Ebony Underwood was just 13 years old when her father William was arrested in 1988.
William was charged for a non-violent drug offense that occurred years prior and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole under the federal Sentencing Guidelines of 1987. The mandatory ruling was the start of a decades-long struggle for Underwood and her two brothers — one of whom witnessed his father's arrest at age 5 — to stay connected to their father and discern the U.S. justice system.
"It was traumatic and devastating," Underwood told Cheddar. "We were thrown into this whirlwind with no instructions on how to navigate the situation."
Today, more than 30 years later — with the consequences of the "war on drugs" policies and the "tough on crime" mentality borne out — Underwood has joined a broad coalition of activists and lawmakers working for criminal justice reform. Through her advocacy group, We Got Us Now, she is fighting to make sure that children of incarcerated adults are not overlooked on the path to rectification.
Since the non-profit was established just two years ago, We Got Us Now has built a network of roughly 10 million people, made up mostly of children and young adults who have experienced parental incarceration. The organization focuses on advocating for their needs and creating a supportive community.
Underwood says her group is especially vital to combating the stigma that is associated with having a parent incarcerated.
"Children of incarcerated parents feel so siloed … Because of the trauma and stigma, we don't share," Underwood said. "Many kids bring the shame and pain into their adulthood."
Underwood has partnered with major nationwide organizations like Justice Roundtable and the Kim Kardashian-affiliated #cut50 movement, which, along with We Got Us Now, worked to free Alice Johnson — who served over two decades in jail for a nonviolent drug offense, leaving her five children without a mother.
We Got Us Now has also conducted campaigns to empower the children of incarcerated parents. The group's "Love Letters" campaign allowed the children to send special messages to their parents around Mother's and Father's Day. The videos were promoted on YouTube, Underwood said, and empowered kids to share their stories publicly and exposed society at large to the issue.
"I thought it was just my family, but then I realized that there were millions of other kids in the same situation," Underwood said, adding that the isolation has created a "silent epidemic in the U.S. happening right under our noses."
In its work, We Got Us Now draws on numerous studies that have illustrated the detrimental mental and physical effects children experience when a caregiver is incarcerated, as well as, the lower levels of recidivism that occur when inmates stays in close contact with their families.
"Supporting the maintenance of a positive and stable relationship allows the child to experience less trauma and stress while the parent is in prison, resulting in better mental health and behavioral outcomes," the Connecticut Children with Incarcerated Parents (CTCIP) Initiative said in a statement to Cheddar, adding that close ties also decrease the "rate of recidivism upon release, promoting successful reentry in society, thus increasing public safety."
Estimates vary but the number of U.S. children today who have experienced parental incarceration at least once in their childhood is roughly 2.2 million, according to a government approximation. And while the latest official Justice Department statistics are from the mid-aughts, the government found then that the number of children that had a parent incarcerated increased by 80 percent between 1991 and 2007. (The most recent survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on the issue was conducted in 2016, but the data has not been released yet, the department told Cheddar.)
In New York state, We Got Us Now has championed several pieces of legislation, which the organization hopes will be brought up for a vote in the next legislative session. The proposed bills would mandate free transportation to correctional facilities for families on a bi-monthly basis. They would also require that prison officials place incarcerated parents in the facilities closest to their children.
"It is extremely difficult for families to afford to support themselves, send funds and items to their loved one and arrange to travel several hours each way to visit," State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, who sponsored the bill, told Cheddar. "Maintaining these relationships are so important to an individual's rehabilitation and the well-being of the family, especially when children are involved."
In Underwood's case, her father — now in his mid 60s — was moved to eight different prisons across the South and Midwest in the past few decades. He is currently incarcerated at a facility in New Jersey, which is a three-hour drive away from his kids and grandkids.
As an aging grandfather with a spotless prison record, William Underwood has become a paragon for criminal justice reform proponents. In August 2016, William was visited in prison by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) who publicly advocated for this release.
"America is the land of second chances. It's time we lived up to that and show mercy to a man who has served almost 3 decades in prison, someone whose incarceration costs American taxpayers 100s and 100s of thousands of dollars, to someone who deserves it," Booker, now a 2020 presidential candidate, wrote following the meeting.
We Got Us Now has also advocated for legislation in various states that would codify visitation rights and ban facilities from charging exorbitant prices for phone calls, which bring in millions of dollars in profits for private prisons.
Recognizing the predatory profit motive, the Federal Communications Commission capped phone calls out of state-run prisons at 21 cents a minute, but activists stress that the abusive practice is still routine in locally-run jails. In Arkansas, for instance, a 15-minute call from certain facilities can cost nearly $25, according to an analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative.
Several states, such as Connecticut, have already introduced legislation to crackdown on the issue, which greatly curtails the contact between an incarcerated parent and their children.
"This is not just a moral and ethical imperative — it is also a fiscal one. There is no better program for successful re-entry and reduced recidivism than keeping social ties intact," State Rep. Josh Elliott told Cheddar.
Connecticut's bill, which Elliott introduced, will be brought up for a vote in the next legislative session and would require correctional facilities in the state to provide free telephone calls for inmates.
As CTCIP added: "these children have not committed any crime of their own but are suffering potentially life-altering consequences as a result of mass incarceration."