What's Happening In Your World
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 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 communities and their children. We incarcerate over 2 million people and many of them long-term due to overly harsh drug laws and rigid sentencing practices obsessed with locking people up for profit. There’s no way out of this without comprehensive 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 parent.  I am glad to see Sesame Street make a courageous move to talk about children of incarcerated parents given them the much needed 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 especially pray that lawmakers will read this and remember what it means to balance compassion and decency when it comes to making policies that shape parole, incarceration, and arrests practices.   Below is a show 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.    

Prison Baby: Daughter of an Inmate Describes Conflicted Feelings on Father’s Day

weiweiewio

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 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 communities and their children. We incarcerate over 2 million people and many of them long-term due to overly harsh drug laws and rigid sentencing practices obsessed with locking people up for profit. There’s no way out of this without comprehensive 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.

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4 comments

  1. You are very confusing, you talk in the third person and at the beginning of you statement, I just knew you were white. As for as studies goes, just remember who is doing them. They are hoping that we buy into the make believe and we do, that is why we as people end up in the situations that we are. It is not so much as what the sentence is but how disproportionally it is handed out to men of color. I am not disagreeing with you about our men taking responsibility, but if you want that to change you better grab your children from the mass media (TV, radio, internet, video games and the like), because they are doing more harm them we as black people can ever imagine.

    • Well if by talking crap about the way this person writes or speaks you are trying to sound intellectual or intelligent think again you missed the mark by a landslide. You cannot form a complete or correctly worded sentence. Shame on you.

  2. My thoughts &prayers go out to you in dealing with the derivatives of the mass incarceration. I at one time was a victim of America’s race to fill up the prisons. Even though I was incarcerated for a short term, I understand the effects it has on children. The first three words of the constituiton reads…We the people, who does it refer too? It’s a travesty and injustice that this country serves the main courses of racism and classicism, without much thought. Please continue to write article such as these tolet the masses hear your voice and if there is any insight you need to voice the effects, I’d be glad to contribute. Peace be unto you!

  3. U kno, I too am 1 apart of that popultion of 3 million fatherless children in America. The hardest part for me isn’t even just the fact that my father has been imprisoned most of my entire life, it’s the reason he’s there. I’m bothered by his ignorance, by his lack of understanding, by his recklaceness, and disregard for the lives of others namely his children. My issue with the judicial system is remedial compared to that of the one I have with black men that don’t do the right thing by there families. I understand many of u black dont know any better, but its time now to wake up and smell the coffee. U need to open ur minds and receive the truth. Yes we know the criminal court is against you, we know that they’ve put every obstacle in place to keep us oppressed which then forces many of us to retaliate and then feel the raft of their scrutiny and unjust harsh punishments. But our men, our fathers, our sons have to be smarter about their strategies and tactics to move us forward, granted a lot of our men are in prison for drug charges but wat about the ones in jail for murder and rape of your own. My issue is the fact that when we commit “crimes” against them were penalised to highest extent, but wen we hurt one another there’s no retribution. Infact we sit in those very cells plotting and scheming on how to hurt and kill eachother some more. We’re fighting the wrong fight, we’re fighting against the wrong people. We shouldn’t hate eachother and ourselves so much. It’s not fair to our ancestors, their blood has been spread all across world, on every soil that man walks. We can not continue to let their sufferation, torture, and murder go in vain. We have to fight back, our strength is is in numbers united we stand, divided we fall. That’s why they can come in and conquer us because we have no unity. When we reach a time where we can stop hating eachother and fearing them only then will you see less wrongful imprisonment. We can protest til kingdom come, with out unity we don’t stand a chance. For black men that have their “freedom” use it wisely do the right thing by ur women and children, charity starts at home. Always bare that in mind when your In search of the affections of other women outside ur race, take into consideration the negative effect that its going to have on ur community. It breaks my heart to see how many “mixed race” children have their biological black fathers in their lives, providing and doing for them and to see how many of us are bastards, rejected by these same men because they don’t love our mothers enough. I can guarantee that 3/4 of the population of black people imprisoned were mostly fatherless children. Studies have proven that a child raised in single parent household is 8 out of 10 times more likely to commit a criminal offence than that of a child raised in two parent household. Black men, stand up for us. Protect us and our offspring. It’s the only way we’ll win’

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