Caleb, 6, sits on the bus during a ride from Tampa to Brookesville, Fla., to visit his mother who is incarcerated at the Hernando Correctional Institution.Isadora Kosofsky
Caleb, 6, sits on the bus during a ride from Tampa to Brookesville, Fla., to visit his mother who is incarcerated at the
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Isadora Kosofsky
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The Intersection of Love and Loss: Children of Incarcerated Parents

May 17, 2016

Isadora Kosofsky has been photographing since she was 14 years old. After she turned 18, she started to focus her work on the U.S. criminal justice system – looking, for example, at the impact the vast and complicated juvenile justice system has on young prisoners and their families. Now, in her most recent project, published here for the first time, Kosofsky follows incarcerated parents as they struggle to maintain fragmented, yet essential, relationships with their daughters and sons.

On a four-hour bus ride, I sit behind Thomas, 13, who has not seen his mother in five years. Thomas’ cousin adopted him two years ago. He's nervous and expressionless, yet cracks a smile as he arm-wrestles with his brother and sister across the aisle, both of whom live with other families.

Angel, whose mother is serving a seven-year sentence for drug trafficking, watches Jurassic Park on the bus' television. “I have many mommies,” he says. His older brother, Caleb, retorts, “We have one mom.”

Over the past few months, I've documented bonding meetings between children and their mothers and fathers at five prisons in the state of Florida. In 2010, more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. had an incarcerated parent, and approximately 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. Nationally, there are more than 120,000 incarcerated mothers and 1.1 million incarcerated fathers who are parents of minor children.

Children of Inmates, an organization dedicated to bringing incarcerated families together, facilitates these unusual visits on a quarterly basis, where parents can directly interact with their children, with volunteers instructing them to get into full “mommy” or “daddy” mode.

Isadora KosofskyOpal stands with her daughter, Ashley, 13. Ashley had not seen her mom since her arrest almost five years ago. Isadora Kosofsky 

These photos form the latest chapter in a five-year project documenting the relationship between youth, families and confinement in the criminal justice system. I consider this new series as another visual articulation of love-loss intersections. While Chandler knows that his father will be released next month after a five-year sentence, Vivian visits her father knowing that he will never get out.

Every time I say that I won’t go back to photograph the lives of those in the criminal justice system because I find it too painful, I always end up initiating another project. Prison has become a locus for me to probe relatable themes of confinement and loss beyond a social query, which is always one goal of documentary making.

My process for both this series and others has been to see those I document as people first and incarcerated second. Even before photographing one of these visits, I identify with the paradoxical joy and grief that one can feel about their own parents or family. I am drawn to photograph intimacy in institutional contexts, questioning the nature of family relationship in adverse situations. Shelly-Ann, for example, tells me about the importance of maintaining connection to her husband while he is incarcerated, citing how her daughter, Ayana, saves her dad’s letters and reads them multiple times per day. Ayana’s Christmas wish was to see her dad, who will be confined for three years. Documenting family bonding visits affords me the opportunity not only to tackle mass incarceration from a humanistic standpoint, but also to explore these experiences as escapes and temporarily fulfilled fantasies for both child and parent.

The Intersection of Love and Loss: Confronting Youth Incarceration

Brothers Vinny and David stand together as the sky darkens before a summer storm.
Brothers Vinny and David stand together as the sky darkens before a summer storm.Isadora Kosofsky
Brothers Vinny and David stand together as the sky darkens before a summer storm.
Vinny, 13, stands in command call before entering his cell at the juvenile detention center.
Ready to appear in court, Vinny is shackled to another youth.
Vinny lies on his cell bunk.
Vinny eats his first meal in the detention center cafeteria.
Vinny's mother Eve comforts him during visitation at the detention center.
A family portrait of David, then 13, Vinny, then 8, and Michael, then 3.
Eve cries after learning that the court will not allow Vinny to live with her and has ordered him to live with his paternal aunt.
Eve places her head on David's back, while he draws a picture of a clown in his notebook.
David and his father, Dave, leave a motel.
David and his girlfriend Felicia have been together for four years.
David feeds ice cream to Felicia.
David joined a gang in his early teens after his grandmother passed away.
With a warrant out for his arrest, David cries in fear that police will find him and take him away from his family.
David, 19, sits in the recreation yard of the jail at night.
Felicia and their 10-month-old daughter Lily see David through video visitation.
David stands at night next to a fence after being released.
David pushes his daughter in a stroller.
David and Felicia smile as they teach Lily to walk.
David and his youngest brother, Michael, 8. Michael pines for David's attention. "I want to be just like my brother," Michael said.
Michael playfully punches his sister Elycia's cheek.
Elycia grips her mom's leg and won't let go. After Vinny was held at juvenile detention and subsequently sent to live with his aunt in a town three hours away, Elycia often cries for her brother.
Eve speaks intensely to Elycia. Michael says his mom "doesn't mean it," when she is angry.
Michael seals his mouth with tape. "I'm lonely. No kids to play with," he says.
Eve holds Michael in the pool at a motel.
Vinny punches trash bins behind his aunt's home. He finds it hard to escape the "empty feeling" he gets when he thinks or dreams about juvenile detention.
Vinny, Michael and Elycia play together on a trampoline. This is Vinny's first visit with his siblings since beginning his new life with his aunt.
Vinny and his sister, Elycia.
Vinny, now 15, and David, now 21, lay down at night after spending the day together. "Vinny broke into my heart"" says David when asked about their bond.
Vinny looks at David and Lily before saying goodbye.
Brothers Vinny and David stand together as the sky darkens before a summer storm.
Isadora Kosofsky
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In the midst of understanding shattered and mended familial bonds in my present life, this photo documentary comments on my personal questions about the nature of parent-child love and alienation. As a documentarian, I hide behind those I photograph so I can make others my focus and forget what actually draws me to document long-term stories. However, at the end of each day, I am confronted by the same emotions I attempt to avoid; documentation provides a temporary refuge, but in the essence of the bonding visits, everyone goes home at the end of the day, waiting for the next opportunity for connection.

Isadora KosofskyCarlos holds his son Damian during a visit at the Everglades Correctional Center. Isadora Kosofsky 

Documenting lives affected by incarceration causes me to confront my fear of loneliness by witnessing remoteness in its most obvious forms. The inner conflicts and a desire for responses to unanswerable questions are what lead me to photograph what I feel I both know and can never know. As Michele, a Children of Inmates volunteer, says “one thing that sticks with me is the unconditional love between child and parent. No matter what the parent did. To the child, that’s still mom and dad.”

Kaiser reflects on the experience of having an intimate visit with his son, saying, “In a regular visit, you can’t interact like this.” Kaiser’s wife chimes in, “They are able to hold Dad’s hand. Kids need that. They need to know that Daddy still exists.” Jalen, 14, adds: “You almost forget you are in a prison. I get to spend time with Dad like being at home.”

Isadora Kosofsky is a documentary photographer based in Los Angeles.

Olivier Laurent , who edited this photo essay, is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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