The first time I wrote about my father being incarcerated, the response was overwhelming. I wasn’t even sure the blog post was any good, but I hit publish because I needed to get it all out, and I’d done my best to make it worthy of reading. The messages came quickly. One after the other, more and more friends, acquaintances, and relative strangers reached out to tell me about their experiences with their own incarcerated loved ones, and thank me for sharing the story of mine.
The overwhelm didn’t come from the amount of messages I received, as much as their content. All my life, up until that point, I thought I must be alone. I thought maybe the other family members of incarcerated people don’t have the same struggles to do. I was wrong. We all had them the whole time. We also, in one way or another, got the message that we were supposed to be quiet about our struggles. And we all were. Until we weren’t anymore.
When my memoir, a study of my life in the absence of my incarcerated father, was published in June of 2021, I was asked over and over again who I wrote this book for. Of course, there are many answers to that question. I wrote it for me. I wrote it for the child version of me. For kids who were and are like me. For my family, my father, or my future.
As I reflect on the question today, I wonder if I didn’t write it to find out if I could connect with more people who know what it feels like. People who understand. And I found them. All over the world, I found them, and in some cases, right around the corner. I’ve spoken virtually and/or in-person with the communities I assumed would me most connected to the material book, but last week, I got to visit the place I wanted to most: prison.
Ericka Sanders reached out to my assistant in 2021 about me visiting a special group of men at a local prison. These men applied for and gained access to a community of fathers who happen to be incarcerated, and have asked for help maintaining a connection to their children from inside. I couldn’t wait to meet and speak with therm. Unfortunately, for the better part of five months we were hindered by COVID outbreaks.
I commend Ericka for staying in contact with me and assuring that as soon as we could make it happen, I would be welcome. It had been a long time since I went through the process of entering a prison, and I still don’t like it, but I was glad I’d had some experience when I arrived. Danielle Daugherty, my friend and managing editor of WWBT, dropped me off at the door, and in 15 minutes, I was standing in front of these dads.
There’s only so many details I can share from the visit, but some of my favorite moments came when they were free to ask me questions. Their thoughts and inquiries were so specific, so tailored to their unique situations, and their equally unique children. There were married fathers, unmarried fathers, stepfathers, and fathers whose children had only ever known them from inside. All of them were trying to find ways to show their children love, to show them that they were being cherished even from too far away. If any of them didn’t like the book, they didn't tell me, but they all asked me to sign their copies. I hope I answered their questions thoughtfully, and usefully. I hope their children reap all the benefits.
These men are participants in a program through the You Yes You Project (run by the indomitable Ericka Sanders), and even though I wish something like this had been available to my father, I’m so glad it exists for children in Indiana now. If you want to check them out, or donate to their organization, I’d encourage you to. Your dollars can only help.
When was the last time you had to visit a prison? What do you remember about it?