Over the past few months, I have been getting regular e-mails from young people with incarcerated parents. They have been heartfelt, poignant, and often overwhelming. The writers have shared some deeply personal stories with me. I am grateful that they want to share them with a stranger. Perhaps it is actually easier to do so than it is to talk with one’s intimates. I have been reading some poetry and prose by San Quentin prisoners in a special edition of the Criminal Class Review. The title of the issue is “Yard Time, Hard time, Our time: The Writings of San Quentin State Prison H-Unit” and the entire volume is wonderful. I want to share a few pieces that address the role of family in the lives of prisoners.
In writing about “what truly scares him,” Jeff McCafferty offers these words:
Well, for me, the scariest thing is losing my kids or not being able to see them for years or having them grow up without me, no forgiveness in the long run. My kids are so much a part of me and my happiness. I live through them, just as they depend on me as a father, my guiding light in life choices and style and actions. We are currently separated and because of my prison sentence in SQ, they live in Oregon, far away from me in SoCal. I have not seen them since ’06 and it is starting to freak me out. I am scared they are never going to get to see me ’til they are all over 18. My son is 14, and my daughter is less than a month away from 13. I think of them every day. Now I am not scared in terms of my personal future. I will be fine. Things in my personal life get right back on track most of the time after prison. I just want my kids in my future. They are the best. Can’t wait to spend quality time with them. I am going to make sure I structure my life so when I am reunited with them, we can catch up on the past few years. This is the hardest and scariest thing for them, and we all miss one another. But life has a way of full-circle returns, and I am going to take advantage of it and hold on with both hands. I will not be scared this time. No fear, just a death grip with the past in my mind, and the future in my heart. Life returns.
Here is William Sare responding to the same question:
What truly scares me to death is getting out of prison and not having any family left. Everybody’s gone but me. I think about that every day and night. It is something I just can’t seem to kick. I can’t think of anything worse than losing your family while you are locked up. I am really not scared of very much, but that is one thing I can’t seem to handle, losing everyone I love. I am not really a people person, but when it comes to my family, I would give up my own life for them, because once they’re gone, what’s left for me? That’s right, sorrow and pain, and I mean the kind of pain you just can’t get rid of. I’ll be honest. They are the only people I really care about, so that is my biggest fear in life.
James Blankenship writes about the cycle of intergenerational drug abuse and in just a few sentences is able to convey loss, love, frustration, grief and perhaps finally some fledgeling hope:
1986: (Four years old) Momma! Why you burnin’ that spoon with a lighter? You sick, momma? Why you giving yourself a shot?
1990: Mom, there’s a whole bunch of police outside. Mom, why are they taking me? I didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t want to go.
1992: Mom, when can I come home? What do you mean I have to wait ’til you pass a drug class? How long does that take? Six months, that’s all, and then I can come home? You promise?
2000: Mom, I have you! You promised that you would come get me. All this over a drug? I can’t believe you would abandon your own flesh and blood just because you can’t stop getting high. I’ll never be like you. I’ll never leave my kid!
2008: Hey Honey! Daddy misses you. I only have two more years to go. Then I’ll be home. I know I promised I would never leave you. I just made a mistake. I promise it will never happen again.
When I came to the crossroads, I had a choice to follow the map my mom drew for me or make that turns and take the right path. I chose the wrong way. Now I’m going the same thing to my daughter that my mother did to me. Is it too late to make a u-turn? Maybe I cam find a short cut. I just pray I don’t get lost on the way back.
I look forward to sharing more pieces from this terrific publication in the coming weeks on this blog.