By Khalil Cumberbatch for the Moral Courage Project.
I love my father. That wasn’t always an easy statement for me to say. In fact, for a long time I fought myself (and to a certain extent beat myself up) to be comfortable enough to say that. I was uncomfortable for so long because I felt that my father abandoned me at the most vulnerable point in my life.
At the age of 21, I was sentenced to an 11-year prison term for the charge of robbery in the first degree. It was a foolish act, preceded by a series of bad decisions, that led to an innocent man almost losing his life. My decisions ultimately dragged me and my family into the criminal justice system, including my father.
Growing up in Queens, N.Y., my father and I saw each other frequently. I have found memories of those times. For example, I remember spending weekends with him and learning how to spell my last name, riding my bike, and even going to the movies. I would say that my father made attempts to be an active part of my life. I would even say that we had a bond.
Then, in 1994, my father moved to Florida. He had gotten a job opportunity that required him to relocate. I was about 13 years old at the time. I was just starting high school and it would prove to be a time where I needed my father the most up to that point in my life.
Of course, we didn’t know the statistics. We didn’t know that I was 20 times more likely to end up in jail, prison, or some other correctional institution. Or that I would be nine times more likely to drop out of high school. Had my father known this, maybe he would made a different choice.
I have pictures of my father and me. I look at them from time to time. The joy in both of our eyes is undeniable. This joy was what I held on to when he moved to Florida. This joy is what I held on to when I made some bad choices, and it was what I held on to when my sentence landed me in a maximum security prison.
Let me be clear, I never doubted my father’s love for me. In fact, I know my father loves me—but even that wasn’t always easy for me to say. When I was sentenced to an 11-year prison term at the age of 21, I didn’t expect that prison was going to change our relationship—but it did.
The United States of America incarcerates more people than any other country at any other point in history. Home to only 5 percent of the global population, the U.S. is also home to 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. According to the Sentencing Project, anywhere from 70 million to 100 million people in the U.S have some form of a criminal record. Additionally, there are 1.7 million children with a parent incarcerated. At this point in our country’s history we have incarcerated millions of people due to failed policies promoted in the name of public safety with little regard on how incarceration damages a person and, to a larger extent, their families. Holding people accountable is not the same as perpetually punishing them. Sending people to prison for committing crimes is not the same as providing them with the resources they need to rebuild their lives and legacies.
I ultimately served 6½ years in the New York State prison system. From the ages of 22 to 28, I was engaged in a system that was not designed to nurture me, guide me, or aid my healthy development. It was designed to punish me. As Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association, says, “People are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment.” Yet, that is exactly what prison does to a person. The depth of level of mental oppression that stems from the mere physicality of being in prison is indescribable. It is truly an environment and culture that can bring a person “nose-to-nose” with their inner fears and emotions. It was in this torturous environment that I came to discover one, among many, clearly undeniable fact: I needed my father. You have to understand this was the realization of person, a man by age but boyish in maturity and mentality, who had literally made himself believe that he did not need a father. I believed that I didn’t need my father.
But I did. I needed to hear him give me encouragement, like he did when I was younger. I needed to hear that he was still loved me, despite the fact that I made bad choices. I needed his advice regarding my imprisonment and more importantly, what I was planning to do post-incarceration. But I never heard from him. My entire incarceration I never received one letter, or a visit, or a card around the holiday season. I was angry with my father. I forgot about the joyous times, because I felt that he had as well.
After my release I was so angry with him that it prevented me from calling him. My disappointment in his choice to “leave me” at a time where I felt I needed him the most bred a deep anger in me that festered for a long time. I shunned well-intentioned “father-figure” types both during and after my incarceration because I had developed and nurtured a chip on my shoulder.
It was more than a year after my release from prison when I finally spoke to my father. I was so angry that I truly let my emotions overpower my intellect. I still had held on to the belief that I didn’t need him in my life, in fact I said that much to him. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see that in that moment, right when I had the chance to mend our relationship, I let the distance caused by my incarceration continue to fester. It was a lost opportunity—one that I still regret.
I collaborated with the Moral Courage Project on a short video that follows my journey to reconnect with my father in a meaningful way. Check it out here:
What my incarceration did to my and father’s relationship is one of the factors that drives me to push for a systemic change to the way that we use incarceration in this country. I believe that a person shouldn’t lose relationships with people they are close to because of incarceration. I believe that stigma and shame is associated with having a loved one in prison adds to some family members’ reluctance to stay connected to their loved one. In my case it was my father, but there are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters who are also incarcerated, leaving in the wake millions of collateral relationships damaged.
Today I am the policy associate at the Legal Action Center, a litigation and policy firm that aims to reduce discrimination for people with criminal records, histories of substance use, and HIV/AIDS infection. Despite the havoc that my incarceration wreaked on the relationship between my father and me, I choose to have courage and work toward a justice system that is not only focused on punishment, but also on redemption and humanity.