Children record messages for their incarcerated fathers

Story and photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR public information officer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

This Father’s Day, Google put its support behind children of incarcerated parents through a powerful message of love and compassion.

The Digital Love Letters campaign is the result of partnerships between Google, professional filmmakers, activists and several nonprofits committed to supporting families impacted by incarceration. Children, including those with fathers in CDCR institutions, were filmed reading letters to their fathers in prison, wishing them a happy Father’s Day while also sharing how their lives have been affected by not having a father physically present.

“Although these memories fill my eyes with tears, it’s always a happy moment when they come,” said Maynor Galletan, who hasn’t seen his dad in eight years. His father is in federal prison, and transfers between states combined with Galletan’s role as a contributor to the family income have made it nearly impossible to stay connected to his father.

In his video message, Galletan shared how now, nearly ready to begin college, he has grown into a football player, a provider and a role model for his little sister. Galletan said contributing to the project was important to him because he knows what it’s like to feel very much alone.

“If I can share my story, anybody can share their story,” he said. “We all have different stories. Everybody is important and everybody needs to be heard. Everybody has the right to talk, to share their emotions.”

In high school, Galletan became involved with a nonprofit called Pain of the Prison System, which provides a safe space for children of incarcerated parents to connect with their emotions through storytelling. They are one of several organizations highlighted by the Digital Love Letters project, which also features children involved with Place4Grace, an organization operating several family-focused programs inside CDCR prisons.

Karen McDaniel, executive director of Place4Grace, helped organize six children from the program to share their stories for the film. The recordings were done at YouTube Spaces, a studio in Los Angeles where it’s not uncommon to see YouTube stars walking in and out of the stages. McDaniel said in addition to the filming being a great way to spread awareness, it was also nice to see the children get treated like stars for a day.

“They are so often the silent victim,” she said. “It’s so easy to identify with the victim of a prisoner, but not to understand how there are other victims.”

Balisha Averhart, whose son Da’von Patterson Jr. has participated in a Place4Grace in-prison camp where children spent five daylong visits with their dads, said now that her son is 14, it’s less common for them to talk about feelings surrounding his father’s incarceration. She was grateful for the filming event, where Da’von got to meet other children in similar situations to his and to share his thoughts. He smiled as he recalled his favorite memory of his dad – a family night that turned into a tickle fight, resulting in a tumble off a bed amid much laughter.

“It’s good for the kids to get it out, because they don’t always have a forum to talk about this type of stuff,” Averhart said. “It’s almost like a secret to society. You don’t want society to know your parent is incarcerated, because they can judge you.”

While children who have a parent in prison may feel very much alone, in fact there are many families going through the same struggles. According to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, there are 5.1 million children in America who have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood.

“It’s a population that people just don’t think about,” said co-producer Ebony Underwood. “I want to make people think about it.”

Underwood knows the realities of having a parent in prison as well. Her father has been in prison for 28 years. She was 14 years old when he was sentenced, and has spent her life working on criminal justice reform and using her skills as a filmmaker to advocate not only for her family, but also all families with a loved one in prison.

“I need to raise the visibility for these organizations that support keeping families connected,” she said. “Kids need their parents. They need to be connected to their families.”

Underwood said she has seen great work being done in that area in California, by organizations such as Place4Grace, and praised CDCR for supporting their work.

“The type of abandonment that you feel, the emotional toll that it takes on a child, is something that is hard to even grapple with, because first of all how do you share, and then, how do you really deal with it?” she said. “I think California is a unique state in the fact that they actually have a lot of organizations that are in support of children and their families being connected.”

Each year, Place4Grace records hundreds of inmates reading books for their children; the recordings are sent home to the children along with the book and a letter from dad, and families report back that in addition to strengthening the father-child relationship, the children also express an increased interest in reading. The Father2Child Literacy Project is one of several projects that now receive funding through CDCR’s Innovative Grants Program, which supports rehabilitative programs with proven success so they may expand to other prisons.

“The fact that CDCR has shown its compassion for these young people is inspiring, and also critical,” said Producer Michael Skolnik, in between filming sessions at the YouTube studios. “The last thing you want is for more people to come into the prison system, so we need to invest in these children, invest in security of other Californians, and invest in these children having productive and healthy lives.”

Unsurprisingly, it was an emotional day for all involved with the filming. Alcee Walker, who directed the film, is yet one more person who understands what it’s like to grow up without parents. His mom has been incarcerated since he was 16, and he first met his father when he was 25 years old. Right off the bat, Walker shared his story with the children filming, connecting with them on that unique level to help them feel comfortable and supported. Additionally, Walker shares his story of success, from earning two master’s degrees to winning film awards, to show that one’s circumstances as a child do not have to dictate their future.

“I know what they go through, I know what they experience,” he said. “I use my platform as an artist to show them you can still do what you want to do. You can still achieve your dreams. You just work hard, and surround yourself with positive people. It starts with you.”

YouTubers Rome Green and Cameron Miller also threw their support behind Digital Love Letters, filming the intro to the video, which debuted on their “Dormtainment” channel. While they have amassed a following of nearly 1 million viewers through their comedy videos, they also have been impacted, in some way, by the incarceration of a loved one.

“We like giving back when we can,” Miller said. “Since we have an audience, we need to use it for good, not just for comedy, by getting important things like this out.”

As the filming came to an end, the stars of the day – the kids – began to wind down, chatting with one another while playing foosball and exploring the YouTube campus. Although they came in apprehensive, they were leaving with a little bit more self-esteem and new connections in their support system – yet another goal of the Digital Love Letters project.

“Kids deserve a chance,” Skolnik said. “If that chance is enhanced by being in contact with their parent who is incarcerated, then we have to find ways to make that healthy and available.”

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