More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. This series looks at what happens to their lives—their relationships, families and future prospects—when they get out.
“2016,” he wrote in his latest letter. “Your father is coming home in 2016.” You’d think my dad would be certain about the day he was being released from prison, but this is the way the Indiana prison system works. There is a given expanse of time during which a locked-up loved one may or may not be coming home—or to whatever is left of home. The prisoner should be notified of their imminent release at least a week in advance. It is assumed that this is enough time for them to have all of their affairs in order. Unfortunately, there are some affairs they will never be able to put back in order.
When a parent goes to prison, the lack of straight answers doesn’t only affect the inmate, it affects their families, too. It affects the income and education of their children and spouses, and of course, it strains the familial bonds. My father has been in prison since I was six months old (I’m now 29). He was convicted on rape and sexual battery charges in 1987. He pleaded guilty on all counts. I have no reason to believe he is innocent, and I do not believe he should have served a day less than he was ordered to serve.
I do wish I could have gotten to know him more. There were always so many physical and metaphysical walls between me and him. I have two memories of being in his presence, both times in a prison visiting room. I am nervous to know him outside of prison, and outside of our letters. I am worried my nervousness means something worse than I assumed, that I am not ready or may never be ready to know him as a free man. I’ve only ever known him as he is now: a man who loves me, but cannot reach me.
According to a study conducted by Child Trends, 5 million children, or about 7% of all American children, have a parent who is or was incarcerated. The same study insists that children with a parent in prison were more likely to experience depression, anxiety, even asthma than children without an incarcerated parent. Of course, many of these statistics are environmentally encouraged. Kids with incarcerated parents are also more likely to witness domestic violence, drug abuse, and live with someone who is mentally unstable.
Fortunately, this was mostly not the case for me. Neither of my parents were in ideal situations, but I was spared seeing things like drug and alcohol abuse normalized. It’s a strange thing to be grateful for—that your childhood didn’t include the sorrow of addiction—and it doesn’t mean I am not angry. But I also love my father, and I don’t always know what that means or says about the kind of person I am.
Resources for children looking to reunite with an incarcerated parent are few and far between. In my search, the closest I came to something useful was this very general list of things to consider before and after the reunion. At this point, it feels like I’m listening to an egg-timer with no numbers to show me how many seconds, minutes, days I have left. To get some advice, and perhaps to feel less alone, I reached out to other adults with previously incarcerated parents and asked about their experiences reuniting.
Home: Fort Wayne, Indiana
Children: One living, one passed away
My dad was taken by the U.S. Marshals in December of 2010, just two weeks before Christmas. Seven or so squad cars filled my parents’ driveway. Their computers, home movies, and cameras were confiscated. Then they were separated and drilled with questions. My mom was lost; she had no idea why things were happening and they refused to show her the warrant. After several hours of being questioned, and realizing my mom wasn't lying when she said she didn't know what was going on, the FBI agent finally told mom their computer had been flagged for receipt of material involving the sexual exploitation of minors. My mom told me everything. My dad sat silently, ashamed.
I was 22 when the FBI raided my parent’s house and I was 24 when he left. He came home in November of 2014, just one week before Thanksgiving. I was 28.
My dad and I always had a very close relationship. We were so alike we butted heads constantly until I married and moved out when I was 20. He taught me to work with my hands and fix things. I was by no means a princess (I was too much of a tomboy!) but I was definitely daddy's little girl. I was much happier in the shop or at the hardware store with him than I was in the kitchen with my mom. He was my hero, before and after he left.
My parents loved each other very much. Shortly before he left they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. We had a big party and filled their house with laughter. They were goofy together. He called her "Mama" and she called him "Fat Boy" and then she'd joke about it because he was tall and thin and she was short and fat. They smiled a lot and they were a wonderful example of what a marriage should look like. They were strong in faith and involved in the lives of my brother and myself and our families. My mom talked about renewing their vows when he came home so they could start over, so they could have a fresh start. She silently planned while he was away.
While my dad was incarcerated, we were emotionally distant. Not because I loved him any less or because he didn't like his family, but because that's how he had always been. Even though we were close, I had never seen him cry. He was a hard man who was raised by a hard man in a time where real men didn't cry. He'd go months without writing me, no matter how often I'd write him. He became incredibly sick while incarcerated, and we nearly lost him. Things changed after that. We wrote much more often. In the years he was away, I only saw him twice. He was in a Federal Medical Center in Kentucky. He was a solid five or six hours away from us and with my mom's poor health, my husband's horrible work schedule, and me juggling two colleges and two degrees, visits fell by the wayside.
When he came home, it was nearly six months sooner than we planned. He was technically released to a halfway house in Michigan City but because of how poor my parents' health was at the time, he only had to go to the halfway house once a month for a meeting. There was a lot of paperwork that had to be emailed to his caseworker and because my parents weren't legally able to have the internet because of his conviction, I was the go-to person. His case worker and I were on a first-name basis. We spoke every couple of days.
During this time, he was stressed, my mom was stressed, I had a colicky newborn and was still grieving from miscarrying his twin all while I was stuck in the middle of his release so I was stressed as well. We tried doing things as a family but he was so mean it made things difficult. He made my mom cry almost daily. He told me I should have chosen a profession other than social work because I wasn't good at it. We told ourselves it wasn't his fault he was becoming so mean, that it was the early stages of dementia, but that only made things bearable. Sometimes it was hard for my mom to love him.
Because he was so mean so often, we almost hoped his release conditions wouldn't be met and he'd have to go back. We felt horrible. He wasn't the dad I remembered. But I still loved him. I wish I had been more patient and understanding when he came home. I wish I would have talked to my mom about how she was being treated and how she was responding to that abuse. At the time, it seemed like the right way to handle things. Looking back, though, it was all wrong.
For a week and a half before he died, the dad I knew came back. He was goofy and loving. He loved his wife again and took an interest in my life. He loved seeing his grandson. His last words to me were "I love you" a couple of days before he passed. It all happened so fast, we didn't really expect it. But once he went downhill, we didn't leave his side.
Don't believe it's going to be a fairytale ending. It's going to be difficult and there may be things that you'll have to do even if you don't want to. But it really is worth it. I promise you, it's worth it. Cherish the time you have with your parent after their release. You'll regret it if you don't.
Home: Los Angeles, California
My father was in and out of prison from when I was born until I was 10, and he lived at a drug rehabilitation facility upon his release until I was a teenager. Prison has always been a part of my memory of my dad, but we have also always been close. I would describe being his daughter before he was incarcerated as Star Wars marathons in a living room made of pillows and eating cereal.
My dad is now and always has been very present in my life. He made it clear early on that he was going to be a part of my life always. He used to send back the letters I wrote him in prison with grammar corrections. When he was out of prison, even though my parents had divorced, if I was sick he had this way of showing up with everything I needed as if he lived around the corner. In reality for a lot of that time he was homeless. I think he used to hang around our neighborhood during the day.
He is a very brilliant man with an obsessive nature. He is bipolar and struggles with addiction and his story as to how he began breaking the law is a heartbreaking one in which sometimes he is noble and sometimes he is numbing pain and sometimes he is cruel. We speak very honestly about it. My father spoke to us about the choices he has made in his life and how they affected him. He also speaks to the inmate structural racism that formed him into someone who would break the law. At the same time he does not skirt responsibility for the choices he made later.
Parents in jail need a lot of attention to feel like they are not being forgotten—at least, mine did. As a child it was an immense and unfair responsibility to try to make my father feel loved. He would lecture us about not visiting enough and I would hold my tongue about how scary it was for me to wait in line outside a prison, watching my mother get patted down, sitting in the metallic smelling visitors’ room. Once we went to visit and there had been an escape: three people, two of whom were murderers. They wouldn't let us in. We had to turn our brown Camaro around. The next time we went to see him we couldn't sit out in the open. We had to have bulletproof glass between us.
When I was a little girl, before my dad got sober, I use to cry at night when he was in prison and pray for him to get out. When he got out I used to pray for him to go back in. I didn't know how to match his intensity and rhythm in person. I was used to how he parented over collect calls. He'd give the best advice and he was always on my side. In real life my mom didn't believe in punishments or rules and there was no inserting my father's thoughts into that when we couldn't remember what it was like to live with him.
We have created our own way to be parent and child. I don't spend holidays with him or stay at his house. This has nothing to do with how close I feel to him. I love him madly and I feel completely supported and loved by him, but we make our way in the world as parent and child in a different way. I don't need him to look like anyone else's dad.
It is absolutely alright to set clear boundaries for yourself and not be your parent’s savior as they readjust. Feel free to craft an unconventional relationship. It if works for you two, it works. My father has both exceeded my trust and broken it, at times destroyed it, but he is invaluable to me.
Home: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
I was around five years old when my father went to prison for the first time. I was 20 when he was released for the final time and we reunited. Although it was not a consistent 15-year sentence, I do not remember a time when he wasn't incarcerated. And during those times we were in minimal contact. Before my father was incarcerated I do not remember much about our specific relationship. Being the youngest of three children I did not have the memories that my older sisters did. Before my father leaving us, I would have to describe my parent’s relationship as emotionally and physically abusive.
My father being incarcerated was the catalyst for a lot of change in my family and my mother leading the way in most of that. When he was released he moved back into the same city within a few blocks of my mother. They were divorced during his periods in prison when I was around 11. She was remarried and by the time he returned, their relationship was different. She was kind—but he was always the man who she allowed to take too much from her for too long.
When I was young I wasn't told anything about why my father was incarcerated. In my teen years I assumed much of it had to do with drug abuse (I do remember a few times when that was the subject of my mother’s rants about my father) but did not try to find out more information. I did not find out until much later that my father struggled with addiction for a long time. My father would call every few months or have his side of the family contact my sisters and me periodically. He would write every so often but I didn't have the understanding of life to respond at the time. My sisters and I sang together when we were younger and I remember my sister being intentional about sending him a recording every now and then.
For years I attended a Christian university studying to become a pastor. At that time my biggest hope was that my father would make a radical life change and that maybe things could be restored to the way that they "should" have been all along. Around the time he moved back into our lives I came out as gay. At that point my greatest fear as having him not accept that as part of who I was. I did not have any real expectations of my father because he was never there to begin with. I had nothing to miss. The reality was much better than I imagined it being. He was accepting of my sexual orientation, but more than that, he was accepting of me. I was shocked at how much I reflected a man I had never spent any time with. We are similar in many many ways. We get told that often. I don't hate that.
*names have been changed at the subjects' requests to protect their privacy
These interviews have been condensed and edited.
Ashley C. Ford lives in Brooklyn by way of Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a writer, editor, and speaker. She is currently writing a memoir (among other things), and co-editing the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture with Roxane Gay.