A Complicated Experience, Unlocked

Student Forms Group for Peers With Incarcerated Parents

Anna Tovchigrechko ’26 became accustomed to the eight-hour car ride to a Walmart in rural upstate New York, near Niagara Falls. Each time, the middle-schooler and her dad ticked off the essentials on their shopping list: clothes (but nothing orange, blue or gray), shampoo (but no brands that had alcohol as one of the first few ingredients), snacks.

Then they’d take their haul a few miles away, to the prison where Tovchigrechko’s mom, a former attorney, was serving a five-year sentence. The visits always seemed too short.

“When it would be time to go, I just remember looking out the window and being really sad that we had such a good time, but now I was leaving and she was still in prison,” she says.

Back home in her comfortable Montgomery County, Md., neighborhood, she didn’t know anyone else with an incarcerated parent. And she thought she couldn’t tell anyone, especially after an uncomfortable conversation with a school counselor. “I remember her being very shocked, in a way that you wouldn’t want an adult to be surprised like that.”

The isolation Tovchigrechko (above) felt is one of the factors that motivated her to start the UnLocked Project, a new University of Maryland group that provides a community for students who have or have had parents in prison to talk about their experiences with others who have shared them.

Nationally, some 5 million American children—most under age 10—have had an incarcerated parent at some point. That can translate into a significant loss of income to the family, and court-related fees and fines, as well as the cost of visiting an incarcerated parent, may exacerbate financial woes. Parental incarceration is a blow to mental health, too—researchers have found that having a parent go to prison can be a traumatic experience for children on the same level as abuse, domestic violence or divorce.

The UnLocked Project’s meetings have been “a breath of fresh air,” says Da’Juana Savage ’25, whose dad has been in and out of prison, starting when Savage was 3 years old. “I was able to have an open discussion about my story and have a space where I felt like I could breathe and not feel like anybody was judging me.”

For Savage, who is vice president of the group, having an incarcerated parent wasn’t the unique experience that it was for Tovchigrechko. “Growing up in Baltimore, it’s really common. A lot of people don’t have their fathers or mothers in their lives,” she says. “Is it talked about? No.”

Tovchigrechko hopes that the UnLocked Project can be a unifier. “Even in this small community of people, people’s needs are different, but at the same time, we’re all kind of the same, because we left that discussion very much relieved and feeling like we’ve found a community of people who are willing to talk about it,” she says.


Leave a Reply

* indicates a required field