When a son is sentenced, families are effectively imprisoned as well

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The moment you enter prison, you’re stripped of your humanity. And, to a large segment of society, you become the faceless, the voiceless and the nameless: You’re now a number. My goal in starting this blog is to restore “faces” to the people who have suffered my same fate — sharing our stories so readers can see past our earlier mistakes.

But I must admit that it’s a disservice to my readers to omit the people who do the “time” with us — friends, family members and particularly our mothers. I look around when we’re allowed visits and it is hard not to notice: It is largely women — girlfriends, wives and mothers — who stick with us through thick and thin. But as the years tick by, especially mothers. It is our mothers we call when it is crunch time and we need something done. It is our mothers who pick up the slack and raise our kids when we can’t. It is our mothers who travel across the country at great cost to provide that essential human contact we crave as we are shipped from prison to prison (as often happens to D.C. men, because the district doesn’t’ have its own facility). Mothers are the heartbeat of the struggle.

So, since Sunday is Mother’s Day, this post is dedicated to all mothers with children in prison or jail. They are living evidence of the “collateral damage” that prosecutors and judges often ignore when they call for or set harshly long sentences or consider parole applications. I especially want to honor my own mother, Sharlayne Barton. Below is my letter to her.

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Dear Ma,

I am writing this for Mother’s Day, but really, I should honor you every day. Several weeks ago in court, as we sought with every shred of emotion and logic we could muster to convince the judge to release me from prison early, you looked me in the eye and said:

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Me and my mom

“I am sorry I was a 15-year-old mother, a child raising a child. I am sorry your father was in and out of your life and that my father was an alcoholic, subjecting you to neglect and abuse at such an early age. I am sorry that we lived in a violent, drug-infested neighborhood, exposing you to people and sights no one should experience — much less a 2-year-old. I am sorry I couldn’t protect you from harm.”

On the streets and in prison, I have earned the reputation as a tough guy, someone you don’t mess with. But those words brought tears to my eyes, and I didn’t care who saw them. If I had been allowed to respond, instead of being escorted out in handcuffs, this is what I would have said, and I wish the entire courtroom had heard:

Ma, you did everything you could to steer me away from the path that led me to prison at the age of 16. Yes, we lived in a bad neighborhood. You were, as you said, just a child yourself, the product of a dysfunctional family. To support us you had to go on welfare, then work at McDonald’s — all while trying to take care of your mother when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And yeah, that meant I was on my own more than most kids in more comfortable circumstances. Probably more than anything else, the sights and people in that neighborhood imprinted themselves on me during those developmental years.

I read a report once that concluded that your zip code can affect you more than your genetic code, both in terms of eventual income and life expectancy. And I believe that. Although my father was never in my life much, he was still in the ‘hood. During one of our very few times together, he drove me to the strip where he hustled, parading me around like his mascot. For the rest of the short time we were together that day, he sold drugs out of his car while I watched.

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Later, I saw a “big man” in the neighborhood kill another right on the front steps of the building where we lived, and he got away with it. No one really even talked about it. That same man wore fine jewelry and always had a woman on his arm. He made more money than the few people I knew who went off to university. It was men like that who became my missing father figures. Ma, you couldn’t compete with that type of distraction. I started using and selling drugs in the sixth grade.

You did everything you could, though. You didn’t hand me over to a family member, like so many girls who get pregnant young. When I was about 6 years old and saw you getting high, I asked you to stop and you did. Immediately. You imposed a 10 p.m. curfew — including the phone — on school nights, and you held to it, even when I got mad because girls called me a “little boy” when I couldn’t talk or come out. You went into debt to send me away to military boarding school for a year and moved to another community. But grandma was still where I grew up, and as soon as I was home, I returned.

When I first started getting picked up by the police at the age of 14, landing me in juvenile detention centers and jails, you were at every court date. I lashed out when you asked the judge to place me in residential detention and was embarrassed when followed me there to stay on my case. But you also were one of the few parents there; most of the other kids had no one who cared enough to show up. I understand now that you were desperately trying to stop me from going where you must have sensed I was heading.

Unfortunately, I ended up in prison despite your best efforts. On the fateful day when I went on a drive with guys from the neighborhood, I wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger and killed the rival in the other car. But I was judged as guilty as the one who did. The sentence: 30 years to life. I can only imagine what that felt like for you, after all those years of trying to prevent it.

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But, Ma, all of your efforts were not in vain. It may not have been obvious, but your values took root. In prison, I read books and newspapers whenever I could get them. I earned an associate degree in business management online. I nurtured a latent interest in real estate, investments, law and politics by consuming everything I could lay my hands’ on. I was limited to the slim offerings at the federal prisons with which the District of Columbia contracted, but once I moved back to the D.C. jail while challenging my long sentence, I took full advantage of its wealth of programs. I am an honors student in Georgetown University’s Prison Scholars program. I was chosen as a mentor for the jail’s Young Men Emerging group for 18- to 25-year-olds. And now I am authoring my own blog. I have plans for a book and my own nonprofit to help others like me reintegrate into society. You got off government assistance as soon as you could, and now hold a job that allows you to own your own home. I will follow your lead as soon as I’m given the chance.

None of that would have been possible if you had not instilled in me a love for reading, writing and education from an early age that survived alongside my life on the “street.” I still remember the two of us sitting at the kitchen table while you taught me the alphabet and the multiplication tables. At night, you read me Dr. Seuss’s Cat and the Hat so many times I could recite it on my own, word for word. And you demonstrated daily what living an ethical life meant. When I walked out of a store with a pen-and-pencil set I hadn’t purchased when I was a little kid, you made me take it back. When I was older and you found drugs and my beeper in my room, you flushed them down the toilet. During my long days in prison that followed, I remembered those lessons. And despite the fact that I didn’t take them to heart in time to avoid the years of pain, you never gave up on me. As I was shuttled from prison to prison (14 in total), you stayed by my side. You couldn’t afford to visit me often, but you came as frequently as you could — to Virginia, California, Louisiana and Florida.

I’ve seen a lot of others in prison with long sentences whose friends and family members dropped away over the years. God knows that keeping in touch with a prisoner is draining and expensive (phone calls are marked up and even basic supplies like extra toilet paper must be purchased from the prison commissary). But not you. You continued to believe in me and fought for me every way you could.

My respect for women comes from you. On Mother’s Day, I honor all of the women with children in jail or prison — and there are a lot of them. They are, in a way, imprisoned with us.

A note about how this blog is possible: Incarcerated people have no access to the internet. Thus, I am partnering with journalist/storyteller Pam Bailey, who acts as my editor when needed and posts all of my updates. You may contact her at paminprogress@gmail.com.

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

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