The great poet Tupac Shakur, in his song called “Dear Mama,” once asked, “Who’d think in elementary, heyyy, I’d see the penitentiary one day?”
Every time I hear that verse my mind begins to race. I’m reminded of reading a study that says over a lifetime, about one in five black men born since 1965 will serve time in prison. Indeed, black men are now more likely to go to prison than to graduate from college with a four year degree.
I’m reminded of a study that suggests that a child of one incarcerated parent has a greater likelihood of being incarcerated than graduating from high school, and greater still if both parents had been incarcerated at some point in the child’s life.
When I hear that verse, I’m not only reminded of those statistics. I’m reminded of myself, as an elementary-aged child of an incarcerated father, as well as the thousands of children of incarcerated parents throughout this country—an estimated 53,000 reside in Arizona alone.
I was conceived and born in prison. Both of my parents were incarcerated at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution, in 1977, where they met. It was a co-ed prison. While men and women were housed separately, on each side of the prison, it did not deter my father from meeting my mother and ultimately impregnating her.
As an elementary-aged child, I was aware of the fact that I was conceived and born in prison. I was aware that my mother had been incarcerated and I was well aware that my father continued to be incarcerated. We lived in Vacaville, California, which was home to Vacaville prison. We routinely drove by the prison and each time I would watch the men in blue on the yard and wonder if I would, one day, be one of those men. “After all, both of my parents had been in prison!” I thought.
The few times that I remember visiting my dad in prison was behind glass. “Was he too dangerous to be around me?” I thought. (To my knowledge, my father never had a “dangerous” crime. He had non-dangerous crimes due to a heroin addiction that he obtained while serving in the Vietnam War).
The absence of a father plagued me daily.
Thinking of him as a dangerous criminal, who was too dangerous to touch me, worried me. “Am I like my father?” I wondered. Despite my mom continuously telling me, whenever I did anything that remotely reminded her of him, “You’re just like your father,” I’d ponder: “Who am I?” Question after question filled my young mind. As an elementary-aged child, I remember telling myself that I wasn’t going to be like my father. I wasn’t going to be in prison. I was going to be there for my children.
As an elementary-aged child, I remember that anger that I felt when I couldn’t do the things with my father that fathers do with their sons. I remember that anger turning into pain once I realized that my dreams of my father coming home to be with me were just that…dreams.
“Who’d think in elementary, heyyy, I’d see the penitentiary one day?”
When I hear that verse, I think that it’s a shame that children of incarcerated parents are faced with the stress of the same questions and uncertainty that I had in elementary.
When I hear that verse, I try to recall when I stopped asking those questions. I try to remember when the uncertainty turned into not caring. But alas, I don’t know these answers just as I never found the answers in elementary.
I was conceived and born in prison, and, at the age of twenty-one, I was sentenced to die in prison.