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One Man’s Prison is Another Man’s Home

November 17, 2009


Oh, give me a home
Where the buffalo roam

The state song of Kansas is “Home on the Range.” I remember squawking it off-key at the top of my lungs as a child during school concert performances. Growing up in Leavenworth and Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, you’re always aware of the prisons. There they are. In my child mind I knew it housed and employed people, but that was the extent. In high school my biggest problems (thankfully) were worrying if anyone thought it looked strange that my boyfriend was 6’2” and I was only 5’2” and if I could get the timing right on Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s ‘Good Vibrations’ for a cheerleading halftime performance. But, the prisons were there the whole time. I didn’t see what they really meant, the strange juxtaposition against Leavenworth’s charming downtown filled with historic buildings–one man’s idea of home in sharp contract with another.

Watch any military movie and some superior will shout at his enlisted soldier to shape up or he’ll be transferred to Leavenworth (meaning Ft. Leavenworth, which is the U.S. military’s only prison). Our house on post, the one I lived in from second grade until sixth, stood on a hill overlooking the back of the prison. People used to ask our family all the time if we were frightened to live there, and I don’t remember ever being scared. Even as a child I sort of thought the last place an escaped prisoner would want to be is hanging around in the same area he just tried to rid himself of.

Once we moved off post, to The Boss’s House, we were less than a mile from Leavenworth’s federal prison. Nicknamed, “The Big House,” it has housed the likes of Al Capone, Leonard Peltier, and more recently, Michael Vick.

Dahlia Lithwick wrote an amazing piece for Slate
that stuck with me as it delves into topics and issues I won’t even begin to pretend I’m intelligent enough to bring up regarding the prison system in the United States. It’s incredibly well written and a must-read.  I suppose I give more thought about the justice and sentencing more than the average person because of where I’m from. But, when you pass the federal prison in Leavenworth, one thing that always sticks out to me isn’t the barbed wire, or the guards, or the gates … it’s the buffalo. Some yards from the prisoner’s cages are buffalo roaming, grazing and semi-free.

Since the culture of prison is so engrained in Leavenworth’s society, it comes as no surprise that a friend of mine from my high school graduating class is tied to the prisons. Both his parents were incarcerated during pivotal moments in his life. He broke the cycle and is strong enough and man enough to speak about it today. I’m so proud to share this Q&A a longtime in the making.

Especially now with the holidays approaching it’s the age-old lesson of–it doesn’t matter where you are, someone always has it better, but we must remember those who have it worse. We decided together to keep his identity anonymous, but his story could be anyone. For me, this story is one worth hugging everyone in your life a little tighter and never allowing the past dictate the future.


danapop (dp) I’ve wanted to do a story on Leavenworth and prisons for a while now and from what I understand, you were raised in a household with two parents who were incarcerated. Can you tell me a little about that?

1994 With my upbringing, my parents were 18 years old when they had me. They were teenagers who were into drugs, doing them together. They weren’t ever married or anything and with them being involved in the drugs and the alcohol and all that stuff they were off and on in their relationship. So, my dad was never really in the picture, he was always in and out of jail; we pretty much stayed with my mom while we were babies until we were in high school (when she was incarcerated).

dp How much of your childhood were your parents behind bars?

1994 Well my dad was in jail and prison for at least 15 years of my life; off and on. Then, he ended up serving time in Lansing and Hutchinson. To me we never really had a father son relationship. It was more that we knew who our dad was (I have a brother and a sister). We just never had that type of relationship with his as my father, you know?

dp Do you think that is due to alcohol and drugs?

1994 Oh yeah, I know that for sure because drugs and alcohol they alter the mind. Addiction is crazy and with it that’s all you want. You’re not thinking normal as far as making sure that your kids have what they are supposed to have and that you’re raising them the right way.

dp So, is that what he was in prison for?

1994 Yeah. He was in prison for robbery, drugs, but most of the things he did to get locked up were as a result as him using drugs.

dp What about your mom?

1994 And then my mom, she really got addicted to the drugs because he introduced them to her. And then she became an addict. She was always in our lives, off and on, until she got locked up, which was when I was about 14 or 15 years old I want to say. She got locked up for possession of drugs. I’ll tell you what it was … it was crack cocaine. I mean I used to be ashamed, but it wasn’t my fault, I was just born into that shit. Sorry, pardon my French. Laughter…

dp No, you’re fine. How long was she incarcerated then?

1994 My mom went to jail I want to say for at least (adding it up) when she got arrested, okay I was in the 10th grade, so I want to say at least 3 or 4 years. It was a 5-year sentence and then on good time she got out in 3 or 4 years.

dp So, this is a very pivotal part of your life, you’re in high school. How did you handle that?

1994 Dana I don’t know if you remember, but I always had good friends (he names them). Their parents kind of like they knew something was off, they never really asked questions, but they knew I was a good kid trying to do right. So, they let me stay over there as long as I needed to.

dp What about your brother and sister?

1994 My brother kind of went his way with his friends and then my sister ended up staying with my mom’s sister who my mom left to be our legal guardian. My sister was the youngest so she never really had friends where she could go over and hang out with them and stay with them.

dp Where are your siblings now and how are they doing?

1994 Ah, my brother, he’s kind of like, he lives around here, he lives in Missouri. He’s not as successful, and I don’t want to say that I’m real successful, I mean I hold a job, I make ends meet…

dp Interjecting–You’re successful. You’re raising two great kids, taking care of your family, you’re successful, and you’re a good man.

1994 But brother is always kind of like in-between jobs, he gambles at the casinos and stuff like that. I think it really had an effect on him because he didn’t finish high school. He went, but he never got his high school diploma and neither did my sister. But, my sister ended up going back and getting her GED. But, for some reason I just knew I had to get it, the diploma. I was blessed enough and I always prayed, I just couldn’t be denied. Luckily I had people that cared about me like my friend’s parents and sometimes I stayed with my aunt, the one that my mom left our guardianship with. And I made it. I finished high school with the class of 1994, like everybody else.

dp Now, was it a better situation when they actually were sentenced and when they went away?

1994 You know what? Yeah, I want to say it was because when we were living with her times were hard. We used to get our lights turned off, utilities and stuff turned off. We’d be with no running water sometimes and then you know, she’d find a way to get it back on then the same cycle would happen and she’d get it turned back off again. I actually remember ‘borrowing’ I don’t want to say ‘borrowing’ but plugging an extension cord into the neighbors house, she’d go ask em’ and they’d let her use their electricity. And I know that sounds bad to a person that’s never gone through that. But, not always having meals and stuff like that. You might have one meal a day, that’s it. You hope that when you come from school and stuff that you get something cooked, something other than a bologna sandwich. We used to do what we had to do. A lot of people that knew what my mom was doing, they knew how we were living and stuff. My mom is a strong person, her demeanor and all that stuff and she had an addiction.

dp So, you don’t blame her?

1994 Oh yeah, I blame her. (dp You do?) I do blame her. But, she’s my mom and I love her. But, at the same time, no parent should put their kids through that. But, I understand where it came from with her being a kid herself when she had us and being easily influenced by my dad and whoever they were hanging around with. As a result, they got addicted and then they had kids.

dp Where are your parents today?

1994 My mother lives in Missouri and I still see her from time to time. I think that in my heart that she still does it from time to time. But, I’m not sure, I can’t really say that for sure and we don’t really have the type of relationship. We see each other sometimes. There’s just a lot of, I don’t want to say hate towards her, but it’s just maybe hurt. At the same time I don’t let it bother me because now I’m a man so I don’t have those same problems. Like my kids the things that I’ve been through would be hard for them to understand because they’ve never had to go through that.

dp How did you come to that decision? There does seem to be such a pattern with parents and products of that situation, how did you break that cycle and that pattern with your own children?

1994 It hurt me so bad even being embarrassed and stuff. As a kid whose parents are locked up, you feel ashamed and embarrassed. When you participated in sports and stuff, they weren’t at your game, they weren’t there to watch you. You feel kind of left out and hurt. And I just always told myself that when I get older that there was no way I wouldn’t be there for my kids. And I strive everyday for that. Even though some days you don’t want to, I just get up and do it because I would never want to put my kids through that.

dp You have two sons, right? There’s something about a father and son, I think and teaching them how to be strong men.

1994 I’m proud of myself for always being able to provide for them. I own a home, I have a decent job, I try to be a provider for them. When we were growing up we didn’t own cars. We always had to walk to where we had to go. My kids never have to experience that kind of a lifestyle and that’s what I like, I enjoy that.

dp As a child was it like you were  forgotten about?

1994 As a kid you never heard anyone say ‘your parents are locked up, they did something bad and we’re here to help.’ The government doesn’t care about that. I’m not saying let the parents out, they did the crime so they should do the time. But, people need to be aware if they have kids.

dp Like you’re locked in the system?

1994 Right. Help the kids that need help and most of us do.

dp Where do you think education plays into the system? Like you said, your sister and brother dropped out of high school. Do you think education plays a role? You were determined to get your high school diploma and if I recall, you played sports, do you think sports and education helped you?

1994 That’s the thing, I’m glad you asked me that because education for some kids they may want to finish, but they may not have a ride to school or enough clothes. When you have a broken home it just messes everything up.

dp This conversation is making me just think about simple things like what happened when you were sick, who took care of you?  Who did? Who took care of you?

1994 I don’t want to say God, but I mean you just got over it. She (mom) stayed in our lives, she got government help. So whenever she got that money she did a little bit.

dp Do you think sports helped you?

1994 Oh yeah. It could’ve helped me a lot more because I loved playing football. I never had anyone tell me to keep doing this because this is where this could take you. I mean I had coaches telling me that. For me and my kids I’m going to make sure they have something that will take them to college through education or sports. And I’m going to show them and I’m going to be supporting them through that. That support is necessary for that drive.

dp To go back to something you said earlier, I didn’t realize the timing of it the age you were when your mom went away. Did people tell you the situation? Do you feel like they told you too much? Were they honest about where she went and what had happened?

1994 I was staying with a friend and I got a phone call and it was a collect call from the county jail and it was my mom. I knew she was doing what she was doing, but never fathomed her going to jail. I just started crying. She told me she was in jail and that she’d gotten caught. She didn’t really go into full details, but I’ll never forget that day and that phone call. I knew that I could at least always go to her before. Then, after the call it was like ‘who the hell do I have?’ Then my friend asked his parents if I could stay with him, so I did for most of my high school years. Then, the last part of my senior year I went and stayed with my aunt. It was really devastating because I couldn’t really concentrate in school.

dp I bet. You were worried about a lot bigger stuff than Algebra. How did that make you look at other people in high school? You know, just the stupid  drama stuff of high school. In your eyes if you saw somebody breaking up with their boyfriend or something were you thinking ‘if you only knew what a real problem was?’

1994 You know what? Looking back now I realize it’s made me a stronger person. Nothing can really faze me because I’ve been through so much worse. It’s made me a lot wiser and I’m just able to accept things. Where some of my friends would have little issues like you mentioned like a girlfriend or boyfriend breaking up with them or they didn’t get the type of car they wanted from their parents, so for me it’s just made me accept anything that came my way. It’s made me not shout or pout.

dp I like the shout or pout. Because high school really is all about the drama and you actually had real drama.

1994 Oh yeah, but it’s just embarrassing and I’m sure it is for kids now that are going through it to talk about.

dp Did people ask you about it? Because I never knew this part of you. Did you hide it?

1994 It just wasn’t something that I discussed. I didn’t really want people to know about it. I didn’t even discuss it with the guys I was staying with. It was almost like it didn’t happen. In my heart I knew what was going on.

dp Did you visit your parents while they were in jail?

1994 When my dad was locked up, my mom was out around that time so we saw him a few times. And it was kind of a mental torture thing because we didn’t really want to see this guy that was supposed to be our dad. It was like what has he ever done for us. I just would remember times when he was out and they’d argue and stuff and it was just embarrassing because it was like, my dad’s a convict. And later on in life when my mom got locked up she got sent to a prison out of state and we visited her only 1 time where she was. It was difficult for us to get out there. It was one of those things where you’re like you messed up mom and we are young kids, we can’t just come out there.

dp This is a really personal question and you do not have to answer it if you don’t want to, but I have to ask it. Because both of your parent’s were sentenced for drug related crimes in some form or fashion, what is your stance on drugs? Do you drink? Do you do drugs?

1994 I’m not going to lie to you, I drink. But, I’m not an alcoholic, I drink casually, and I don’t drink everyday. When I have leisure time I drink, but everything in moderation. As far as drugs are concerned, I really despise drugs and I can’t stand being around heavy drugs like crack and cocaine and stuff. Anything that causes you to neglect your kids I really despise of it. Because that stuff is so powerful it’ll have you stealing everything you have.

dp What if someone came into your life? Have you dated people who have struggled with their own drug issues? Do you think they can change?

1994 I’m not going to say a person cannot rehabilitate, but they’ll always be an addict in my mind if they’ve ever tried crack, meth, heroin, all that stuff, you’re always an addict. I don’t have anything to do with people like that. I love my mom, but I don’t know what she’s doing, you just always have suspicion. I’ve been to drug treatment programs with her as one of her steps and I’ve seen her graduated and she just always ends up going back. So, I just don’t have any faith for people that abuse hardcore drugs. I think you’re always going to be an addict at least in my experience.

dp Do you think also it was because they were so young when they had children? Do you think their age played into it?

1994 Yes, the longer you do things the harder it is to kick. We’re talking about some powerful drugs here, they alter your mind. From what I hear with crack and stuff like that the first high is so good you’re always trying to chase that. It doesn’t matter if you love your kids, it doesn’t matter if you love your family, and you will steal from them and give it to drug dealers.

dp What were your parents’ upbringings like?

1994 My dad, he had a pretty good upbringing. The only thing that probably jacked him up was his parents were older when they had him. When he was born they were in their early 40s. He was a teenager and they were old people. He was spoiled, but probably didn’t get the type of attention he needed because he had older parents. He didn’t want for anything.

My mom had a real large family, she had 8 sisters and 6 brothers. She had a big family and maybe she didn’t get the attention she needed because her mom had so many kids. She doesn’t really go into details about that with us, but these are just my conclusions. My mom was easily influenced by anything she was looking for love that she couldn’t really get from her parents.

dp They say that’s what it always comes down to. Love and if you’re loved.

1994 I haven’t really told anybody everything I’m telling you and I need to let it out. But it’s a story that needs to be told because there’s people out there going through it.

dp After our interview, I received an email from 1994, and it’s most certainly worth noting:

Dana, make sure you put in there that the kids of parents incarcerated should have free counseling and other things to help them get through the devastation.