When I met Erika Roberts in 2011, I thought hers was a prisoner re-entry story: a story about a young, single mother, struggling to provide for her family while trying to overcome the lasting stigma and shadow of a felonious record. And in some ways, this is that story.
But in spending time with Erika and family, I’ve realize that her story is both a simpler one - a quiet story of a young family just trying to do the best they can - and a more complex and nuanced story about life in poor urban communities where people grow up in and around trauma, where criminal activity and incarceration are commonplace, and where Erika's story isn't all that uncommon.
As a child, Erika was physically and sexually abused by various family members. She became a mother at 18 after being shuffled around various group homes for “troubled youth". Her son's father, Jarvis, was her first love and the one person who had seen her through all her years of trauma. But he was also a drug dealer and two months after their child was born, he was murdered at a car wash. Shot in the head. And Erika was left alone with a newborn baby.
A few years later, she began dating Zach, an older guy who she thought would take care of her and her toddler son. When he asked her to help him rob a jewelry store, she didn’t want to, but she feared he’d leave her if she didn’t. So she did. The two got caught and Zach was hit with a 5 year sentence for a first degree armed robbery. Erika lost custody of her son.
At the time, Erika thought pregnant women weren’t incarcerated, but her assumption proved wrong and she began her 18-month sentence seven months pregnant with Zach’s child. She had her third child, a little girl named Johnai, with another man a couple of years after her release. Again, she thought he was going to provide for her, but he let her down.
When I began photographing Erika, she was committed to doing it all on her own. She was working long hours at a factory building display cases, volunteering coaching cheerleading and teaching African dance to at-risk youth in her community. She was hoping to get her record expunged and trying to get a scholarship to go back to school to become a nurse.
About six months later, Zach was released and for the first time, Erika’s four-year-old son, Zakyi, got to meet his father. A little while later, Erika and Zach got back together and they’re now both committed to helping each other stay out of prison and live a good life together. They each work multiple jobs and dream of getting married and buying a house in the suburbs.
But the odds are not in their favor. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, when age, education, schooling, region of residence and urban residence are statistically accounted for, past incarceration reduces annual earnings by 40% and young black men, like Zach, without a high school diploma or GED, are currently incarcerated at a higher rate than they are employed.
We live in a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, with a prison industrial system that disproportionately affects black communities and individuals like Erika and Zach. Only time will tell whether their resolve is enough to overcome that burden and break the cycle.