How do you love a stranger locked away in prison?
I was only 7, and that stranger was the reason I was shuttled through metal detectors on Saturday mornings. His addiction was why I was in a pastel visiting room in an uncomfortable chair in a room of men in white jumpsuits convicted of crimes in the state of Arkansas.
This stranger is my father.
My twin brother and I were taken to visit my father in prison three times as children between the ages of 7 and 9. I have no memory of him before he was in prison. Each visit was painful and scary. I blamed him for wanting us to visit that place. Each visit, I shut myself off from him more.
The room, the chair, the white jumpsuits and the metal detector were too much for me. I sat in front of my father, but he was no longer my father to me. I resolved to never again visit him in prison. As I sat in front of my father, I felt nothing. He was biologically my father, but prison cut off every other tie. So, I never went back.
Prison, however, never left me. I thought about it constantly. I dreamed about prison. I watched every movie and every television show about prison. “The Shawshank Redemption,” “OZ” and “Lockup” never left my mind. Even though I never visited my father there again, part of me was always there with him.
This problem of incarceration is endemic in America. Pew Research Center reported that by the end of 2019, 2.1 million people were incarcerated in America. This number represents 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. And for Black American’s the number is even more stark. World Atlas found that Black Americans were nearly 40% of the prison population, but only 13% of the U.S. population. For Black kids like me, growing up without a father was common.
Our criminal justice system punishes those who commit crimes, but it also punishes their families. I was broken by the system and never knew it. I was serving time because I was forced to live it without a father, to only see him in a white jumpsuit. I became part of his punishment, when I took myself away from him. That punishment continued after he was released. I was a man and no longer needed a father.
Then, I became a father.
It was then that I realized that I created a prison for myself, locked away from the father the system had taken from me. Locked away from the knowledge of who I am, because I didn’t know him. And if I did not know myself, my son, too, would never know himself. He would never know the wholeness of love that comes from having the widest group of people in your circle of love as possible. Without that kind of love, my son would be at a deficit, locked away from the wholeness of life. He too would be in a prison.
So when my son was 1 month old, I began calling family members on my father’s side, searching for a phone number to contact him. After I finally got the correct number from an aunt, I called that night. I heard a slow familiar drawl.
“Hello, who is this?” he asked.
“It’s me, it’s Thomas,” I replied.
He was surprised but seemed to expect my call, certain it would come eventually. He told me that he moved to a nursing home after having a second stroke. I never knew he had a first. I realized there may not be much more time for us. I told him that my wife and I had a baby and I’d like to talk to him more so that my son would know who his family is while they were still living. He was overjoyed.
I call him from time to time to check on him. He is an old man now, and his new life seems similar to his old one. He lives in a nursing home, far away from family and friends. He doesn’t drive. His addiction and his past still haunt him. He doesn’t leave his room much. He asks for pictures, mementos, more calls and visits. He wants the relationship he never got while in prison.
I’m making the effort.
To free all three of us.
Thomas Bishop (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he is also co-editor in chief and managing editor of the Anti-Racism Policy Journal; a Center for Public Leadership Fellow, an EMMissary Military Mentor and a Pat Tillman Military Scholar.