research process in writing this series? Did you interview people who have had first-hand experience? Have you had your own first-hand experience with an incarcerated friend or family member?
I mentioned earlier some of the groups that read it, but this was mostly taking good secondary sources about the issue, deciding which one or two elements of the experience I wanted to focus on in that story and with those characters, and then writing the book. I didn’t do interviews, which might have been a good idea but locating people to interview might he proven difficult, and the interview itself too emotional. As for myself, yes this is an issue for me personally. There was a group of three of us in high school who hung around together because we had similar interests. It’s too many years later I’m writing books about people in prison, while one of them is doing their third or fourth stint in a Michigan state prison. I looked up his photo online about a year ago and actually screamed in horror: it looked like had an eye missing and seemed about twenty years older than me. What fascinates me, of course, about this story – and I wrote about this in my novel Cheated – is the choices— with an emphasis on the plural – that lead him to commit a criminal act and become incarcerated.
9. Lastly, what advice would you give individuals who work with these children in many capacities (e.g.,. social workers, teachers, department of corrections staff)?
Listen. I told these stories because I didn’t see a great deal of contemporary and accessible YA lit on this topic. When it appears, often the fact the parent is locked away is the “reveal” or something else. Let kids read these books. Let them talk, process them, and then react to them with their own set of talents. One of the first books I read on this topic was All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated by Nell Bernstein, and I think that is key of letting kids not feel alone, giving them opportunities to tell their story. I was shocked when I called around to contacts in both Minneapolis and St Paul schools to learn there were no support groups. I tried to track down groups using contacts in corrections, youth serving agencies, and faith community. Nothing. It could be that I just didn’t find them, but I spoke on this topic / these books recently at the annual convention of Minnesota social workers and none of the fifty or so people in room knew of one direct program aimed a teens. Like I said earlier, the child didn’t commit crime, so they shouldn’t do any of the time.
More about Patrick Jones
Born in same hometown as Michael Moore, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Jon Sczieska (Flint, MI), author and librarian Patrick Jones started his writing career at age 8 with an article for a NYC-based pro wrestling newsletter. Since that time he has published over two hundred book reviews, one hundred plus articles, fifty or so essays in reference works, nine professional books for teachers and librarians, seven young adult novels, four leveled stories, and two nonfiction books. His current focus is reluctant YA readers with twenty titles published since 2013 and four more due in fall 2015. In spring 2016, Milbrook will publishe a nonfiction book on the changing nature of teen incarceration. Jones also teaches an online Young Adult Literature class at Metro State University in St Paul, MN. Jones says, “Assignments in this class are due on Tuesday mornings so I can watch professional wrestling on Monday nights. Some things change, some don’t.”
You can find Patrick Jones online at www.connectingya.com.
Also, if you would like to see more books for children and teens about families affected by incarceration, please check out this list.