This year is my first father’s day. But for the decades I spent incarcerated in an Alabama prison, I dreamt of him every day.
I’ll spend the day at church, parading around the baby the congregation had been waiting for—one that I’ve been waiting for much longer. I’ll probably reminisce on the birth of my son: it was such a blessing to be in the delivery room to watch his birth. When they lifted him up for me and my wife to see; we both began to cry in joy.
He is a blessing because his very existence was predicated on my life as a free man in Pennsylvania, something that was not always a guarantee.
My friends’ lives were beginning, mine was ending
When I was 20 years old and my friends were in college or getting married, I found myself in the Walker County Jail in Alabama. Their lives were beginning and mine seemed like it was over. After years of surviving devastating sexual abuse, my brother and I took the life of our abuser.
It was hard to imagine college, marriage, kids, or any other ideal future—I thought that I was going to get the death penalty, or a life without parole sentence. Having a family was the farthest thing from my mind at that moment. I was just concerned if I was going to live and have breath in my body.
After 13 months in the County Jail, my brother and I plead out to a murder charge and received a 25 year sentence. It could have felt like a relief: it wasn’t the death penalty or a life sentence. But it was still a daunting number, and hard to make sense of—it was more years than I had been alive at that point.
My lawyer had joked around about the fact that I could still be “A Young 45” if I had to serve all 25 years. I didn’t find it funny, and it hasn’t gotten funnier in retrospect. Like most other people with murder charges, I was very young when I was sentenced and faced my entire life ahead of me.
When your life is confined to prison walls, you dream
Life stopped for me inside, and I could only imagine the much larger, richer life that could exist elsewhere. I began to spend a great deal of time dreaming about what it would be like to be released from prison and to have a family.
As someone who didn’t have a normal childhood or family unit, I couldn’t base any of my dreams on what I’d lived. I dreamt about the families of other people I had known, and those on TV shows. None of these dreams were ever the same, but every time I lived in that dream world I imagined a future that was possible for me. That brought me so much comfort.
I learned about family on the visitation yard
When it came time for visits, I watched other men interact with their children and wives. It carried both jealousy and relief. Jealousy because it would have been wonderful to receive letters and cards from a child, and anticipate weekly visits. But relief also, because I can’t imagine being forced to say goodbye after each visit. Kids grew up without their fathers. Fathers, many of whom entered prison in their late teens, grew up without their kids.
I witnessed the pain and hurt that families on both sides of the prison walls experienced when their family had to split. What I couldn’t witness was the pain of all of the absence. But that was where I learned about what it took to be a family: unconditional love, even under the worst of circumstances.
Those childhood dreams of family never left
After thirteen and a half years I walked out of prison in Montgomery, Alabama, now a grown adult starting my life in many ways for the first time. I took off running to accomplish my imagined life. I got my parole transferred to attend Eastern University, and met an amazing woman who became my wife.
We decided to wait a while to start our family so we could be ready to give him everything he needed. My childhood and family dysfunction was something I lived in fear of replicating. But those dreams never left, and became more real as I was free. They were no longer pipe dreams.
When my wife came to me last year and told me she was pregnant, I began to cry. I was happy for myself and my wife—but also for my past self. Up until that moment it felt unsure if I’d ever really have a free future with a child. Someone I could see not just weekly, but every day of my life. Time flew by and this past year, my son Guy Joshua arrived.
Will others get a chance at fatherhood after prison?
This father’s day I think about the thousands of other young people being sentenced to lengthy sentences in prisons. In PA where I live now, over 5,000 people are serving life without parole sentences. Here, first and second degree carry with them no possibility of parole ever, regardless of the level of involvement or later personal transformation. There is not even a distinction between accomplices and those carrying out murder.
Had I been sentenced in PA, my mitigating factors of years of abuse wouldn’t have mattered in my sentencing. I would still be incarcerated today. I would never have gone to college, got a job, and had my incredible son.
I believe that we are all born with inherent potential for what our lives can become. Lengthy and long sentences snub out that potential. Most people incarcerated on murder charges are 18, 19 or 20—who is the state to say that a murderer is all they’ll ever be, and all they’ll ever become? I imagine those newly incarcerated receiving their sentence, too young to even grasp the number of years. I imagine them dreaming of the futures they might never hold, the families that would never be. Feeling the weight of the absence of everything that won’t be.
My son is what a second chance looks like
Today, and on every other day, I fight with Straight Ahead to create parole opportunities for those who have been sentenced to die in prison. I believe everyone deserves a chance to see their dreams come to pass and experience life to its fullest. To live, rather than only exist.
My son is a perfect example of what a second chance looks like. When people look at him and me—they never think about my past. Second chances brought me to fatherhood, but fatherhood also brought me second chances. My past does not define me. What I am doing today and what I will be doing tomorrow is what defines me.
Even when what I’m doing is meeting the demands of a soon-to-be-toddler.