No Longer Invisible

A Conversation with Madison Strempek

Over 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent in jail or prison. Referred to as "the invisible population," this population is rarely represented or advocated for.

There is a lack of support given to these children due to the social stigma surrounding crime and incarceration. "No Longer Invisible" seeks to educate the public on the ethics of justice and care for children and families affected by incarceration. It aims to highlight the collateral damage of mass incarceration and encourage legislators to take into account the needs of children when crafting criminal justice policies.

In the summer of 2016, I received a grant from the Kenan Institute of Ethics at Duke University to pursue an independent documentary project on the effects of parental incarceration on children in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. The posts in this blog are excerpts of interviews conducted with current and former children of incarcerated parents.

12-year-old author and advocate, Madison Strempek.

"Last year on Friday, February 13, my life changed forever. I started out my day by having an amazing Valentine’s Day party at school. I came home and waited for Mommy to come home from work so I could tell her about my fun day. She walked in the door and I gave her a big hug. It’s Friday night, and she usually lets me stay up to read, but that was not the case that night. Mommy laid in the bed with me and said 'Can we have a serious talk?' I always say yes, with a cute smile on my face. Mommy told me the news. My smile fell to the bottom of the earth. My eyes started to water. I started to cry. Mommy told me that Daddy went to jail. I had so many questions running through my head. Why did this happen? How could this happen? Was it something I did? Was it my fault? Does it mean he doesn’t love me anymore? Why did he do this to himself? Why would he do this to me? How could he do this to my family? Is it okay to be mad? Is it okay to cry? What will people think about me? Will I ever see him again? Will I have to move away? I didn’t want anyone to know this extremely embarrassing and sad thing about me. What would people think? Would my friends make fun of me? What do I do when other people talk about their dad and I don’t want to?"

This is the first chapter of Madison Strempek's best-selling book, "Everyone Makes Mistakes: Living With My Daddy in Jail." Only 12 years old, Madison has been a trailblazer in the fight for visibility, representation, and advocacy for children of incarcerated parents. Last June, I sat down with Madison and her mother, Robin, at a Crofton, Maryland coffee shop to hear their story.

A chapter from Madison's book, Everyone Makes Mistakes: Living With My Daddy in Jail.

Evan: Tell me about your book. What inspired you to write it?

Madison: Well, after she told me [that Daddy was going to prison], Mommy was looking for resources to help me through the situation, like books or anything in general. She found absolutely nothing, so I was like, “That’s really stupid and wrong.” I decided that I should write a book to help these kids who are going through the same thing, and their parents can’t find the resources, too. That was the inspiration for writing my book.

E: How old were you when your dad went to prison?

M: I was ten. This was last year.

E: What was running through your mind when your mom told you the news? Do you remember your first reaction?

M: Well, [Mommy] told me this, because I remember nothing. She told me that after she told me, I cried and she said that I told her that I’m not mad at him, I’m just disappointed. I kind of understood from the beginning that [his incarceration] was not [due to] something I did. It was not my fault it happened; it’s his mistake. I understood that from the beginning, and I want other kids to know that it’s not their fault either.

E: Have you been to visit your father since he was incarcerated? If so, how many times have you visited?

M: Yes. Almost every other weekend. We just saw him on Father’s Day, so that was nice. The visits are two hours long, so that’s nicer than I could ever ask for.

E: How far is the prison from your house?

M: [It’s on the] Eastern Shore [of Maryland], so it’s about an hour.

E: Do you enjoy the visits?

M: Definitely. I like talking to him and seeing him in person instead of calling him on the phone. It’s pretty nice.

E: What were your thoughts upon entering the prison for the first time?

M: I was kind of nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. When I went there, since I knew I wanted to write a chapter in my book about it, I paid complete attention to every little detail there was about the place. It was cool, but also kind of scary at the same time. I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in, like, what are they going to do? Are the guards nice or are they mean? What are they going to do to me? I was kind of nervous but also excited because I got to see him for the first time. I remember running up to him in the room, and it was actually pretty nice—I almost ran into the table because I was so excited! I was so happy that day. In my book it even says how happy I was. [My mom] said that I was bouncing off the walls when I got back because I was so excited to see him.

Robin and Madison Strempek.

E: How long had it been between when you visited and you’d last seen your dad?

Robin (Madison's mother): I would say…four months?

E: Wow, four months. I would’ve been excited too! Madison, you mentioned details that you were taking account of when you were in the prison; can you list some of them?

M: The metal detectors made it look like an airport. It felt like I was walking through an airport metal detector because you have to take off your shoes and take out all of your electronics, keys, and everything. There were also lockers there for your phones. You couldn’t take anything in with you.

E: What was the visitation room like?

M: The first place he went to, when you first walk in you sit on these chairs and then you go back, you walk through the metal detectors, you walk into a completely white room with a guard at this podium that looks down on everyone. There was a table and [the inmates] sat on the other side, and you could give them hugs. The other place, which was the maximum security place—

R: Let me just insert. They closed the city jail—

E: The facility in Baltimore.

R: Yes, he was in that one. When they closed it, he was on his way to go to work release, and while they were still processing his paperwork, instead of sending him to work release, which is the bare minimum security, they sent a bunch of prisoners to the maximum security prison at the Patuxent Institute. He was with them, and then he ended up being in there, and that visitation room was different.

M: It was different because when you walked in, there was this little locker area, then there was a desk, then you take off your shoes, belts, and then you would walk in the metal detector, put on your shoes, and go sit down and they’ll call your name. You walk through, and there’s barbed wire everywhere. It was a little scary the first time we went. It was overwhelming with all the fences and everything. Then, we walked in; there were tables. He sat on one side, we sat on the other side, and I got to hug him, but sometimes they put glass barriers across it.

R: There was only contact, a hug, allowed right when you start the visitation, and right when you end. There was no touching the whole time.

M: The third one was a lot different. When you walk in, you walk through the metal detector like usual, and you would go into this room, which was big open space with chairs, tables, and you could play games while you were there. I got to sit next to him and hug him. You can bring in $10 in ones or coins, and there is a vending machine where you can go get snacks so you can eat there, which is nice. And also, you can go outside and they have park benches where you can sit and eat and talk, which is pretty nice. I also get to sit next to him too!

E: What is your least favorite part of the visitation process?

R: I think it’s going to each new place and figuring out what rules they actually follow versus the rules they don’t follow.

M: Yeah! At the first place we went to, some guards allow you to wear flip flops, and other guards say “You have to go get tennis shoes,” or “You can’t wear this and that,” and it all depends. At the pre-release place, on your first visit, if you don’t wear the right clothes, they let it slide once, because it’s your first time visiting there, and you probably don’t know the rules. The first time I went there I wore jeggings, and you’re not supposed to. We didn’t know that; I thought it would be fine, but they said “You can’t wear that." Since it was my first time there, they allowed me in, but the next time, you can’t wear that. You also can’t wear tank tops. On Father’s Day there were a lot of people who walked in with tank tops on and they said “You can’t wear that.”

R: They sent them back or said “Go to the store down the street and buy something.” But, the guards are very nice.

“If she wants to visit him in jail, I take her to visit, because that’s what she asks for.”

E: Before your dad was incarcerated, what was your relationship like?

M: Basically, I’d see him all the time. I'd spend the night over at his house, and we would just hang out together. I remember going up there on Christmas and one of the presents I got, you had to build it, so we sat down for a few hours and just built it. We also love fishing, so, I remember we went up to the mountain house, which is a condo we have, and we used to go up there and go fishing all the time. [My mom] wouldn’t get in between our relationship, which was nice. She said it was between me and him, and anything we want to talk about is between us, and she doesn’t want to know what we talk about, which I really like, a lot.

E: Robin, you and Madison’s father were not married at the time of his incarceration, correct?

R: No, we’d been divorced since she was in kindergarten. We had worked out the painful things of divorce without her seeing it, because I don’t think it’s conducive for a child to have all of those stresses in her life. I decided that if he wants to mess up the relationship with her, that’s on him, and I don’t get in the middle of the two of them wanting to hang out. If he put her in danger, that would be a different story. But, he didn't, so if she wants to visit him in jail, I take her to visit, because that’s what she asks for. She’s not old enough to drive herself, and she's a minor, so I have to. I have divorced friends that use their child as a pawn in their crazy world and I said, you know, Christmas day, all the holidays, every other weekend or so...I’m divorced, and I take my child to go see her dad.

M: Yeah, we saw him on Christmas. It was Christmas of last year. We opened presents in the morning, then we changed and went to go see him. We didn’t tell him at all. We surprised him.

R: I tell my friends that are divorced, come on guys, when I visit I have to sit there for the two hours, and I don’t sit there like this with my arms crossed thinking "when will this be over?" I let them have their time. It’s healthy, I think.

E: Madison, this just happened to you about a year ago, and you’ve already written a book and done a great amount of advocacy work. Oftentimes, when we find ourselves in difficult situations, it is easy for us to feel dejected, as we're entitled to feel, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in our own issues. What motivated you to become an advocate and help other kids who are dealing with the same issue that you are?

M: I think a lot of kids feel like they’re alone, and they don’t think anybody else is going through the same thing. I thought that. [When my dad was imprisoned], I was like Wow, does this happen to other people? So, I was like, well I’m going to let these kids know, it doesn’t just happen to you, it happens to a whole lot of other people; you’re not alone on this. I remember [my mom] showed me a letter that someone wrote to me, and they said something like “I thought that I was the only one that this happened to. I’m glad to know that I’m not alone on this.” I thought that was really cool, and I was like wow, I really now know the impact I’m having on people.

E: You are, and it’s really awesome that at such a young age you’re doing such important work. Did you know anyone else who had an incarcerated parent at the time of your father's arrest?

M: No. Not at all.

E: Have you now found a community of others who have incarcerated parents?

M: There’s one kid in my school who my guidance counselor told me about. Her dad just went to jail, and she is in fourth grade. [My counselor] had me talk to her and give her my book, and she was really happy, and every time she’d see me in the hallway she’d either come up and give me a hug or she’d smile and wave. I think she felt safe knowing other people going through this.

R: She came home so excited that day. “Mommy, Mommy, there’s this other person at the school, and the counselor asked me if I would be okay talking to her, and I get to help her!” She was so excited.

E: That’s so cool! Have you two formed a relationship with each other? Does she come to you for advice?

M: Yeah, she’ll come up to me and say that she’s happy that I came and talked to her. I think that’s pretty cool. Her older sister is in fifth grade and I talk to her too. She said her sister was really sad about [her parent's incarceration] and that she wasn’t comfortable talking to her siblings about it. Now, me and her sister are pretty good friends.

“This is so horrible that even as her mom, [I’m believing] whatever society has told me, because I don’t really have any experience with incarceration at all.”

E: Did either of you feel any stigma or underlying negativity from your community, perhaps at school, at church, or in clubs?

M: Not at all.

R: I surround myself with people that are positive and forward-thinkers, and we don’t agonize over the negative but move forward on positive. I remember that I was sitting in the car when I got the call that he was in jail, and then, quick thought process goes through my head—oh my gosh, Madison’s grades are going to go down, these things are going to happen, what if she ends up in jail like her dad—you know, just stupid stigmas. And then, I was like, this is so horrible that even as her mom, [I'm believing] whatever society has told me, because I don’t really have any experience with incarceration at all. I figured, you know, we’re in this little upper-middle class bubble, that that doesn’t happen in our neighborhood. All of a sudden, all of those things you hear on the news or see on TV come flooding into my head like, oh my gosh, this is what my daughter’s life is going to be like. But, then I was like--woah, woah, woah, woah. There’s absolutely no way my daughter will ever be held accountable or hold the stigma that anybody has for her. She’s going to be the voice. So, from there, my biggest fear was that she would show up to school and the kids would make fun of her. So, I did everything in my power to not let that happen and empower her to be a strong voice. I told her on Friday night. Thursday night is when I found out, on my way home from work, and I emailed her teachers that night and said “This is what is going to happen to Madison on Friday night. She’s going to have a horrible weekend. She might come to school on Monday and be a different child. All I ask is that you give her the best Valentine’s Day party at school and make her feel like it’s the best day of her life.”

M: I was so mad.

R: She was mad at me when I told her that. "Why would you tell them? I don’t want people to know!" I think that because I did that, I trumped the whole “stigma” by saying "you need to help my child be successful, and you need to help me help her through this, because you’re with her all day, and you see her highs and lows." The counselor met with her on Monday. She didn’t want to go, but she went.

M: I agreed to go.

R: She had a journal that her counselor did, and that’s the basis of her book. It’s her journal entries. So, I just don’t allow people to stigmatize me. I just won’t allow it. I think the same thing goes with her. They can think [negative] things in her head, but when they look at her and watch her and experience her, they’re going to think, "that’s different; that’s inspirational." Rather than, "that’s a stigma." We had a lady at a conference say to [Madison], when she was talking about her dad being in jail, “Well, it’s okay if you don’t love your dad,” and [Madison] is like, “But I love my dad!” The lady continued on to explain how it’s okay to have a hundred capacity to love your mom, because she’s there with you, and maybe only love your dad 30%, and then over time you can love him more, and she’s like, well I love my dad a lot. The lady just couldn’t hear it because she has this stigma in her brain that kids don’t love their parents that are in jail, and that’s not true. And that’s what [Madison] tells kids. You’re allowed to love your parents. Mistakes and all, it doesn’t matter, you can love your parent however much you want. They made a mistake; you can forgive them and move on.

M: I think that every kid should have at least a journal, so if something is bothering them throughout the day or if something is on your mind, they can get it out. I would draw a bunch of pictures of how I felt. There’s a lot in [my journal]. And I wouldn’t let [my mom] touch it at all. Until we wrote my book, she finally got to look at it. It was the best way to get everything out. If you’re mad, disappointed, or just confused, you can get all of that out.

“It’s not your fault that it happened. There’s no mistake. You don’t have to carry any of that weight on your shoulders. ”

E: I’m very inspired by the way that you speak about forgiveness. Many in similar situations experience resentment and anger. How, at such a young age, are you able to forgive your dad so easily?  

M: I think it’s from the environment I come from. A positive family. We always treasure every moment we have together. I guess family is the biggest part of why I’m so happy, and the way I am today.

R: We, as a family, we forgive him, so it's easier for her to. I think part of it is because I was able to forgive him, way early on, after the divorce, that I don't hold any grudges. He apologized, I said, "I forgive you" and I think that obviously has spread throughout the family. I just think she just doesn't know there's any other way.

E: Madison, if you could tell the general public one thing about children of incarcerated parents, clear up one misconception, or give a piece of advice, what would it be?

M: That it's not your fault, is probably the biggest thing. It's not your fault that it happened. There's no mistake. You don't have to carry any of that weight on your shoulders. It's [the incarcerated parent's] fault; they did it themselves completely. You don't have to worry about any of that. You can just worry about your relationship with them.

E: And are there any misconceptions that you've heard about incarceration or being a child of an incarcerated parent?

R: I think my biggest hurdle has been that people just assume that people that are in jail are from a poor neighborhood or from poverty or poverty-­stricken areas, and that's not true. That there's a whole world out there of people that suffer in all parts of life and all parts of the world, at different levels. Another reason I was looking for resources and I couldn't find anything and I was really frustrated was because organizations don't necessarily reach out or help people in our socio­economic status. The one thing I've always been scared about is her writing the book, that people will be like, "Oh, well, you have all this money," but we don't really. And incarceration happens to anybody. She's still a kid. She still has to go through this system to see her dad, and she still suffers the exact same emotional challenges that any kid anywhere in the world will suffer from being separated from your parent for so long. I think obviously it makes it a little easier because I have the basic needs met from us: a roof over our head, food, all covered that she never has to worry about that. But beyond that, she has suffered like every other kid.

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