The first time Dominique Jones-Johnson met her father was behind prison bars. Her father, Charlie Brown, is currently serving a life sentence without parole in Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Jones-Johnson is one of many daughters who grew up with a father incarcerated.
“My dad has been with me my entire life behind bars,” Jones-Johnson, 40, said. “I had to grow up in prison. My birthdays, graduations and celebrations were experienced in prison.”
Her mother was six months pregnant when Brown went to prison. Jones-Johnson said her father’s family made sure she built a relationship with him even though Brown was behind prison walls.
“They were intentional about creating a space and opportunity for me to share my celebrations with him,” Jones-Johnson of her father’s family. “It’s important to not remove the incarcerated person from the child’s life. The parents’ position in a child’s life cannot be interrupted completely.”
It was this experience with her father that Jones-Johnson decided to create Daughters Beyond Incarceration in 2018.
Daughters Beyond Incarceration is a nonprofit organization “working to tear down barriers and support the strengthening of relationships between daughters and their incarcerated fathers.”
“You experience so many different phases of adverse childhood experiences, and one of the biggest ones for me was just that feeling of neglect [and] embarrassment,” Jones-Johnson said.
According to a 2016 study done by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 94,000 kids in Louisiana have experienced the incarceration of a parent.
The SARC Foundation for Health, Equity and Justice, a North Carolina-based organization focused on reducing recidivism, noted that children with incarcerated parents are stigmatized. They experience bullying, shame, and do not receive enough emotional support.
DBI works with girls 8 to 18 to help build relationships with their imprisoned fathers. The organization’s programming centers on restorative healing, mental health and well-being, youth development and advocacy. Currently there are 20 girls participating in the program. Jones-Johnson said the organization has conducted well-being circles with Navigate NOLA and financial literacy workshops.
Stacey Thornton is a mother and advocate with Daughters Beyond Incarceration. Thornton has two daughters with incarcerated fathers, Kacey, 20 and Kia, 15. She met Jones-Johnson at Warren Easton High School when Kacey was entering the ninth grade and going through a depression. Kacey’s dad was serving time in Angola prison at the time. He ultimately spent 13 and a half years in Angola.
The school’s counselor introduced Jones-Johnson to Kacey. Since being a part of DBI, Kacey is now “able to express herself because her confidence isn’t extremely low like it was before,” Thornton said. “She’s able to go to counseling, and she looks forward to seeing a therapist.”
For Thornton, Daughters Beyond Incarceration has played an integral role in building co-parent relationships, and keeping the family together.
Phone calls to prison can be expensive. During the pandemic, the organization advocated for those in prison to have two to three free phone calls per week.
Thornton’s daughters were able to call their fathers and not pay for it, Thornton said. Kacey’s father was released in 2022. Kia’s dad is still incarcerated, and won’t be released until Kia is 24. Those free phone calls not only allowed them to communicate with their fathers, but also allowed the fathers to still have a role in their children’s lives.
The organization also fought for House Resolution 7 in the current session, which directs the Department of Public Safety and Corrections to permit incarcerated parents to virtually attend certain ceremonies involving their children.
The father of Jimese Van Buren’s two daughters was able to see one of his daughters graduate in person. He was serving a 10 ½ year sentence at Angola when he was released early.
“It’s because of DBI that my daughters’ dad came home earlier than anticipated,” said Van Buren, whose daughters are 15 and 17. “He was able to see his daughter walk across the stage and receive her high school diploma, that was by far the best day of my daughters’ lives.”
Daughters Beyond Incarceration is supported by a few local funders including the Greater New Orleans Foundation, Power Coalition and the ACLU. The organization also receives funding from national organizations including Youth Justice Foundation Fund, Grantmakers for Girls of Color, Arnold Ventures, The Just Trust and Kresge Foundation.
Though the initial mission of DBI was to help strengthen the relationship between daughters and their incarcerated fathers, Jones-Johnson says the mission has expanded to help youths understand the criminal justice system and be advocates for policies that impact their lives.
“We want to give them the support and power they need to be able to advocate for themselves,” Jones-Johnson said. “We want children to understand that people are making decisions about your life without you.”
Jones-Johnson said she wished there had been an organization like DBI to help her and her father understand each other when she was growing up. She hopes she is filling a void for girls in similar situations.
“I’m working to create a space and opportunity for girls like me to be able to build a relationship with their incarcerated parents, and to just overall become better humans,” Jones-Johnson said.
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