Every summer for the past four years, I have served as a mentor in the Moore Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, working with minority undergraduate students to prepare them to enter doctoral programs in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. In addition to mentoring two students with research interests similar to my own, I teach a communication skills workshop for all of the twenty-four or so students in the program each summer. On the first day of this workshop in the summer of 2010, I paired up the students for an introductory activity and ended up participating in the exercise myself when we discovered we had an odd number of students in the room. It just so happened that my partner was a young man named Damion White, who was at that time a rising senior at Georgia State University.
I had given the students the task of introducing themselves to one another by talking about their hometown, their research interests, and how they felt about pursuing a Ph.D. Fairly quickly into our conversation Damion stated that he knew he was not like the other students in the room. He came from a working class background and perceived most of the members of his cohort as being more savvy in their abilities to navigate the complex world of higher education. I introduced myself to Damion by stating that I always felt out of place in graduate school because so few people around me understood my struggles as a prisoner’s child. Damion’s eyes lit up. “Me, too,” he said. “My father’s been in prison almost all my life.” For the rest of the summer, I became a secondary mentor to Damion in the program, and we had many conversations about the challenges that prisoners’ children face in educational settings. Damion’s MURAP research project, directed by Dr. Patricia Parker in UNC’s Communication Studies Department, dealt with strategies for preventing the incarceration of young African American men. In 2007 Dr. Parker founded a local community organization called the Ella Baker Center, and each summer she takes her MURAP students to work with youth in a Chapel Hill housing project. Damion led a workshop to engage kids in dialogue about incarceration in their community.
About halfway through the ten weeks of MURAP that summer, I received an email from local prison activists about an event where scenes from Against the Tide, a very moving documentary film about a faith-based reentry team for two men being released from prison in Orange County, North Carolina. I knew the filmmaker Alan Julich, the two formerly incarcerated men featured in the film, and many members of their reentry team, and they are doing the vital and difficult work of creating the kind of world in which people coming home from prison can build productive and successful lives. The idea behind a faith-based reentry team is that a group of about a dozen people work with a prisoner from a year or two before her/his release through the years following that person’s exit from prison. The team is large so that the prisoner has a community of support, and the team members do everything from mentoring to helping the reentrant find employment, transportation, and housing. Both of the two reentrants featured in the film, Bill Razor and LeJohyn Holland, had been incarcerated since they were teenagers, had served more than two decades, and had no family to help them upon their release from prison. Without their reentry teams, it is very likely that Bill and LeJohyn would have been unable to find jobs or places to live, and they may have ended up returning to prison in fairly short order. To the best of my knowledge, both LeJohyn and Bill are still gainfully employed and living peacefully, as they were when I last saw them months ago. Their reentry team continues to be a part of their lives, and from what I understand, everyone involved feels that their lives are richer and better for this experience.
My husband Phil and I attended the screening of Against the Tide and brought Damion with us. Damion had never previously attended a gathering of prison activists, and he was visibly moved by what he saw and heard that night, especially when LeJohyn Holland spoke. After the event ended, Phil, Damion, and I went to a coffee shop to talk and process what we’d seen and heard that night. Almost as soon as we sat down at a table with our coffee, Damion took a large sheaf of papers from his backpack and said that he wanted to read to us his father’s letters. He read to us for nearly an hour, and he and I wept together, while Phil buried his face in his hands. The love between father and son poured out of the pages, and even when Phil and I offered to read a passage from the letters silently because Damion appeared to be too choked up to continue, Damion refused. He took a moment to pull himself together and continued. He needed to speak the words aloud, to use his own voice to bring as much of his father into the room as he could. I understood this completely–the irrepressible need to make his father as fully embodied and present in that moment as he could, the urgent desire to make visible the man who has always been hidden from the people in your life who cannot enter the prison with you.
Frederick White, Sr., has now been incarcerated for twenty-three years, and Damion, his youngest son, cannot remember a time when his father did not live inside a prison. I have never met Mr. White, but we have corresponded a few times. I felt the need to tell him what an extraordinary person Damion is, to say how much I admire Damion’s compassion, his desire to help others, and his commitment to social justice. I also wanted Mr. White to know that his son carried his letters from Georgia to North Carolina for the summer. Damion obviously did not bring these letters with the intent to share them with anyone. He and I had no idea that we would meet or bond over being prisoners’ children. Indeed, Damion, like so many prisoners’ children I have met, had hardly told anyone about his father’s incarceration and had only ever shown these letters to his girlfriend of many years. He carries his father’s letters because they are beautifully written, because they are full of the love that Frederick could seldom deliver to his son in person, because they are what he has. Prisoners’ children, especially those who have never really known their parents outside of a visiting room, have very few tangible objects to link them to their absent parents. Letters are sacred texts, artifacts to be preserved at all cost.
I have every letter my father has ever sent me. They fill boxes in my attic and under my old bed at my mother’s house. The newest ones go into a large box in the closet of my office at home. I know where all of them are and would be devastated if I ever lost them. Even before my father’s incarceration, I have always loved mail–real mail that gets delivered by a postal worker; I have no emotional attachment to email, but letters are treasures. My husband won my heart in years of correspondence, and my father’s letters, which still arrive about once a week, bring me great joy and comfort. I love to see his handwriting on the page. My fingers can touch the paper he recently held. In the absence of so many years of everyday hugs and the physical presence of a father in the home, I long for these smallest of tactile connections to him. This likely makes me sound crazy, but it is my reality, one that I suspect I share with a great many prisoners’ family members.
This year Phil and I sent Christmas cards to both Damion and his father. We hadn’t heard from Damion in a long time, and I’d been worried about him because I knew he should have heard the result of his father’s most recent parole review by now. The news could not be good because if it had been, Damion would have told me. I received a letter from Frederick in mid-January, thanking me for the Christmas card and letting me know that he had been given five more years until his next parole review. The devastation that these parole denials bring upon prisoners and their family members can hardly be described. Many of us survive the long years of incarceration by imagining a better future, one in which we can enjoy the mundane pleasures of afternoons in the company of people we love and being able to share meals together. Each time the parole board denies us the chance to reunite our lives, we have to reset our emotional clocks. We count the coming milestones that we will miss in the coming years. We picture ourselves at the ages we will be when we might live as a family again. We measure the health concerns that our incarcerated loved ones are battling and hope that they can stave off any significant medical distress for the number of years between now and when you can take your family member to a free world doctor.
I wrote to Damion immediately and heard back from him a little over a week later:
I was so glad to receive your email when I did. To say that God works in mysterious ways if by far an understatement. I say this because (after not speaking with you for so long) I received and read your email when I was about 30 minutes away from [a prison] in Ohio, on my way to see my father for what I can remember as maybe the third or fourth time I’ve ever sat with him physically.
Damion carries his father’s letters, and by doing so, he strengthens his family.
Many thanks to Damion and Frederick White, Sr., who both gave their permission for me to write about them.