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‘I didn’t want to live.’ How incarceration hits loved ones left behind.

People of color, particularly African American men, are overrepresented in prisons and jails. The emotional toll goes beyond prison walls, hitting African American women the hardest.

For seven days following her son’s sentencing, Mary Graham isolated herself, balled up at home as the news sank in.

A Jacksonville judge had given her 17-year-old son, Terrance Graham, the maximum sentence for the two charges against him — life in prison for armed burglary plus 15 years for attempted armed robbery after violating his probation. They tried him as an adult.

Life plus 15 years.

The words replayed in Mary’s head.

In those first few days, “I didn’t want to live,” she said. “I didn’t know how I was going to live. How could I live knowing that that’s where my son was going to take his last breath?”

With three other sons to raise, she worked over the next five years to hold her family together. It affected her health, and she lost weight.

Six years after the trial, in 2010, her son’s appeal made it to the United States Supreme Court in Graham vs Florida, a ground-breaking case where the court held that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes.

The ruling resulted in reduced sentences for Terrance Graham and more than 100 juveniles around the nation, allowing some to go free. But Graham, now 33, remains in a Florida prison, with five more years before his release date. And his mother’s pain remains.

“Sometimes I’m just numb,” she said. And some days, she’s okay. Other times, thinking about the possibility of her son in solitary confinement makes her fall back into a deep depression.

Mary Graham with her son, Terrance, in 1987, the year he was born. Graham said she falls into a depression when she stops to think how he might be harmed in prison. He has a 2025 release date on a sentence for armed robbery and burglary convictions when he was 17. [ Courtesy of Mary Graham ]
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“When somebody in a family does time, the whole family does time with them,” said Kimora, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who goes by one name. “They’re doing the time in a different way.”

Some face the burden far more than others.

More than 60 percent of today’s prison population are people of color, according to a data analysis by The Sentencing Project. Nationally, Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. Hispanic men are almost three times more likely.

For U.S. residents born in 2001, the likelihood they will land in prison is 1 in 3 for Black men and 1 in 6 for Latino men, compared to 1 in 17 for white men, according to The Sentencing Project.

In Florida, African Americans make up 17 percent of the general population, according to the U.S. Census, but represent more than 45 percent of the jail and prison population.

Criminal justice experts say the disparity is partially tied to discrimination at all steps of the criminal justice system, from policing to prosecution to sentencing.

Social conditioning teaches people to buy into racist stereotypes, professor Kimora said. Implicit bias — the unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that inform one’s actions or decisions — play a role in how minority groups are treated within the system, including by judges, she said.

“Because they’re human, they’re going to have judgments,” Kimora said. But, “the good thing about implicit bias is that people can learn. People are malleable.”

While the answer to why people of color are overrepresented in the criminal justice system remains complex, the toll is clear, permeating beyond prison walls as loved ones are stripped from families.

African American women often take the hardest hit.

A Vanderbilt University study that looked at nearly 2,000 never-incarcerated African American women concluded that those with an incarcerated family member showed higher levels of psychological distress and more symptoms of depression.

It’s a hardship that comes on top of other burdens rooted in historic inequity, said Evelyn Patterson, an associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt and the study’s lead author.

The study went further than prior research, which focused on mothers with incarcerated partners. To get a more complete understanding of the impact, it sought to include partners, mothers, daughters and sisters of those who are incarcerated, Patterson said.

Among employed women, mothers showed more distress than those without children.

But women who didn’t have children still showed heightened levels of distress.

In addition to being separated from loved ones, families face the fear of all the harms that might come to a relative from other inmates or correctional officers, or from a lack of access to medical care, said Kathleen Heide, a distinguished professor in the University of South Florida’s Department of Criminology. And the lack of information about their incarcerated loved ones is amplified during the pandemic, she said.

“It’s always been stressful to have a family member in prison,” said Heide. “In the COVID era, it is much more stressful.”

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Roslinda Davis' daughter has been in and out of correctional facilities a number of times. However, the last sentence of 30 years in Lowell Correctional Institution hurt the most. The charge was aggravated battery.

“Oh, I cried, I cried, I cried, I cried,” said Davis, who lives in Tampa. “I really broke down.”

Davis, 73, takes care of her grandchildren ages 19, 13, and 8. She had to learn to manage her emotions when the court told her she’d have to adopt the children, she said.

“It’s just been a long journey for me, I’m used to it,” Davis said. “My emotion goes towards the children when I see them break down.”

Having her daughter incarcerated more than 100 miles away hurts because “I want her here with her girls,” Davis said. In school, other children pick on her grandkids. And when the girls break down and cry, she tries to calm them as best she can. But often, she’s unsure what to say or do.

The girls want their mom, Davis said, and as the years pass, she’s growing tired.

She has leaned on resources offered by Abe Brown Ministries, an outreach program that serves incarcerated offenders and ex-offenders in Tampa. The organization has helped the family stay connected with Davis' daughter, including with video sessions that allowed the girls to speak with their mother after the pandemic canceled in-person prison visits.

Despite the toll, the kids are enrolled in private school and earning A’s and B’s, a feat Davis says she’s immensely proud of.

The impact on children depends on how attached they are to their incarcerated parent, said LaSandra McGrew, a licensed clinical social worker with Abe Brown Ministries. Some children do well if they understand the dynamics of incarceration, she said.

The stress and anxiety, she said, can be doubly hard on adult caregivers, who are trying to satisfy the needs of a loved one in prison while also caring for that person’s children.

McGrew sees the load falling mostly on the women she works with, but also notices how resilient and resourceful they are.

“They continue to do what they have to do to take care of their child, their grandchildren, niece, nephew,” she said.

Terrance Graham and his mother, Mary, in a 2018 photo taken during a prison visit. Like other relatives of incarcerated people, Mary Graham often worries about the harm that could come to her son in prison. [ Courtesy of Mary Graham ]

For Mary Graham in Jacksonville, the worst moments come when she gets behind closed doors and starts thinking about the possibility her son could die in prison. That’s when emotions from the day of his sentencing flood back.

To cope, she draws on a strong support system and leans on her faith. Every morning she prays.

“I ask God to protect my son that’s incarcerated, and all my sons that are out here in the free world.”

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.