“Locked Apart: The Koger-Harris Family” is one of a series of stories by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac about the impact of incarceration on families in Philadelphia, PA and Washington, DC. It is now well known that the United States imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other nation, with devastating consequences. However, the impact on children and families deserves significantly more attention. Approximately 10 million children in the U.S. have had a parent incarcerated at some point, and human rights advocates have called parental incarceration "the greatest threat to child's well-being in the United States.”
The absence of Sherrie Harris looms over the Koger-Harris Family. With Sherrie serving a long-term prison sentence in West Virginia and father William sometimes in prison himself, grandmother Sandra Koger stepped in as main caregiver for the three children, Isaiah, Demetri, and Dashawn. “I’ve been taking care of them since ‘06, and it was a learning experience. I did not know what I was doing, to tell the truth,” Sandra recalls.
William Koger, the boys’ father, was injured in a car accident, and he is often in pain. He has trouble finding jobs, and he has been in and out of prison himself.
The Koger-Harris Family had ample experience with this negative impact over the past decade after Sherrie Harris, the mother, was sent to United States Penitentiary-Hazelton in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, in 2006. William Koger, the father, lives with his mother, Sandra, and three boys – Isaiah, Demetri, and Dashawn -- in Capitol Heights, MD, just outside the nation's capital. But it is the absence of Sherrie that looms over the household. William often cares for the children, but he has been in and out of jobs and in and out of prison himself. Sandra does her best to keep the family together, but they are stretched financially and often unable to afford food or medicine. The children are emotionally scarred by their mother’s absence and sometimes withdraw into their shells or act out. Only when pressed do they express their intense yearning for their mother to come home and provide them with the love they are missing.
This photograph of the boys with their mother was taken during their first visit to Hazelton Penitentiary. Before this trip, the boys were unaware their mother was in prison. They had a hard time parting with her, and they were extremely upset after the visit was over.
According to the Urban Institute, the experience of a parent going to prison will have a “significant impact on the emotional, psychological, developmental, and financial well-being of the child.” Children have difficulty visiting their parents and often lose contact. They drop out of school more frequently and are more likely to be incarcerated than their peers. Separation due to a parent’s incarceration is often accompanied by stigma, ambiguity, and a lack of compassion and support. In the case of the Koger-Harris family, the three boys found out for the first time that their mother was in prison when their grandmother took them to visit her at Hazelton Penitentiary. In a promising development, however, Sherrie Harris was recently released and is now completing her stay at a transitional facility, also known as a "halfway house." She sees the boys on Sundays.
Pastor Sonja L. Drumgoole of the Church of St. Martin De Porres, in Capitol Heights, MD, hugs Isaiah Harris, 13. Isaiah and his brothers attend the church regularly with their grandmother and sometimes serve as ushers.
Demetri Koger, 11, lies down in the bedroom the boys share with their grandmother. Of the three children, Demetri is the most affected by their mother's absence. He is often withdrawn and non-communicative.
Dashawn on a bunk bed in the family's apartment in Capitol Heights, MD. He says that he wants to become “Superman” so that he can “fly over the big wall” that separates him from his mother.
The three boys were only able to visit their mother, Sherrie Harris, twice during her ten years of incarceration. Both times they went on a four-hour bus trip, sponsored by the Washington, DC, Office of Returning Citizens Affairs, which was designed to give family members time with relatives they would not otherwise see.
Demetri Koger prepares for the four hour bus trip to visit his mother at Hazelton Penitentiary. At the end of the trip, Demetri had a hard time separating from his mother and had to be torn away and consoled by his grandmother.
Locked Apart makes clear that children of offenders are among those who are victimized when a crime occurs. Like the voices of crime victims and their families, the voices of family members must be heard. This contributes to the hope that victims, offenders, and the community can repair the harm caused by crime and create a peaceful future in which all are contributing members of society.
A short documentary on the Koger-Harris Family is available on Gabriela Bulisova's website. More images on the impact of incarceration on children are also available in Smithsonian Magazine (Jan/Feb 2017):
Sherrie Harris, recently released from Hazelton Penitentiary in West Virginia, is housed in Washington DC’s Residential Reentry Center, also known as a "halfway house" for returning women. She sees her three boys, Isaiah, Demetri and Dashawn, on Sunday afternoons. Here, they play football in front of the facility.
Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac are documentary storytellers and artists based in Washington, DC. For the past six years, Bulisova and Isaac have collaborated on projects focused on mass incarceration, including the incarceration of women and men, obstacles to reentry, sentencing reform, and the impact of parental incarceration on children. Their current work highlights the criminalization of mental illness and the trauma to prison pipeline for women who have experienced abuse. Their recent projects can be viewed on their websites: gabrielabulisova.com and markisaac.net