From a father in prison to a son in jail

An American Father’s Day letter

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 24 million children — 1 in 3 — live without a father in the home…Nearly 3 million children (mostly kids of color) have a parent (most commonly a father) in prison or jail…Fathers in prison were, overwhelmingly, fatherless themselves. Youths in father-absent households have significantly higher odds of being incarcerated.

Read a shortened version of this letter on Huffpost Personal.

Dear son:

It’s customary for children to honor their dads on Father’s Day, but for all intents and purposes, I never had a father. I swore that if I had a son of my own, I’d be there for him. But I wasn’t; instead, I’ve spent the last 24 years in prison, starting from before you were even born. When we finally find ourselves together, without a phone, glass partition or table in a visiting hall between us, it’s in jail! Yet even now, due to COVID-19, we still can’t really be together; we’re all separated. And once that eases, I fear I will be moved back to the “fed” in Florida [since D.C. doesn’t have its own prison]. So, I am writing you a letter, in the hope this will go a little way toward forging a real father-son bond.

Source: Justice Policy Institute

When Ma told me the police had kicked in the door and arrested you, the news floored me. Ma blames herself of course. It is like I am watching her relive the same traumatic experience she went through with me, when I was arrested at 16. The only difference is that this time, I am mature enough to understand and internalize her pain. I already apologized to her and now I want to apologize to you.

I should have been there for you as a father. Mom/your grandmother should not have had to raise my son. How can I explain my absence to you?

When you were conceived, I was just a child myself. I acted like I thought a man should, but I didn’t understand the ramifications of the daily choices I made. I was infatuated with the streets, and it didn’t occur to me that my lifestyle would one day, very soon, prevent me from being able to be the son and father I wanted to be. I never thought I’d be locked up for decades and leave you in the same position I found myself as a child…fatherless!

I vividly remember being 5 or 6 years old and telling my mother I wanted to see my dad. I couldn’t at that moment, because he was incarcerated. We did eventually visit him in Lorton prison (Virginia). I don’t really remember much about our visit, other than him showing me off to his friends in the visiting room.

I didn’t see him again until he came home when I was 8 or 9 years old. He lived up the street from us, and so my mom allowed me to ride the bus up the hill to visit. He lived with his mother, and as soon as I was inside the house, he left. I stayed there for the weekend and he popped in occasionally. But mostly, I was supervised by my grandmother. I remember being happy just to be around him.

I made this trip about two more times before the visits suddenly stopped. My mother told me when I got older that he had ordered her not to send me up there anymore. I didn’t see him again until I was caught shoplifting at age 10. Ma called my father and I guess told him he needed to talk to me, set me straight. Nothing good came out of that visit though. He took me to the “strip” where he hustled and paraded me around like his mascot. The rest of the time, I sat in the car while he sold drugs. There was no “stern talking to,” no advice, no parenting. He drove me home and left me with the promise that he’d be back the next weekend. Instead, it was 11 years before I saw him again. I was 20 and my mother called him to say I had been stabbed while in jail and he should visit me in D.C. General Hospital. To this day, I still do not call him father. I never wanted my child to feel the same.

I met your mother on my birthday. I had absconded from Oakville (a juvenile facility) a couple of weeks earlier and I was out celebrating. I won’t lie to you. I wasn’t really into her. But here is what’s important: When she told me she was pregnant, I decided right then and there I would stay with your mother so I could be in your life. I encouraged her to go back to school and get a job. I began to spend a lot of time with her. I planned for a future as a family; it was now time for me to man up.

Unfortunately, I thought that meant to get as much money as I could, so I chased the streets even harder. A couple of weeks later, I was locked up for first-degree murder. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t the one who shot the gun; I was in the car and that was enough.

I remember the first time I saw you like it was yesterday. It was love at first sight. You looked so much like me. You were a few weeks old and your mother brought you over to the jail to see me. The visit got delayed and I ended up only being able to see you through the glass door to the visiting hall entrance. I held it together because my friend was there with me, but when I got back to my cell I cried like a baby.

Before Ma adopted you, it was near impossible to talk to or see you on a regular basis because your mother used you as a bargaining chip in her dealings with me and Ma. We went weeks without hearing from her and she would not answer the phone when we called. You were 8 years old when the court gave you to Ma. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was locked down in Marion (IL) and they pulled me out of my cell to sign the consent forms needed to give my mother permission to adopt you. I thought that with Ma raising you, you’d be ok. But I now understand you also needed me there. Talking on the phone and visits weren’t enough.

You told me when you were younger that you hated men. At the time, it didn’t dawn on me why you thought that way. But now I understand. You didn’t have a man in your life whom you respected enough to want to emulate. Most of the times when you encountered a problem, you felt as though you had to figure it out for yourself. You couldn’t wait until you talked to me on the phone or visited. By the time that happened, it was too late. I now understand why, when I asked you questions about what was going on, you were quiet or responded with one-word answers. It wasn’t that you didn’t want help. It was that you figured I couldn’t help you.

Ma tried to be both mother and father to you, but a mother doesn’t really know what it’s like to try to be a man in a neighborhood like ours. That’s why so many black men are in jail; their own fathers weren’t there. Ma tried to fill the gap by getting me a Big Brother. He exemplified all of the qualities of an upstanding man and tried to be an example for me to emulate. But because I saw him as uncool, I didn’t aspire to be like him.

Son, in a lot of ways we are alike. The main reason I started running the streets was because it gave me a certain amount of prestige in the ‘hood. All of my friends were doing it and I liked the freedom. I can see you struggling with the same things. Watching you navigate this environment has made me see how deeply I failed you.

I did try. But being a father in prison means you hear about everything that happens to your child last and you are always playing catchup. I remember when you were 2 years old and my mother brought you to see me. I had this Guess watch and I placed it on your arm and my mother told me, “he’s a child. He’ll lose it.” But I wanted you to have it for a memento. This is fatherhood from prison: feeing inadequate because you’re not there, so you try to make up for it in other ways that seem so lame.

Now that you’re here with me, I still am not in the position to give you what you need because I don’t really know how. Because I grew up in jail, I have a certain idea of how a “man” should conduct himself, but that’s not true for you. The main thing that’s changed about my idea of fatherhood since I have been around you is that I now understand that above all else, you need my love. I love you, son. I will make sure I tell you this all the time. But more than that, I believe love is an action word, so I will try to show you through my actions.

Son, we both have a lot to learn about one another. I want you to teach me how to be a better father. And I have some things I can teach you. The most important lesson is this: We all make mistakes in life, but it is what we learn from them that matters most. That is what Oprah Winfrey meant when she said, “What I’ve learned is that failure is a great teacher and if you are open to it, every mistake has a lesson.” The problem is when you make the same mistakes over and over. This is exactly what I see you doing right now. You’re so disappointed in yourself that it is paralyzing you. You feel as if you’ve thrown your whole life away, so you beat yourself up and can’t pull yourself out of a state of self-pity and victimhood.

I’m afraid you’ll miss the blessing: the lesson. I know you are in great pain right now, but if you don’t start to try to find the meaning in your pain, then everything will be for naught. What I am trying to say is that there is a special power in going through pain and adversity. I hope you can use this time to discover who you really are and what you want to do with your life.

Re-entry doesn’t start on the day you leave jail, but on the day you enter. You will make it home, but what type of person will you be when you get there? That’s what I want you to focus on.

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at

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