by Crystal Hayes
Last week was Father’s Day and it explains why I had such a hard time sleeping all week. Of all the holidays, I have the most complicated relationship with Father’s Day. It’s a regular painful reminder of what was stolen from me. After 41 years it’s still hard. I cut my teeth and grew up behind prison walls and I am not alone. There are nearly 3 million children in the United States growing up with an incarcerated parent.
The United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world with devastating consequences for the poor, and Black and Brown urban communities and their children. We incarcerate over 2 million people and many of them long-term due to overly harsh draconian drug laws and rigid sentencing practices obsessed with locking people up for profit. There’s no way out of this situation without comprehensive responsible prison reform policies.
I am glad to see that we’re talking about ending the war on drugs, but we must do more than rename it. We also need to expand the conversation about mass incarceration to include the truth about parole and life sentences. My father, Robert Seth Hayes, was sentenced to 25 years to life for his involvement with the Black Panther Party, but not life without parole. He was eligible for parole in 1995 but every two years for the past 18 years he’s denied release—despite an exemplary prison record—by the New York State Parole Board.
This is not justice. It’s cruel, inhumane, and barbaric to lock people up for life before they are even old enough to vote or for nonviolent drug offenses. Even the iconic children’s television show, Sesame Street, got involved recently in the conversation about mass incarceration by introducing a new character to their show named Alex who is growing up with an incarcerated father. I am glad to see Sesame Street courageously take on mass incarceration by giving children of incarcerated parents the much needed platform and visibility that they need and deserve.
I pray and hope that mass incarceration will end in my lifetime. I don’t know that it will, but I share my story here in hopes that we begin to have these conversations by remembering the human beings impacted especially the children. I also pray that lawmakers will read this and remember the human-costs of mass incarceration and what it means to balance compassion and decency when it comes to making laws that shape parole, incarceration, and arrest policies and practices.
Below is a short excerpt of what it’s like to grow up behind prison walls and survive from my book project.
What is it that would make a creature as fierce, majestic and powerful as a lion, subject itself to the intimidation of a man, a whip, and a chair? The lion has been taught to forget what it is. Anonymous
I want to breath but I can’t. I want to relax, but every bone in my body is stiffer than a board. I want to leave, but I don’t want to leave him behind in this h**l-hole of a dungeon. My mouth is dry, but I am afraid of throwing-up if I drink or eat. I can’t stand the walls that have been painted with Disney characters and cute bunny rabbits in an attempt to invite a childhood behind prison walls. There are no children here. If only you could paint me a childhood, I would have done it a long time ago. It’s starting. I tell myself I can’t cry. Don’t cry, I repeat over, and over, and over again to myself. Don’t cry. They’re watching you.
Don’t show any weakness. Stay strong, he needs you to be strong. Don’t allow them to see what this is doing to you. I hate this place! Don’t be a baby about this, Crystal, grow up, and fight back. I stare around the room being sure to make eye contact with every prison guard. I am not afraid of you. You don’t scare me with your guns and badges. I go out of my way to be sure to make eye contact with every guard from the entrance to the visiting room. He told me to always make eye contact, and never let anyone especially enemies cause me to look away, so I don’t, and I never have. I stare straight into their souls and force them to see mine. I force them to see us.
I remind them, that there are no children here. There are no sons and daughters that you can trick by painting Disney on the walls. I remind them that I have a soul that I am not an animal that can’t make a simple decision like where to sit in a visiting room, how to hug, and who must be controlled with the threat of violence and force. I remind them that my father is a better parent from behind prison walls than anyone they probably know. I remind them with my eyes that there are no children here. I tucked that little girl way deep inside and as far away from them as possible. They will never find her.
I watch the doors where prisoners pass through to visit with their families and friends like a hawk waiting for my father to enter the room. With just a single step and his smile that could light up a room I become a little girl again. I become his daughter. The tears fall and wash over my face. My muscles relax and I am his baby girl just that fast. With just one simple smile I become his daughter. We hug, he wipes my tears, he tells me how much he loves me, and we’re a family.
The visit always begins the way it ends: with me searching for us and myself. I try and read his face for the truth. Is he really okay? I search is eyes, his hands, his face for answers. I search his entire body. Was that scar there the last time? Did he always have that mark on his hand? What happened to his eye? Did he always walk like that? Did he lose weight? What did he look like before? Did his nails always look so dark? How could I have missed it? He would never tell me if he was hurt or suffering so I have to search his body for it. Did they put him in a hole again with no sunlight for 24 hours a day?
He appears okay, except for the missing tooth. I ask about it. He tells me someone needed correction so he corrected him. I am so scared for him. I knew that meant he got into a fight. Who had the nerve to put their hands on my father? Was it the guard sitting over there at the table or the one at the front gate? Was it the prisoner at the table next to us? Who was it? I get tense all over again. He reassures me that he’s perfectly okay, that nothing is going to happen to him. I don’t believe him, but I make him think I do. I believe he’s a warrior and protector, but I can’t help worrying about him. I worry about him everyday, but for today, for this visit, for this moment, I just want to be his daughter even if only for six hours.
He’s always so astute too. He checks me out and looks me over. “Let’s “rap,” how are you, Crystal? Boy, you’re growing up so fast. You’re getting so big. Look at my baby. She’s strong, beautiful, smart, and intelligent. You know never to let these walls fool you.” They don’t fool me. They never fooled me. We’re a family no matter how much they want us to believe otherwise. We do everything in our power to become a family during those few hours.
We play a few games, sometimes my favorite game connect four or checkers. I color in a coloring book and show off my skills. He draws pictures of Mickey Mouse, and we color together. We even take pictures. We talk about school and my grades. It’s our quality time but we have to share it under the constant gaze of prison guards. I can’t stop the urge to cry. I want to scream but I can’t. There’s a knot in my throat so I start to pretend that we’re in a castle. He’s the King. I am the Princess. The guards are there for our protection. No one knows this is what I tell myself. I know it’s not true, but it’s one of the many fantasies I create in my head as a child to make it through each visit without losing my mind. It just hurts too bad to tell the truth.
He wants to know everything and that’s the hardest part. I can’t remember anything. I can barely remember how to breathe. He goes on to tell me about all the ways I make him proud. He reminds me that I have to take care of my younger brother, my mother, and the rest of the family. They need me, he tells me. I want to make him proud so I tell him I will take care of them, but I am lying. I don’t ever want to leave him alone here. I want to take care of him. Why can’t I get him out of here? He tells me over and over again how proud he is. What’s there to be proud of, I think. I can’t even figure out how to get my father out of prison and back come home with me.
I made it a point to learn very early how to tell time. I could probably tell time long before I could do anything else. I wanted to know how much time we had left in each visit. I hated the bells or the guards telling us to leave, so I learned how to tell time. I watched the clock. We usually played cards or some silly board games. We always rapped about school—my favorite subject. We share a love for reading and learning. I tried hard to impress him with all the difficult books I was reading, most of them he sent me over the years like “Assasta,” “Malcolm X” and “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”.
From a very early age he taught me to always supplement what I read in school with other books, so I am never just reading what teachers tell me to read about history, literature, social studies, or any subject for that matter. I made it a point to always do my own outside reading. I didn’t want to bore him with silly stories about how much I liked playing jacks, hopscotch, or jumping rope. There was no time for children’s games. This was real life and I wanted him to know how serious I was about it. How much I had my stuff together. At eight, nine, ten years old I wanted to have my stuff together. I wanted him to know that he could always count on me. I wanted him to know that COINTELPRO didn’t steal everything.
I get it together once again and continue to watch the clock, draw, and we rap more about life, family, the importance of an education, and how he was going to be home one day soon. We talked about what he was learning, reading, and studying. The visit is over. We promise to write. I promise to be good and study hard. He promises to call. He made me promise to remember why he’s in prison and who I am. We hug, and I can’t stop the tears. My body is rigid. My feet feel like cement. He hugs me a little longer, I let out a little breath, and we say goodbye. It’s over, for now.
Crystal Hayes is a college educator, activist, and mother. She can be reached on Twitter @motherjustice.