A Letter In Support of Commuting My Father’s Prison Sentence (2)
This is the second post in a series I will make on my personal experience with my father’s incarceration. They are an edited version of a letter I have written to the White House. The letter is one of several written by people in my father’s life, to be included with his application for commutation of his unjust prison sentence. He is wrongfully incarcerated and serving a life sentence in prison. It continues from the last post, which can be found here.
During my childhood, my father’s incarceration was the result of a crime committed. Had political history in the United States taken a different course, the prohibition of marijuana may never have existed, and his actions may not have been criminalized. The circumstances that put him there to begin with would never have occurred, and this plant—more benign than the socially-accepted drug, alcohol—wouldn’t have had a gigantic, international black-market trade focused on it.
There are those among us with such dull, colorless imaginations, that they cannot separate political law from personal ethics. And why not? I can’t even produce anger or spite for those people. They are helplessly caught up in the process that created them this way. Being socialized in the United States of America means being exposed to a mythological narrative designed to create conformity. It tells us that this country is strong because it is free and just. It provides us with conveniently patriotic holidays, has our children sing patriotic songs, and is conveniently intertwined with religion, for that extra kick of emotional transference.
As a person of Cuban heritage, I reflect on the irony that my grandparents uprooted their existence and risked their lives to take their families away from Cuba—so that they could avoid political prosecution, ideological oppression, and state indoctrination—only for us to end up here in the United States, poor, imprisoned, lacking health care or education, and subject to a much more nuanced and mature form of state tyranny and indoctrination than anything Cuba could come up with.
This system is sophisticated enough to keep many of us from questioning the way our society actually functions. We make assumptions about the character of people who have been in prison, but rarely question if sending them to prison was the right choice. We are a very long way from even beginning to consider that our society might be able to function more healthfully without any prisons, at all.
I want to see all of it change. But lets distance ourselves from these abstract considerations, and continue to explore how my father’s case has affected me, personally. That is what I have committed to write about for you, after all.
Without my father around, my mother tried her best to give us what we needed. It was nowhere near enough. She is an anxious person and suffered what I think might have been panic attacks from time to time. She tried to work, but the poor thing got fired at every attempt. We were nearly homeless, once. Twice. Through my time in high school, I shared a bedroom with her, and my sister, at my paternal grandparents’ home. It was a cramped house. My mother distracted herself from her life with a constant, disruptive stream of television and radio media. My grandparents often met with noisy visitors elsewhere in the house.
There was rarely any escape from the noise. There were no friends nearby. There was nowhere else for me to go. I was isolated in suburbia. I couldn’t find enough peace to study or do homework assignments at home any time before 11pm. I would often stay up working into the night, sleep a handful of hours, and begin my long, eventful day of narcolepsy in classes, punctuated by hours of extracurricular activity—anything to avoid going home. The later I was at school, the better. I took night classes for a while and was able to stay at school from 7am to 11pm some days. My father was the only one who would have been able to protect us from the innumerable stresses of poverty, but we were forced to do without him.
After years of this, my father was released. I was seventeen. It was a difficult transition. I was a proud young man. My personal development had always been my own responsibility. I had learned that at an early age, and I took it very seriously. I fought to get myself into the Gifted Honors program at my high school, raised hundreds of dollars for all school fees, attended evening and summer sessions to advance myself, and researched colleges without the help of my incarcerated father or my troubled mother.
If you don’t understand why doing this on my own was difficult, then you have been privileged enough to have a parent advocate for you in this very important period of your life. You can’t see outside your privilege to where I am standing. You might muse that high school students make decisions for themselves all the time, and you’d be right. But they don’t make them alone. There are parents to advocate on their behalf. Permission slips, fees, liability, and lack of mobility always seem to get in the way. Worse than any of those is the lack of respect that adults have for minors. I was held back two years in math, merely because I had no guardian to advocate for me, and school counselors turned a deaf ear to my concerns.
Then, at some point in my junior year of high school, my father swoops in and turns it all around. Within a year of his release from prison in 2001, my father had obtained employment, taught me to drive, purchased a second family vehicle, and taken out a mortgage on a home for us. My educational opportunities were expanded by the ability to finance. We even had a dog. We were a portrait of American normalcy. I never thought it would happen.
(To be continued in the following post)