"A policeman had to pry me away from him"

As far as the law is concerned, once your dad is in prison, he's not your dad anymore.

By Nell Bernstein

Published June 14, 2000 7:51PM (EDT)

Susana recalls touching her father only once, in an embrace that ended with police intervention. In 15 years, her father has never been able to feed her, support her or protect her. Yet Susana's father is the most important person in her life, the one person she knows loves her -- the only real parent she has.

Susana's dad is an inmate at San Quentin State Prison, serving 21 years to life under California's rigid "three strikes" sentencing law. Caught four years ago with stolen property -- and not for the first time -- he's been determined by the court to be of no further value outside of prison. Unfortunately, he is of vital importance to Susana (not her real name).

There are more than 1.5 million men incarcerated in the United States today. The majority of them are fathers. It's a role that may not have been central to their lives before they were arrested -- most did not live with their children, nor with the mothers of those children. Certainly their status as fathers is barely recognized by prison administrators or advocacy groups. Of the limited number of programs that aim to sustain family bonds during incarceration, the great majority are aimed at female prisoners.

On one level, it's a bias that makes sense. When children lose a mother to jail or prison, they often lose a caretaker and provider; when they lose a father, they are more likely to lose a visitor. But of the 10 million children whose lives have been touched by parental incarceration, the vast majority has experienced the loss of a father. In sheer numbers, these missing fathers represent an absence to be reckoned with. And as Susana's experience indicates, just because your dad didn't live with you before he was arrested doesn't mean you don't miss him or need him once he is gone.

Susana is locked up in a juvenile hall right next door to the county jail where she came to know her father during sporadic visits over the course of nearly a decade. She's a pretty, broad-faced girl with wide-set brown eyes, a chipped front tooth and long reddish-brown hair that drapes over her county-issue sweatshirt. In a glassed-in interview room with white cinder block walls and a concrete floor, Susana talks at length about the dad who spent most of her childhood in the place she refers to as "next door."

"My dad's handsome," she says with a rare smile. "I wish I had pictures of him. He's tall, he's muscular. He has my face, with a mustache and thicker eyebrows, and then his hair is shaved in the back, shaved on the sides, and he slicks it back with gel."

Her father has told her stories, Susana says, about their early days together, when he was free and she was small and he would pick her up and take her places, carry her in his arms. Susana can't recall a single image from that time. Her memories of him start when she was 5 or 6 years old, when her grandmother would come get her at the foster home where she spent most of her early years and take her downtown to see her dad.

"We had to wait in a waiting room for a really long time," Susana remembers, "and when we finally got in he was behind glass and you had to talk on a phone." Susana's foster mother had discouraged her from talking about or seeing her parents, and so, with the narcissism of a small child, she assumed the conventions of the visiting room existed to obstruct her in particular: "I figured they were trying to keep us apart, and that's why there was glass and a telephone, and we couldn't touch each other."

Within a few years, Susana figured out where her father was, and why he was there. He, like her mother, was addicted to drugs -- cocaine and later heroin -- and stole in order to sustain his habit. As a result, he spent most of Susana's life in and out of the county jail ("mostly in").

Susana isn't sure whether her father ever got any treatment for his addiction, but she knows she never saw him in a rehab program -- only jail. She sometimes thinks about what her life might have been like had he been able to conquer that addiction: She might not have grown up in an abusive foster home where she was "treated like a slave," she says, or wound up behind bars herself. But she doesn't spend too much time on could-have-beens.

"Drugs control you," she explains, though she has no personal experience of addiction. "And that's why I think they practically controlled his life. They practically told him what to do. 'Cause when you're on drugs you're always thinking, 'I need more. How am I gonna get it? How am I gonna get the money?' That's all you're thinking about when you're on drugs."

But because Susana has only ever seen her father during his stints behind bars, the desperate addict is not the man she got to know. The man she describes is an affectionate, clownish dad, one who revels in teasing -- and being teased by -- his mischievous daughter. He is a dad who expresses his love for her openly and likes to offer stern advice that Susana values, but also mockingly dismisses.

"As the years went on, our relationship got closer and closer. He'd be trying to tell me what to do, and I'd say, 'OK, Dad, I'll do it,' but I'd be thinking to myself, 'What can you do about it?'"

When Susana was 13, her foster mother threw her out and she went to live with her grandmother, and later with an aunt. That was the year she saw her father for the only time without a wall of glass between them. His brother had died of cirrhosis of the liver, and Susana's dad was permitted to attend the funeral. Susana and her boyfriend went out and bought him a suit for the funeral, new shoes and a shaving kit. But he arrived at the funeral home shackled at the hands, feet and waist, accompanied by guards and police. The gifts Susana had bought stayed in the bag, and her father stayed in his prison jumpsuit.

"When he came in the room, he didn't look at any of us," Susana remembers. "He just went straight to the coffin and he was praying there. He stood there for a while talking to his brother. Finally he looked at us, but he wouldn't look us in the eyes. One of my aunts asked, 'Can we hug him?' The police officer said, 'You know that's against procedure, but go ahead.'

"I got to hug him first, and I was hugging him for a while, and then he went on and hugged everyone else. Then he came to me and hugged me again, and that time I didn't want to let go. A police officer literally had to pull me off him and he actually restrained me, put my hands behind my back. Then they took him. After they took my dad, the police officer finally let go of me.

"I knew it was procedure and I should have gotten off of him when they told me to. But I just wanted to hold him because I knew that would probably be the last time I'd ever hug him, kiss him, anything."

Susana's understanding of addiction is remarkably empathetic for a 15-year-old who has grown up in an era of scare campaigns and simplistic answers. She understands that drugs have "controlled" her father and that his addiction has driven his criminality. At the same time, she believes her father "had chances to do shit with his life but he just never took them ... That's why I'm trying to take advantage of life, be a teenager, not just be in and out of Juvenile Hall, not being able to enjoy my time out there."

This is Susana's second trip to Juvenile Hall. The first time, just a few months ago, she was charged with auto theft and evading police after she borrowed a friend's car without permission, then crashed it into a pole trying to avoid being pulled over. She was released to her aunt under house arrest, with an electronic monitoring bracelet around her ankle. Not long after, she and her aunt got into an argument and her aunt locked her out of the house, causing her to violate her house arrest.

Susana is in Juvenile Hall now because there is nowhere else for her to go until her probation officer finds a group home that will take her. She's an athletic girl -- loves swimming, boxing, lifting weights -- with big plans to finish high school, join the Navy, go to college and become a professional bodybuilder. Her confinement is making her crazy with impatience and worry. She hates the idea of her father finding out where she is, but hates even more that she has no way of keeping in touch with him -- incarcerated minors are not allowed to write to, or receive letters from, adult prisoners, even if those prisoners are their parents.

That Father's Day is around the corner only makes it worse: Susana usually sends her father $120 (the jail takes $20 from each money order and she likes him to have an even $100), a card and handwritten verses from the Bible; he writes her back with his interpretation of the scriptures she's chosen.

The last time Susana saw her father was the day after he was sentenced for his third strike. Susana was there for the sentencing, but ran sobbing from the courtroom when she heard the sentence read. The next day, she went to see him in the county jail. "Mija," he told her, "this might be the last time I'll see you in a while, but keep strong and don't let nothing get to you. Don't let this get to you either."

Susana left the visiting room in tears, and entered a hallway flanked by blocks of cells. Often, when she would visit her father, other prisoners would whistle at her as she passed through the corridor. This time she heard someone counting quietly: "One, two, three ..." Then a chorus of male voices: "Don't cry, Mija. We'll take care of your papm for you."

Susana knew right away her crazy father had somehow orchestrated the performance. She laughed so hard she found she was no longer crying. "I was like, oh my God, my dad is too much." She tells the story with a visible blush of pleasure at the quintessential adolescent experience of being embarrassed by her dad.

Susana has counted the years that her father is likely to serve -- 18 at a minimum -- over and over in her head and can tell you without hesitation how old they will both be when he gets out (33 and 62); but she is a little unclear on what the span of years will actually entail.

"I'll still be college when he gets out, I think ... " she speculates vaguely, counting out loud the years she'll spend in the Navy, the years in school. She has agreed to wait until his release to get married so he can be there to give her away. "He wants to be that person, you know? So I promised him."

Susana doesn't have too many other adults who want to "be that person" in her life. Her aunt and her grandmother won't take her calls now that she is locked up; she has no interest in maintaining a relationship with her former foster parents, and no idea where her mother is.

The last time Susana saw her mother was a couple of years ago, when she ran into her on the bus. Her mother didn't recognize her. "I'm your daughter," Susana called out. "Which one?" her mother asked. For now, the man she can't write to and doesn't know when she'll see again, the man who will be behind bars until she is in her mid-30s, is the sustaining figure in Susana's life.

What would it take to restore Susana's father to her, in body as well as in spirit? Universally accessible drug treatment in and out of jails and prisons? Not just second chances, but third, fourth and fifth chances for drug offenders who can't kick their habits on the first or second try? Support for the children of offenders, who are disproportionately likely to become the next generation of prisoners? They are questions we barely consider in shaping drug policy and sentencing laws, but ones that children like Susana can't afford to ignore.

"His love for me helps me," Susana says, "and his support, the way he tells me, 'Don't end up like this, you shouldn't be in gangs, you should be going to school and getting an education.' That helps me in a lot of ways, but I ask myself sometimes, 'Why couldn't he do it for him?'"

Nell Bernstein

Nell Bernstein is the author of "A Rage to do Better: Listening to Young People from the Foster Care System."

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Family Fatherhood Father's Day