During my imprisonment I had tried to commit suicide, been stuck with a knife, and was beat down with a pipe--but nothing hurt me more than my separation from my daughter. I had not seen her in over seven years, but now I was free and I wanted desperately to reestablish out relationship.
Stephanie was now nineteen years old and it hurt me deeply that we were complete strangers to each other. I felt I had abandoned her when I went to prison even though the circumstances were beyond my control. The Westchester District Attorney had offered me a plea bargain of three years to life and I denied the offer because I did not want to leave her and my wife Marylou. Instead, I went to trial to fight for my freedom. But sadly, I lost and paid dearly for going to trial and received a15 year to life sentence under the mandatory provisions of the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York. My life as I knew it was over.
Stephanie visited me often in the beginning of my incarceration. I remember her first visit to Sing Sing prison as clear as a bell. At seven years old she had smuggled a photo of herself with Santa Clause in the fold of her sweater. As time went by, she learned about the reality of our situation. No child should have experienced the horrible conditions she had to go through, such as body searches, long waiting lines and abusive correction officers. Little by little, her beautiful child-like demeanor disappeared and was replaced with a sadness and depression generally seen in a much older person. By the time she was twelve, she had become psychologically damaged, and so traumatized by the prison experience that she could no longer visit me.
I had kept all the letters and drawings she ever sent to me while I was in prison in an old shoe box. It was one of my most prized possessions and I carried that box with me through my years of incarceration. Stephanie didn't know it, but her letters to me were worth their weight in gold and saved my life. Her child-like innocence gave me the will to live when I wanted to die. Every time I felt I couldn't go on I would pull out a letter to pick me up. One, in particular, I loved to read, especially when I was depressed. The letter was also accompanied with three drawings of snow men and reindeer. It read:
Dear Daddy: I love you very very very very much and miss you very very very very much. Answer all the questions. Do you love me? Do you miss me? Do you love mommy and miss her too? Love forever and always Marry Christmas. I love you, Stephanie.
When I was granted clemency I had called her on the phone to tell her that I was coming home. We both cried and made plans to get together and forge a father-daughter relationship as soon as I was released. I was very excited but also very nervous. I wanted to see my daughter very badly. I felt like a failure as a father because I could not provide for her and give her even a minimal portrayal of what a father and daughter relationship was all about. It was one of the most painful experiences I went through and I was powerless to do anything about it while I was in prison. Now it would be different or so I thought.
When I was released I managed to do nothing right and fumbled our relationship from the beginning. Instead of contacting her the day I was free Stephanie found out I was granted clemency from the governor by reading it in the NY Daily News. This was something that bothered her tremendously and it hurt our relationship. To tell the truth when I came home I was not prepared for freedom. It was a cultural shock and I realized that it was one of the main reasons for the high rate of recidivism that existed. Worst of all for me in my newly found freedom was the hurtful fact that I had forgotten how to be a father to my daughter. For me when I went to prison, in order to survive, I had to shed the identity I wore in the free world. I did this in order to cope with life inside. I had to forget the roles I played in the real world as a father and husband. Call it a safety mechanism or whatever you wanted to call it, but one thing was for sure is that the tools you used in prison to survive are totally detrimental to your being once you are part of society again.
No matter how hard I tried to remember how to be a father to my daughter, I could not do it. And to make matters worse my daughter did not have the ability to deal with developing our relationship. For most prisoners returning to society, this was one of the most difficult things to do. Bottom line is that I found out that prisons break up families and destroy relationships. There was no denying this. But I knew I needed to try and salvage some sort of relationship with my daughter. I owed it to her and prayed that somehow I would learn how to be a father to her once again.
Anthony Papa is the author of "This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency", his new memoir that talks about his life after serving 12 years for a non-violent drug crime in NYS, and being granted executive clemency by New York Governor George Pataki in 1997. The above excerpt is about his daughter Stephanie, who he has not spoken to for seven years. She recently had a baby girl whose name he does not even know.