Voices from See Us, Support Us: Sing, Sing, Midnight!
Throughout #SeeUsSupportUs month, we will highlight the voices of people directly impacted by parental incarceration. Below is a piece by See Us, Support Us partners, writer Emily Gallagher, and illustrator Robert Pollock, about Sing Sing Midnight, their child-friendly book about visiting.
How do you explain prison to a child? The idea of prison is simple; it is a place where people who have been convicted of crimes are housed, but the reality is so much more complex. Race, class, and wealth are all factors that determine whether a person is caged or sent home with a warning. Once a person is convicted, the goal of prison is unclear. Are prisons designed to punish or to rehabilitate? Does taking someone away from the people who love and support them fix anything, or does it simply serve to damage the lives of the next generation? How are we healing the social fabric and bringing families and communities together?
Though the children and families of incarcerated people are rarely talked about in the debates about crime and justice, their stories are incredibly important. Their experiences are the collateral damage of our justice system and we are responsible for fighting the pain, shame, social stigma, financial hardship, and damaging familial separation created by unjust policies.
I wrote Sing, Sing, Midnight! after several five hundred mile round-trip journeys to visit an incarcerated friend (who eventually became my husband). Before my first visit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Luckily, a friend whose husband was also incarcerated reached out and gave me a crash course. There was so much to learn. Thanks to her, I came properly dressed, with my transparent wallet, twenty singles for the vending machine, and a quarter for the locker. I still felt unprepared, but just knowing that someone else had gone through the experience was an important lesson in communication and community.
One of the things that struck me most during my first few visits was the children and how much joy and love they brought into the room. I wondered what their lives were like. I missed my friend so much; I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to miss your parent in that way. I wondered how kids at school treated them; how the parents at home dealt with being parents alone. I wondered if the kids worried for their parents the way that I worried for my friend.
I also saw how important community was within the prison. People had watched each other’s children grow. Families shared rides or came together on the train. They shared stories and helped new families understand the rules. This experience, which can seem so isolating, is really a communal one. Everywhere I looked this community was visible.
When I was at home, there weren’t many people I could talk to about my friend. People had such strong opinions about what being incarcerated meant and judged me accordingly. Television programing about prison focuses on the dangers or turns prisoners into punchlines. Families are largely invisible. I wanted to create something that represented the people I loved and that told a story we rarely hear.
One night, on a phone call, my friend told me about a cat named Midnight who lived in the prison. That night, I wrote the first draft of Sing, Sing, Midnight! The real Midnight, a black cat beloved by all, was my inspiration, but we don’t really know his story. In my story, Midnight’s name comes from who he is and what he does, not the color of his fur. My Midnight makes a mistake and ends up separated from his family, but eventually, he finds home and community.
In Sing, Sing, Midnight! a little girl named Maya asks her father a question I think many of us who love incarcerated people have wanted to ask, “who takes care of you?” Her father tells her about his life and community through the story of Midnight. I wanted to answer that question with as much truth as a child could handle and in a way that also showed that community can exist even in dark places.
After I wrote the story, my friend shared the draft with his friends inside, and their ideas helped shape the final book. My friend drew the line drawings and I painted his illustrations. We sent artwork and ideas back and forth through the mail. The process of making the book helped me cope with the challenges of caring for someone inside, and it is my hope that the book might help others do the same.
Incarceration impacts millions of households and those impacts can last a lifetime. The stories, experiences, questions and dreams of children and families of incarcerated people need to be heard. It is incredibly important that everyone impacted by incarceration be a part of the conversation. If you are a parent, family member or helper, I encourage you to share your stories and to give the children in your life the tools to share theirs. Pencils, pens and crayons are powerful.
Emily Gallagher co-authored Sing, Sing, Midnight! with her husband R. B. Pollock Jr. while he was incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York State. In 2018, the team launched Spoke and Feather, an arts based lifestyle company which explores community, culture, and the connections we all share, through collaborative workshops, tailored resources and interactive performances.