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  • Writer's pictureAva Martoma

Yale's SEICHE Center x KidsMates

"It’s hard to separate the personal from the professional experiences," says Yale's Tyler Harvey, "but it’s through these professional opportunities that I’ve been able to process the personal ones...and also feel empowered to do something about it."

Hello mates! Today, we’re speaking with Tyler Harvey from the Yale School of Medicine about the benefits that first-hand, lived experiences can bring to research on mass incarceration and parental incarceration. Tyler is uniquely positioned as the child of an incarcerated parent. Originally from the rural South, Tyler experienced their mom’s incarceration as one of five siblings. Wanting to understand the harmful impacts of incarceration, Tyler came to Yale to pursue a master’s in public health and is now in the middle of an intense MD/PhD (Go Tyler!). Before starting the MD/PhD, Tyler was the Center Administrator at the SEICHE Center for Health and Justice, an academic center tackling the health harms of mass incarceration at Yale. With over a dozen publications already, Tyler wants to inspire future generations of children with incarcerated parents to pursue their dreams in whatever shape and size makes sense. When not pursuing intense research or learning medicine, Tyler also serves as a member of Yale’s Presidential Search Student Advisory Council, specifically chosen to contribute to the selection of Yale’s next university president, and is also a research fellow at the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at the Yale Law School. Thankfully, Tyler made time for KidsMates, so without further delay, let’s see what Tyler has to say. Please welcome my guest, (soon-ish to be Dr.) Tyler Harvey.

Ava: Tyler, I’m so excited to share KidsMates’ platform with you. Thank you for joining us. I know you’re busy, so let’s jump right into the interview. My first question is, tell us your story as it relates to the criminal justice system and your work with children of incarcerated parents?

Tyler: Yes, I'm happy to share. So, just a little bit about me personally. I grew up in the South between North Carolina and South Carolina. I'm the oldest of five younger siblings, and my parents were separated when I was pretty young. I primarily lived with my mom in rural North Carolina early in growing up. And that's where my exposure to the criminal legal system really started. 

Nearly two decades ago, my mom was incarcerated, and that really shifted all of our lives in very dramatic ways. For me, it meant that I primarily switched custody from my mom to my dad, and I moved to South Carolina after that and was primarily under his care. It also meant that I just had to learn how to emotionally process what had happened to my mom and our family, which was her disappearing behind bars and me starting a whole new life in a different state. That early personal exposure is what really motivated all a lot of my work since then. 

When I got to Yale to do my master's degree in public health, I really started to get interested in the research behind how mass incarceration influences the health of people not only who are currently locked up or have formally been locked up but also their children, their families, and the community they return to. That's what I've been doing for 5 years now. That's the research that I got my master's degree on -- family member incarceration and its impact on health and well-being. Then, for the last three years, I was the Center Administrator at the SEICHE Center for Health and Justice at Yale, a new, one-of-a-kind academic center that focuses squarely on this issue. 

What makes it different from many academic centers is that it really centers and prioritizes those who have been most impacted by the problem in its operations. For the past few years, I've been providing support and taking a holistic view about how we address the issue to really consider, well, if someone's locked up, how does that impact their health, also how does it affect the child's health, their relationship with their child, and their relationship to their own community. It really is a truly holistic view. 

Earlier this year, I just stepped away from that position and am now in the MD/PhD program here at Yale. So, what I'm doing now is training to be a physician-scientist who does research on the health impacts of mass incarceration.

Ava: Wow! That sounds really amazing. Your story is, of course, personal to your experiences. I have a similar story, and there are a lot of people around the nation who do. Can you share how that translated into your beginnings to gear up in this field and really take off it?

Tyler: For surely, it’s hard to separate the personal from the professional experiences, but it’s through these professional opportunities that I’ve been able to process the personal ones to really understand how much it impacted me and my family. To also feel empowered to do something about it and envision a world in the future where mass incarceration is not doing harm to people like me and the communities from which I come from.


Ava: That leads to my next question. As you're talking about your work at the Seiche Center, what is the most important thing you have done to help children or families facing incarceration in the last year?

Tyler: That’s a good question. I’ll answer it in two ways. I think professionally, one project that I was really passionate about that could have very large implications for children and the families of folks who are incarcerated is a research grant submitted by the team at SEICHE to the National Institute of Health to basically study this issue from a scientific point of view. How does a family member’s incarceration really get under the skin and influence the health of the children of incarcerated parents? I think that’s really important because with mass incarceration, it is easy to see the social implications of it. In my situation, it was my mom being physically removed from my life and me moving to live with my dad that was a very obvious social implication of my personal exposure, but what’s harder to see is the long-term health impacts that has on me, both on physical and mental health. Right? Personally, I know it to be true. I know mass incarceration definitely harmed my mom and also myself, but the science behind it is weak, and I see science as one tool towards a more just world. To get there, we have to do these types of studies. I hope it gets funded because we just submitted it, and it takes so long to hear back from these agencies. This would be a very unique, one-of-a-kind study funded through the national government, which I think is really important because it recognizes the relative importance of this issue. Professionally that’s something that I’m really proud of that I’ve done this year. 

Secondly, and I think it’s becoming even more apparent to me is, I started an MD/PhD program at Yale in my personal life, and I feel a lot of pride being a child of a previously incarcerated person in this institution, recognizing that these institutions weren’t really designed with people like myself. I don’t know any other person in my class who has been so directly impacted by mass incarceration. Just thinking about where I come from and where I am now, I hope to be an example to other children who currently have a family member incarcerated and are young and dreaming of living big lives -- it is very possible to occupy a space similar to the one that I’m occupying right now.

Ava: Exactly. Just going back to what you were saying about understanding the science behind how mass incarceration affects their children and families, I think there's very little research. I don't know if you've heard of "adverse childhood experiences," but basically, it's been known for a long time that being the child of an incarcerated parent will lead to lifelong mental health and physical health outcomes that are bad for you, but then we just kind of stop there and didn't keep researching. I think it's crucial that this work is being done, and I'm really, really pleased to see you taking the initiative and doing this research because it matters a lot.

Tyler: Yeah, for sure. Two points on that. One is we know this experience is bad. I get tired of research that says having your parent locked up is bad for your health. I'm like, okay, well, what can be done to be healthy. You're not giving me a solution personally or as part of a demographic about what we can do to improve our health. And secondly, it's really important for that research to be led by people who have been through it. It is us who know the impacts most directly, and we should be the ones involved in this research. That is something I am really trying to advocate for and change in the research landscape by involving people who themselves have been incarcerated but also family members who have experienced it as well.

Ava: From all the aces studies out there, which are not as many as there should be, an ignored component is the benefit of developing resilience to combat the aces. You can't choose for your parent to be incarcerated, but developing resilience is something that you can actively do given the right amount of support. I think just like making that part of the equation more known to people, namely that even if your parent was incarcerated, does that mean that you automatically need to get heart disease or obesity because there are things you can do to prevent that and move down a further path forward. A lot of times, having an incarcerated parent can feel like a black hole, and you don't really know what to do, but putting this information out there and sharing those resources is really important. For me, when my father was incarcerated, a lot of these resources didn't exist, and my family didn't know what to do. A lot of our knowledge came through trial and error, but only so many people need to go through trial and error before sharing their experiences with others and saving them from that misfortune. 

Tyler: Definitely, I agree. For me, I didn't really have any examples of people who had experienced a parent incarcerated who was doing things that I thought that I could do. I never envisioned myself being a doctor or scientist, but now I'm training to be both. I think I just really want to set an example to folks that, yes, you experienced this when you were young, and it was really traumatic, but you can develop life and resilience skills and really work towards being your best self and take up space that people may say wasn't designed for you.

Ava: Yes, and part of that is how much social stigma there is against sharing that you had a parent incarcerated. There are hundreds and thousands of cool people out there who have had a parent incarcerated but do so much beyond that. We're not defined by that. I wish I could see that what these people went through is the same as what I did or a similar thing, but look at them now. They're going out and doing stuff in the world, and so can I. I think that's really cool.

Tyler: Yeah, I definitely agree. 

Ava: So, moving to our next question, are there any misconceptions about your work? Is there anything people don’t currently understand that you want them to know?

Tyler: Yes, I mean, I definitely believe that people don’t fully understand just how much mass incarceration has harmed the health of this nation as a whole. I think people can kind of grasp that being incarcerated makes it hard for you to take care of your health or get the medications that you need, but I view mass incarcerations as one of the greatest social problems of our time. It’s already lasted 50 years, and its impacts are going to outlive a lot of people. I don’t think people understand fully when I say that this exposure to this size—a cultural movement that was intentionally designed by folks – this wasn’t an accident; this was intentional policies and practices by people with power – has inflicted harm upon communities, Black, Brown, and poor communities, that will last generations after generations. I think people minimize the impact that it really has genuinely had by saying, “Oh well, only 2 million people are currently incarcerated, and there are other bigger issues that we have to approach.” But looking at it through that limited scope is not the way to go about it because the reach it much farther – it impacts  their children, their communities, and millions and millions more who have been through the system. What I’m hoping to do with my work is look at the science behind the health impacts that could potentially have long lasting and extreme impacts. If there are biological modifications that happen when you are exposed to this amount of trauma that are then carried throughout your whole life or passed on to your kid, then it’s literally intertwined into the DNA of our society, and it's a uniquely American phenomenon.

Ava: Definitely, I would say if you look at the incarceration rates between America and countries that we perceive to be really strict or really not democratic, it's shocking to see that our incarceration rates are so much higher. It's something we just don't talk about. If we look at other nations like European countries, such as Switzerland, a lot of those kinds of places have really excellent ways of dealing with incarceration that have a much higher focus on the family as a whole and on the people who are affected by incarceration. As Americans, we must look at those places, see what they're doing right, and adopt those ideas into our own system because what we have right now isn't working.

Tyler: Yeah, a couple of thoughts just came to mind as you spoke. I agree totally. A couple of years ago, I was doing some work with the World Health Organization with the team at SEICHE and really thinking about health and prisons with colleagues in Europe and around the globe. I learned from that experience just how much America is an outlier. Being an American and coming to work with all these international colleagues, it was like, yes, healthcare in prison is a problem, but it's mainly especially a problem in America. You have the worst of the worst. That stark contrast of how terrible it is and how others view it as a humanitarian crisis was eye-opening (for me). And secondly, I agree with your comments that learning from other nations is important. I also would add that envisioning a world without mass incarceration is important. I think to do that really takes creativity. It takes working in community and solidarity with each other. It takes a deep commitment to equity and justice. But it's not out of reach. Abolishing a system created 50 years ago in the next 50 years is possible before the end of my life. Still, it will take a lot of work and partnerships with those most impacted and many power shifts to give resources to the issue. 

Ava: Anything significant that's ever happened took time, but it also needed people like yourself who were pushing that cause forward. It's not something that we can ignore and accomplish eventually. It's time we started dealing with it and making the change. Moving to our next question, what would you want the world to know about children or families dealing with incarceration?

Tyler: Yeah, I think, for example, in my situation, the severity of the trauma it inflicts families was often overlooked. Even thinking about my own family dynamic now, 20 years later, with my siblings and with my mom, her incarceration was a shifting point in our interpersonal relationship and how we operated as a family. I think that’s really often overlooked. Also, I would point out that millions of impacted kids and families are out there being resilient. I don’t like points of view that only focus on the negative. Good and bad usually exist side by side. In my case, the incarceration was categorically bad and traumatic, but it’s also one of the reasons why I’m here today. It’s the reason I do the work that I do today. 

Ava: Yes, definitely. So onto our next question, what tips would you give children coping with adversity? 

Tyler: This is very hard because there’s not one model that will work for all children, and I’m 28 (so a little older), and it’s been a while since I’ve had to think about it so acutely. What I’ve learned over the years is using that adversity as a strength. I took this experience and shifted it into something that motivated my personal life and my professional life. I’m very open and upfront about my lived experiences now, but it took me a while to get there. It wasn’t like my mom was incarcerated, and I was fully healed the next day, or will I ever be. What’s really important when thinking about adversity for children is to feel the whole experience – the good and bad. Take in all that happened to you as early as possible and understand it to be a part of who you are. This experience has happened to you – whether you wanted it to or not, good or bad – and see it as part of your lived experience and identity. For a long time, I tried to say, “That happened to me, but that’s not who I am.” Today, that’s just not the case anymore. Now, it’s an integral part of my identity, as are other things. So, processing it and embracing it is something I have done over the years. I don’t want to say that I wish I had done that earlier, but maybe doing it earlier would have been beneficial.

Ava: Yeah, I think it's hard to have a parent incarcerated and know what to do because, as we talked about, there aren't a lot of resources out there. You also don't hear anybody else talking about it, so you assume that it's something that's happening only to you. You don't recognize that so many people have gone through this. It's a challenging experience, and it's a traumatic one, but you can't get through it.

Tyler: Yeah, yeah, I agree. Opening up to people about it is something that I encourage young folks to do. I've never opened up and shared my story and had someone respond negatively or view me poorly because of it. In fact, it's been the exact opposite when I've opened up and shared my true, authentic self with people. By letting people in, I found support and encouragement that has motivated me to keep going and do the work that I do.

Ava: Yeah, when you surround yourself with friends, you want to be able to trust those friends. An essential part of creating bonds with people is sharing parts of your life and getting to the point where you feel comfortable enough to share something personal but essential. If people don't respond positively, then maybe they're not the people who should be your friends.

Tyler: Yeah, yeah, that’s very true.

Ava: So, through your journey with incarceration, both in your personal life and in your professional life, who or what has most influenced your thoughts and why?

Tyler: Well, that’s a good question. I wish I had more time to think about that one. I find a lot of motivation from the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a scholar and activist focused on the geographies of incarceration, with a deep focus on abolition. Growing up, I didn’t know what abolition was or that it was a perspective people could take. From my personal experience, I understood the harm the criminal legal system inflicted on me, but I would have considered the idea of abolition so radical two decades ago, that it wasn’t even possible or realistic. But today, that’s the perspective I operate from. Let’s prioritize abolition of a system of harm instead of solely focusing on reforming parts of it, and it’s through that commitment that we can get to solutions that have lasting impacts on people and their families. Classifying abolition as an extreme idea is something I don’t agree with anymore. Cutting off that possibility because of your personal views and framework is a waste of time when we think of the long-term solutions that are needed to get to a country that I envision wanting my potentially future children and grandchildren to live in, which is one without mass incarceration.  

Ava: Moving now to the last question of this interview, just as we wrap up, what would you say if you were giving one last piece of advice about how to make a difference?

Tyler: That’s another excellent question for young folks and something I wish I had had when I was younger. When I think about the work that motivates me, a couple of components stick out. If you want to make a difference, rooting your work in equality and humanity is so important, and staying true to that. 

Two, bring forth your truest, most authentic self. As we were just talking about, the experiences we’ve had are part of who we are. Sharing those with people will only further impact and expand your impact on the world. 

Lastly, I think a motto that I enjoy trying to embrace in my life is “show up and show out,” which really means to work hard. Make your presence known when you’re at the table; when you don’t have a seat at a table, bring your own seat or build a new table. Do not underestimate the power of working hard. 

Ava: It’s a really important thing, an essential thing, and I’m glad you brought that up because nobody gets anywhere without hard work, dedication, and time. It might feel like you can’t see the end of the road, but you don’t always have to see the end to start. I think that’s something that people learn when dealing with incarceration, and people more generally learn through going to school and doing all these hard things in their lives. There is an end result, and eventually, you’ll get there.

Tyler: Yeah, success is only cumulative. Success is only cumulative if you keep that commitment to hard work. Where I am currently is the result of hard work and opportunities that have come to me over the past two decades, and I only foresee it getting bigger if I stay committed to what I'm doing.


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