Photo Credit: Lafayierre Mitchell, YouthBuild Louisville student

By Nikkia Rhodes and Judi Jennings

This summer, Nikkia Rhodes and 10 more young people participated in a five-day Summer Art Camp held at YouthBuild Louisville for friends and families with incarcerated loved ones. The Special Project created the camp as a way to address the impacts of incarceration that the Annie E. Casey Foundation describes in a recent report, A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities. According to that report, Kentucky has the highest percentage, at 13%, of children with incarcerated parents in our nation.

During the camp, Special Project Director Judi Jennings interviewed Nikkia about the impact incarceration has had on her and her family here in Kentucky.

Nikkia is 19. Her father was in and out of jail and prison from the time she was a baby. Yet Nikkia says, “When her Dad was not using drugs, he was around.” They “definitely had a relationship.” Her mother “tried to keep her relationship with her Dad strong at first.” She told Nikkia when her Dad went to jail and took her to visit. Nikkia was too little to remember, but her mother told her about it. Her mother didn’t have a car, so when her father was sent to a prison in another part of the state, they couldn’t visit him anymore. Nikkia recalls that her mother “would read her letters that her Dad wrote.” She did not try to keep Nikkia away from him. But her mother had problems of her own, so she couldn’t always be a strong link.

Nikkia says growing up—and even now—she “feels like she was always on the border.” When she was in school, “she was angry a lot.” But she was also in advanced placement and did well academically. In elementary school, “she fought a lot and got put into detention.” But in the 8th grade, she became involved in an after-school step dancing program, and that made her stay out of trouble to continue to participate.

Nikkia’s oldest brother had a different path. He has been in prison for three years and is serving a longer term. Nikkia says, “he had a promising future, much like her, but somehow, he managed to get in trouble.” He was in prison when their Dad died in 2014, and he wasn’t able to go to the funeral. “The prison would have charged $400,” she says, “and he would not have been allowed to have any contact with other family members.” A year later, their dad’s mother passed away. Again, the family had to tell her brother about a family loss while he was in prison.


Photo Credit: Jane Schmidt, student at DuPont Manual

Although Nikkia’s father died five days after her 17th birthday, when she was a junior, she was able to find her career path in high school.  She says she had “always enjoyed cooking” because when was growing up, her mother managed the kitchen at a local nonprofit. Nikkia grew up in the kitchen but didn’t realize that culinary arts could be a career option for her until she was in high school. Excelling in a program that she loved, she saw that, “some adults started showing how much they cared about her.” She believes, “having an adult care about you is one of the biggest factors” for succeeding in high school.

Nikkia says she “has had a lot of opportunities” since she graduated from high school in 2015. She apprenticed with Louisville’s nationally known chef Edward Lee, and she is now working to establish a culinary arts certificate program at YouthBuild. She is completing the culinary arts program at Jefferson Community and Technical College and is on schedule to graduate next year.

Nikkia sees herself as “really strong now.” Given the circumstances of her growing up, she says she “didn’t have a choice” except to be strong. She is working on “building a relationship with her brother’s three-year-old daughter and the child’s mother.” She went to the State Fair recently with her niece and her mother’s family. Nikkia wrote all about it to her brother via an electronic visitation app and tablet program available in some Kentucky prisons. Nikkia says she feels like it is her duty to support her brother. “If someone had supported my Dad” while he was incarcerated, she says, “he might have had a different life.”

Nikkia’s story shows why having an incarcerated parent is considered an adverse childhood experience. With the highest rate of parental incarceration in the country, Kentuckians across the state must work together to decrease the devastating toll of having an incarcerated parent on children and young adults. Recent legislation, such as the passage of HB 40 to expunge lower level felonies, are great first steps, but as a commonwealth, we still have a long way to go.

Nikkia Rhodes is involved in YouthBuild Louisville, which is an education, job training and leadership program that provides low-income young adults ages 18-24 opportunities to realize their potential as active community leaders and an educated workforce for Louisville.

Judi Jennings is the Director of The Special Project, which works to increase supports for families affected by incarceration in Metro Louisville.