Parental incarceration has been identified as the greatest threat to child well-being in the United States and is recognized as an “adverse childhood experience” (ACE). With its unique combination of trauma, shame, and stigma, parental incarceration differs from other adverse experiences. In 2016, 18,000 children in Connecticut had a caregiver behind bars and the number increases to 22,000 when including parents under community supervision. This community-driven project combined Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) and Photovoice to capture the perspectives and experiences of youth with incarcerated parents. Photovoice is based on the concepts that images and pictures can teach and influence policy, and that communities should lead research in creating, defining and shaping healthful public policy.
The four-phased project was driven by the youth and community partners and utilized the SHOWeD technique to guide discussions and analysis of youths’ photos. This Freirean-based critical dialogue involved a series of questions that guided discussions from a personal level, to a social analysis, and then to action steps.
Utilizing community partnerships and purposive sampling, 21 youth were recruited, trained in Photovoice, and provided with cameras. Eleven youth (ages 9-19) submitted photos, and 8 youth (all African-American) consistently engaged and participated throughout the 10-month research period. The research period, broken into four phases, included: training sessions; data/photo collection; SHOWed analysis; and action step planning. Transcriptions of all discussions were coded using thematic analysis. Triangulation was used to check the data and analysis and researchers presented and discussed findings and interpretations with the youth and community partners to enhance trust and reflexive accounting.
Photos were displayed throughout community venues, and action steps and implications were shared with local stakeholders, community partners and policy makers. Researchers will continue to work with community partners to implement youth-identified action steps.
The use of photography and narrative practices supported youth participants in creating stories around the experience of parental incarceration, helping them to “externalize” stigma and to alleviate oppressive discourse around parental incarceration. Photos identified several themes and were coded as addiction, interruption of the whole, redemption, community, unfair systems, poverty and lack of protection (micro, mezzo and macro). Duality emerged as an overarching theme and dual consciousness and comparative conflict theory were used to guide analysis and frame findings, especially around race and structural inequality.
Conclusions and Implications:
This research captured the perspectives of invisible youth and communities, as well as the individual and collective efficacy of youth collective action in influencing policy and social change around mass incarceration. Researchers, community partners and youth participants worked collectively to identify effects of incarceration in their urban Connecticut setting. Participants shared in youths’ experiences as they expressed their personal narratives of parental incarceration. Themes identified in the work and collateral consequences articulated in the research were used to inform policy and to encourage youth to harness the power of their roles, enhance the well-being of the community, and raise critical consciousness.