Children were everywhere. Restless and, at times, rowdy, they climbed the security fence, swung on the water fountain, ran around the courtyard reserved for visitors. Mothers cautioned them with cuss words, comforted them with hugs and kisses and held them until they fell asleep.
Self-delusion No. 1: I am not one of them.
But, as the other women had done, I dropped my two quarters in the slot, opened the metal locker, deposited my iPhone and took the key. On that day in May 2012, I parked myself on a backless concrete bench until it was my turn to see the prisoner at the Los Angeles County Jail.
Never mind that, when I was 8 and just old enough to understand that jail was a bad place, I promised myself I would never set foot in one.
I am 31 now. My father, the prisoner, is 59. He started shooting heroin when he was 14 and coming up in Watts. He met my mother while cruising unsuccessfully through a Job Corps program in Texas. At age 26, he was sentenced to 20 years-to-life for murdering another human being. After two decades on lockdown, he was released from prison and, not long afterward, convicted a second time on drug-related charges.
California is a three strikes state. That’s all I could think of when my father’s mother cavalierly told me that day in May, “Your dad’s in jail.”
“For what,” I asked, stunned and barely sitting down in her house. Why hadn’t she told me this over the telephone when I’d called to say I happened to be in L.A. for a dear friend’s wedding and I wanted to see my dad?
“When he goes in there, they own him,” was all she replied. She didn’t know why he’d been arrested this last time. She is not warm and fuzzy.
Several points along my route to the county jail in my dad’s hometown, I had considered turning back. (Everybody needs someone to love and show concern for them.) I had only seen him, face to face, three times previously, with the longest visit being a seven-day trip financed and insisted upon by my godfather.
It was a fabulous seven days. My father was living in a nicely laid out half-way house where all the transitioning ex-felons knew me before I could even ring the doorbell: “Doug, is that your baby? … He is so proud of you … He talks about you all the time … “
They invited me in. They embraced me. They knew about my dual college degrees and my job as an assistant pastor at a big Brooklyn church. They saw my father in me. We have the same coloring of skin, the same freckles and the same twisted sense of humor. I like my father. I love my father.
And for as long as I can remember I have been mad at my father, have wanted to punish him for making me a prisoner’s child. With the laser focus on prisoners in our society—on the people they harm, the institutions they disrupt and their collective drain on the rest of us—the gazillion children of prisoners often become Invisibles.
They—I mean, we—are largely misunderstood and not very much discussed. Even at my otherwise generous church, with its outreach and relief work in Haiti, South Africa, New Orleans, etc., the Angel Tree project to benefit the children of the incarcerated at Christmastime had been low on the radar.
We’ve had to push hard for donors to aid kids whose wish lists contain requests for underwear, school uniforms, winter coats, not the latest video games. And those small things cannot ever, ever fill the void of an absent, imprisoned parent.
After waiting two hours to connect with a father who has missed every hallmark of my aspiring life—and who’s never bought me a meal or paid a penny of tuition—I saw him sitting behind the glass of a cubicle that separates prisoner from visitor. I sat down and picked up the telephone receiver. Seeing me, his face lit up with joy and shock. He began talking hurriedly into the telephone, which initially was not working.
So, exaggerating, he mouthed his words big and wide: “What are you doing here?”
The tears started when, instead of answering, I mouthed his question back to him. The phone started working right as I went in hard: “You told me you were done with jail! Why?! Why are you here?”
My father looked at me. He said, “Sorry.” He told me he never wanted me to see him incarcerated, that if I couldn’t stop crying it was okay and I should just leave.
I stayed a while longer. No matter how much I wiped my face, the tears kept coming. I told him he was breaking my heart. His terrible choices have kept him away from me for most of my life. “I love you,” I told him.
He was on lockdown for breaking and entering. Jail was way harder for an aging man than a young one, he said. The food was horrible. Because of his diabetes, his jail-issue jumper was a different color than the ones worn by healthy prisoners. That alone was a liability; it made him vulnerable. Though his cancer was still officially in remission, they had found a tumor and were preparing to do a biopsy.
He apologized for mostly being out of touch for the last year, but he’d lost and been unable to replace cell phone, he said. He was scheduled to be released in November.
He told me I was beautiful and that he loved me, too.
We made small talk until I got ready to leave. He needed money for toothpaste, my father said. I nodded. I’d take care of that.
With me and my father, there is love and heartbreak and resentment and love. I left him that day without touching the glass, palm against palm, like I’d seen on TV. Without a fist-to-fist, affirming bump. I walked to the lockers, grabbed my iPhone, plugged in the earbuds, exited the building where my father occupied a jail cell and crossed the street to another county-run, county-owned structure.
Inside a second-floor office designated for putting money on your prisoner’s books, I handed over all the cash I had.
When I got back to New York, I wrote my dad a letter, partly to help me process all this stuff. I’m trying to figure out when, if ever, I’ll drop it in the mail.
The Rev. Shareka Newton is the executive pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn.