Letter from MarQui: July 2019

This is the fifth installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.

According to a 2016 report on parental incarceration, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that more than 5.1 million U.S. parents currently spend time in jails and prisons before their children reach adulthood. Being incarcerated for a prolonged period obviously damages the parent-child relationship. But there are also less obvious, albeit equally deleterious, impacts on both parties' daily lives and relationships with others. Children of incarcerated parents often suffer emotional, behavioral, academic, and/or psychological issues, and they're six to seven times more likely to be convicted of crimes and incarcerated when they become adults. The overwhelming majority of parents behind bars - particularly the first time offenders - had no idea of those consequences when we made the decision to break the law; however, knowing these statistics and seeing how our children are ACTUALLY being affected due to our incarceration creates degrees of guilt, shame, incompetence, and parental failure that can never be adequately conveyed to non-incarcerated parents. A large part of daily prison life is learning to numb ourselves to such feelings in order to deal with the more "immediate" struggles of this environment. But every time we call home and hear our kids' long-distance voices, or look at frozen images of them taped to the walls of our cells, or even when we see televised depictions of mothers and fathers and their children playing, educating, disciplining, loving, living normal lives, those feelings rear their ugly heads to remind us how much we're failing as parents. It's a battle that will continue to haunt us long after we've won the war for our freedom.

At the time I was incarcerated, my oldest son was a six year old kid about to start first grade. Last week he turned 18, and he has just completed high school. What do you call a parent who doesn't take their child(ren) to their first day of school, show up to any of their sports games or PTA meetings, help them with any of their homework, provide financial support, or even attend their graduation? The word 'deadbeat' comes to mind. Having spent the majority of my son's childhood - and the entirety of his grade school years - in prison serving my 33 year sentence, I'm aware that I am an archetypical deadbeat dad who has utterly failed as a father. With every day that passes, and every missed moment from my son's life, this fact becomes evermore apparent and psychologically grievous.

 

 

 

My son and I keep in regular contact. As I've stated, he has finished school. He has a job. He does not have a criminal record. He's not a gang member or hoodlum, nor does he hang with that crowd. Considering all the statistics against him he is on a relatively good track, which makes me proud. But he still hasn't been able to completely escape the collateral consequences of my incarceration and physical absence from his life. He has anger management issues, and got in quite a few fights when he was in school. He has a rebellious attitude toward authority figures, including his mother. He started smoking marijuana when he was 16 years old and continues to smoke regularly, and he has been sexually active since he was 14. Because of my incarceration, I take no credit for his accomplishments (how could I?). But also because of my incarceration, I take all the blame for his shortcomings (how couldn't I?). There's a noticeable strain in our relationship, though we both try. Deep down, he resents me for being absent most of his life due to my dumb decision to break the law. When we talk, I often find myself desperately wanting to give him fatherly advice and guidance; but knowing that I'm a deadbeat, I feel unqualified. I feel as if I have no right to parent my own son. Whenever I do try, my words come out unconvincing and lacking conviction. I don't have confidence that he'll listen to me anyway, so usually I don't even bother. Simply put, our relationship is awkward. It's as if these concrete walls and barbed-wire fences that are physical barriers between us have become barriers between our communication as well.

For me, being an incarcerated parent means constantly struggling to reconcile the memories of my son as that jovial six year old kid who followed me around, idolized me, and wanted nothing more than to be just like me when he grew up, with the reality that that kid is now a grown man who has spent most of his life without me. It's the inability to forgive myself for being absent when he needed me the most. It's the burden of knowing I'm responsible for mistakes he'll inevitably make due to my lack of guidance. It's the constant fear that his increased risk of being incarcerated will come to fruition and that one day we'll both be behind bars. It's living with never-ending regrets and sorrows, always wondering how my son would've turned out had I never been incarcerated. This is a taboo subject not openly discussed in prison. To let down one's guard and express such emotions is considered "weak," although this is an anguishing existence that 5.1 million other incarcerated parents relate to and struggle with daily. But maybe there's someone out there who needs to read this. Maybe me speaking of my feelings of failure as an incarcerated father will inspire others to express their feelings instead of continuing to suppress them for the sake of maintaining the image of "prison toughness." Maybe our collective voice needs to be heard in order to raise awareness of this issue and bring about some sort of policy change so that this experience isn't so damaging to the parent(s) and child(ren) involved. We are not "weak"; we're human.


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