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  • Writer's pictureAva Martoma

Isabel Coronado x KidsMates

By Ava Martoma, Age 15

"Isabel Coronado" Coronado KidsMates Martoma "Ava Martoma" "Marron" "Marron Institute" Next100 "Native American" Indigenous
"Find something that makes you happy so you can lean on that during your hard times." — Isabel Coronado

Today, KidsMates focuses on parental incarceration in Native American communities and the benefits of family-focused alternatives to traditional sentencing. Our guest, Isabel Coronado, is the child of a formerly incarcerated parent and a member of the Muscogee Nation, a Native tribe in Oklahoma. Currently, Isabel is a Research Scholar at New York University’s Marron Institute and before that a policy entrepreneur at Next100, a think tank led by America’s next generation of policymakers. She focuses on creating policies to break the generational cycle of incarceration in Native American communities.

Isabel worked closely with groups to pass the FAMILIES act, which helps keep incarcerated parents home with their children and families. Before working with Next100, Isabel was the deputy director of the American Indian Criminal Justice Navigation Council (AICJNC), working with tribal families to process the trauma of incarceration. In 2017, Isabel received her Bachelor of Science degree from Northeastern State University. Later in 2019, she received her master’s of public health, with an emphasis on rural and underserved populations, from Oklahoma State University. We are so lucky to have Isabel joining KidsMates today. During my interview, I will talk with Isabel about her experience developing her advocacy skills at the Center for Native American Youth, her reflections on the FAMILIES act, and her general tips for coping with a family member’s incarceration. Without further ado, let’s get started!

Ava: Hi Isabel! It’s nice to meet with you again. Thank you for being my guest at KidsMates. To start, can you tell us your story in relation to the criminal justice system and your work with children of incarcerated parents?

Isabel: Hesci (“Hello” in Muscogee language), my name is Isabel Coronado, and I am a Research Scholar at New York University, where I am coordinating the research and implementation of family-based alternative sentencing nationally. My story related to the criminal legal system started when I was seven years old, when I witnessed the arrest of my mother. I spent a total of three years living with my grandmother; my mom was fighting her case for a year, in state prison for another year, and later in a halfway house for almost a year. I didn’t truly understand the impact of my mother’s incarceration until I was starting my master’s degree, while concurrently developing a nonprofit organization called American Indian Criminal Justice Navigation Council, where I opened up about my story. I was starting to hear the children of the families I was working with, and it made me open up and talk about the difficulties of losing a parent. If kids younger than me could be so vulnerable, then I knew I had to step up as well.

The passion I have has now translated into the work I started doing at the Next100. For the last several years I have focused on creating policy aimed at reducing incarceration in Native communities by dismantling a criminal justice system that impacts generation after generation of Native youth. Native American women are incarcerated 6x more than white women and Native men 4x more than white men. My work aims to ensure that children of incarcerated parents have the resources, support, and opportunities they need to succeed. I have since moved on to NYC Marron Institute to further my work on family-based alternative sentencing. This program will help parents stay out of prison, surrounded by comprehensive resources, and instead be at home with their children.

Ava: Wow! You have so many responsibilities! It is so important to help children of incarcerated parents from all aspects - whether it is providing direct support to the child or helping out their parents - I think you are doing a great job. Out of all the projects you have been involved in, what is the most important thing you have done recently to help children or families facing incarceration?

Isabel: During the last several years I have been working with a working group called To Keep Families Together, to pass the FAMILIES act. The FAMILIES act is federal legislation that would authorize funding for state and federal prisons to implement family-based alternative sentencing. Although the bill has still not yet passed, we were able to receive $3.5 million in appropriation funding in 2021 to start pilot programs across the country.

The funding has since landed in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs (OJJDP) for disbursement. In early January 2022, I helped facilitate a two-day conference to educate OJJDP about children of incarcerated parents (CIP) and how they should frame their program to better support CIP. As of April 2022, I will be working on the implementation and evaluation of family-based alternative sentencing to ensure these programs are successful so more children can have their parents at home versus in prison.

Ava: Separation is a big deal. I lost my parent for too long. I wish there were family-based alternatives back then. While accomplishing your mission, do you find any misconceptions people have about the work?

Isabel: One area in which I feel may be a misconception is that family-based alternative sentencing may have “safety” concerns. Because parents are being deterred from serving a sentence time or being let out of prison, somehow we should be concerned with the public’s safety. I think these concerns just need to be met with education. The general public doesn’t understand that prisons are not safe either. They endanger the physical/mental health and connection with families/communities, leaving people with a legal record that can interfere with finding housing, jobs, or education. By ensuring people have their basic needs met such as housing, food, healthcare, family connection, etc., then we are creating a safe environment for everyone.

Ava: That’s true. If people only think about prisons from the perspective of punishing the offender, they fail to consider the unintended consequences. Is there anything else you want the world to know about families dealing with incarceration?

Isabel: I would like the world to know that children and families who are dealing with incarceration are not a one-size fit all. Some children may experience their parents in jail, state prison, federal prison, or a halfway house. Some children may be living with family members or in the foster care system. Some children may have to move schools and are starting over again. But all children and families deserve dignity and respect while they figure out their new normal.

Ava: I agree with you completely. It is crucial to make sure that we don’t “type” children who have gone through similar experiences because everyone has had to go through a different journey, and we have to do our best to acknowledge that. Shifting our focus a bit, what specific tips would you give to the children coping with adversity?

Isabel: My tip for children coping with adversity is to find your passion. Find something that makes you happy so you can lean on that during your hard times. For me, it was my dog, Josie. I used to check out books at the library to learn about how to take care of dogs and about animals in general. I leaned on Josie during my mom’s incarceration to

get me through tough times.

Second, I would say get involved! Join youth boards and organizations to get connected on issues you care about. I have been fortunate enough to be connected to the Center for Native American Youth since 2018 and I currently serve as the Vice-Chair of their youth advisory board. Through CNAY, I have been able to have a national platform to educate people about issues Native youth face as a result of having an incarcerated parent.

Lastly, I would say to my younger self in particular to also think of my mom as a human being. That she makes mistakes like everyone else in the world. This is hard advice because society makes us think everyone should conform to what they think a family should look like, but love and forgiveness go beyond society’s norms.

Ava: Such profound pearls of wisdom. When my parent was incarcerated, finding things to do and ways to get involved was a great strategy that helped me cope and move on. If only I could have convinced my family to adopt a dog! Given how far you have traveled in your journey related to incarceration, I want to ask who or what has most influenced your thoughts on this topic and why?

Isabel: I draw inspiration from a variety of people who have taught me different ideas about the criminal legal system such as Zaki Smith - who was my teammate at Next100 and works on Clean Slate legislation (which is legislation that would eliminate criminal records from formerly incarcerated people’s past) - to Angela Davis - who is a civil rights advocate and author, who started the thinking around prison abolition. Lastly, all the current and former children of incarcerated parents I have spoken to or listened to. They keep me on this path and remind me the end goal is for CIP to no longer have to experience having an incarcerated parent.

Ava: I think we can all agree that these are great role models from all walks of life. As we finish our conversation, I would like to ask you to provide one last piece of advice about how to make a difference for any of our followers looking to get involved?

Isabel: My last piece of advice on how to make a difference is to take care of yourself mentally and physically. In my areas of work, especially in policy, it takes a long time to see progress happen. But you can make a difference by staying in and chipping away at progress, but in the meantime, that means taking care of yourself enough to make it to the end to see those results.

Ava: Taking the time to care for yourself means having more time and energy to continue your work. This advice is seriously excellent. Creating change can take a long time, and we need to sustain ourselves for the long haul. Isabel, I want to thank you for taking the time to meet with KidsMates today and for sharing your beautiful story. If you want to learn more about Isabel’s work, click here.


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