I’ve Been In Prison For 24 Years. Now My Son Is Incarcerated Here, Too.

This is what I want my son to know this Father's Day.
Queens House of Detention, New York
Queens House of Detention, New York

Dear son:

It’s customary for children to honor their dads on Father’s Day, but for all intents and purposes, I never had a father. I swore that if I had a son of my own, I’d be there for him. But I wasn’t.

When we finally find ourselves together, without a phone or glass between us, it’s in jail. Yet even now, due to COVID-19, we still can’t really be together since I’m in quarantine after testing positive. So, I am writing you, in the hope this will help forge a real father-son bond.

When Ma told me the police had you, it floored me. Ma blames herself, of course. I am watching her relive the same experience she went through with me when I was arrested at 16. But this time, I can understand her pain. I already apologized to her, and now I want to apologize to you. 

I should have been there for you. Mom/your grandmother should not have had to raise my son. How can I explain my absence to you? 

When you were conceived, I was just a child myself. I acted like I thought a man should, but I didn’t understand the ramifications of the choices I made. I never thought I’d be locked up and leave you in the same position I was as a child…fatherless.

I vividly remember being 5 or 6 years old and telling my mother I wanted to see my dad. But he was incarcerated. We did eventually visit him in Lorton prison. I don’t remember much about our visit, other than him showing me off to his friends. 

I didn’t see him again until he came home when I was 8 or 9. He lived up the street from us with his mother, so Mom allowed me to visit. As soon as I was inside the house, he left. I stayed for the weekend, and he popped in occasionally. I remember being happy just to be around him.

I went two more times before the visits suddenly stopped. My mother told me when I got older that he had ordered her not to send me up there anymore. I didn’t see him again until I was caught shoplifting at age 10. Ma called and told him he needed to set me straight. Instead, he took me to the “strip” where he hustled and paraded me around like his mascot. The rest of the time, I sat in the car while he sold drugs. 

There was no “stern talking to,” no advice, no parenting. He drove me home with the promise that he’d be back the next weekend. Instead, it was 11 years before I saw him again. I was 20, and my mother called him to say I had been stabbed in jail and he should visit me. 

To this day, I do not call him father. I never wanted my child to feel the same. 

I met your mother on my birthday. I had absconded from Oakville (juvenile facility) a couple of weeks earlier and was out celebrating. When she told me she was pregnant, I decided then and there I would stay with your mother so I could be in your life. I encouraged her to go back to school and get a job. I planned for our future as a family; it was time for me to man up. 

Unfortunately, I thought that meant to get as much money as I could, so I chased the streets even harder. A couple of weeks later, I was locked up for first-degree murder. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t the one who shot the gun; I was in the car, and that was enough.

I remember the first time I saw you like it was yesterday. It was love at first sight. You were a few weeks old, and your mother brought you to the jail to see me. The visit got delayed, and I ended up only being able to see you through the glass door to the visiting hall entrance. I held it together, but when I got back to my cell I cried like a baby. 

You were 8 when the court gave you to my mother. I was pulled out of my cell to sign the consent forms to give her permission to adopt you. I thought that with Ma raising you, you’d be OK. But I now understand you also needed me there. 

You told me when you were younger that you hated men. Now I understand. You didn’t have a man in your life who you respected enough to want to emulate. Most of the times when you encountered a problem, you felt as though you had to figure it out for yourself. I now understand why, when I asked you questions about what was going on, you were quiet or responded with one-word answers. It wasn’t that you didn’t want help ― you figured I couldn’t help you. 

Ma tried to be both mother and father to you, but a mother doesn’t really know what it’s like to be a man in a neighborhood like ours. That’s why so many Black men are in jail; their own fathers weren’t there. 

Son, in a lot of ways we are alike. The main reason I started running the streets was because it gave me prestige in the ’hood. All of my friends were doing it, and I liked the freedom. I can see you struggling with the same things. Watching you navigate this environment has made me see how deeply I failed you. 

I did try. I remember when you were 2 years old and my mother brought you to see me. I had this Guess watch and I placed it on your arm, and my mother told me, “He’s a child. He’ll lose it.” But I wanted you to have it for a memento. This is fatherhood from prison: feeling inadequate because you’re not there, so you try to make up for it in other ways. 

Now that you’re here with me, I still am not in the position to give you what you need because I don’t really know how. Because I grew up in jail, I have a certain idea of how a “man” should conduct himself. The main thing that’s changed about my idea of fatherhood since you’ve been around is that I now understand that, above all else, you need my love. I love you, son. I will make sure I tell you this all the time. But more than that, I believe love is an action word, so I will try to show you through my actions. 

Son, we have a lot to learn about one another. I want you to teach me how to be a better father. And I have some things I can teach you. The most important is this: We all make mistakes, but it is what we learn from them that matters most. The problem is when you make the same mistakes over and over. This is what I see you doing right now. You’re so disappointed in yourself that it is paralyzing you. You feel as if you’ve thrown your whole life away, so you beat yourself up and can’t pull yourself out of a state of self-pity and victimhood.

I’m afraid you’ll miss the blessing: the lesson. I know you are in great pain right now, but if you don’t start to try to find the meaning in your pain, then everything will be for naught. What I am trying to say is that there is a special power in going through pain and adversity. I hope you can use this time to discover who you really are and what you want to do with your life.  

Re-entry doesn’t start on the day you leave jail, but on the day you enter. You will make it home, but what type of person will you be when you get there? That’s what I want you to focus on. 

Robert Barton is a District of Columbia native and is serving 30 years to life. You can read his blog on Medium.

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