In and Out of Prison

I was in solitary confinement again — contemplating suicide, alone with thoughts I couldn’t keep buried any longer. I was facing deep regrets over what I’d done and the person I’d become. If I continued down the path I was on, I knew I’d hurt more people and soon be dead. But one fear more than any other brought me to the end of my rope.

What if I never see my daughter again?

She was two and a half months old when I first went to jail, and shortly after that, I was sent to prison. There hadn’t been a single visit. I couldn’t stand the thought of her growing up fatherless like I had, or of her learning to call some other man “Daddy” — especially since I was behind bars with some pedophiles.

Alone in that six by nine foot cell, I came to the point of spiritual surrender, of really committing to turning my life around no matter what it took. I was determined to become part of my daughter’s life again. I’d fight tooth and nail to make that happen.

You could say I started down the path toward prison at a very young age. I grew up in Iowa with an older brother and a younger sister. Being a very strong-willed and hard-headed kid, I did whatever I wanted and didn’t care what my mom said. No amount of negative reinforcement worked on me. I just got worse.

I still have some scars on my back from the beatings I got.

I was a sneaky kid. I remember that I loved to play with fire. One time, when I was around six-years old, I linked a whole row of fireworks together and put them in my crayon box. I thought they’d all go off in the box and stay contained, but the box exploded and set the whole window on fire.

I never liked authority, or white people, and I didn’t respect women. So if you were white, in charge, and a woman, I really didn’t respect you. This got me into trouble as soon as I entered school. Being really bored and defiant, I went through two preschools — and got my butt spanked a lot when I got home. In fact, by the end of my school years, I’d gone through three grade schools, three junior highs, and two high schools.

And often, my punishments were more than just spankings. My mom's family were from Mississippi, descedants of slaves, so they held onto some of the slave mentality and had this authoritarian style of parenting. You don't talk back or ask questions. You just do what you’re told, or else…. Trying to squirm out of the way just meant I got hit in more places.

I was beat with everything: extension cords, telephone cords, and other things around the house. I remember getting in trouble at school and coming home thinking I was going to get spanked right away. Nope, my mother would wait until she bathed me, and as soon as I dried off, I’d get my butt whooped naked. And it wasn't just my mom; my great aunts also punished me severely. I still have some scars on my back from the beatings I got.

I think I died as a kid. I bottled up the child in me and I didn’t really care about anything or anyone. I don’t remember ever being a kid like my schoolmates were. I was in a rush to grow up to get out of the house.

I didn’t know who my real father was for most of my childhood, though I did have a stepdad — my sister’s dad. He worked construction jobs out of town and only came home on some weekends. But when he came back, he often laid it down really hard. He’d punish me again even after my mom already had.

'Don’t he look like you?” They said. Then they just told me straight: “Darryl isn’t your uncle. He’s your dad.'”

But when I was around 12 years old, my grandma, mom, and my aunt sat me down and said, “We have something important to tell you.” Then they started showing me pictures of this man I knew as Uncle Darryl. He used to come around my grandma’s sometimes to visit. “Don’t he look like you?” They said. Then they just told me straight: “Darryl isn’t your uncle. He’s your dad.”

I was confused. I really didn’t get it. I had no bond or emotional attachment to him. He never took me places one-on-one. I’d never really thought of who my real dad was. I just accepted my stepdad as my dad even though I didn’t like him much. But after I found out, I began to care. I wanted to be around my real dad and get to know him.

But during that time, I was getting into a lot of trouble. For two years I’d been running away from home and getting sent to youth shelters and detention centers. That made it easier for my dad not to get involved, and I don’t know if he really wanted to be. When I was 13, he made some efforts, but by then I was in and out of group homes.

I was stealing bikes, hanging out with older kids who were members of the gang called The Vice Lords. My choices were leading me down a really bad path. I remember one incident especially. I’d found a bunch of marijuana in a ditch and took it home, but then my mom found it without me knowing. She said she needed to go down to the police station to deal with something and that I should come along for the ride. But when she got there, she showed them my weed and got me in big trouble with the police.

Honestly, I think she was just scared and trying to protect me. She was a good church lady who didn’t smoke, drink, or party at all. She was so worried about me hanging out with such a bad crowd. She thought I could become an addict and end up dead. And well, looking back, I don’t blame her.

But I was so angry at her. She used to tell me, “Preston, you can tell me anything.” But then she kept on making runaway reports on me and calling the police and getting me sent back to the detention center. The early 1990s hip hop culture I grew up in had this rule about snitching — you don’t tell on anyone, ever! If you do, it’s the worst form of betrayal.

I remember one day loosening all the tire bolts on my mother’s Thunderbird sedan because I felt betrayed. I wanted to hurt her the way she hurt me. I didn’t know of any other way. The next day, she drove her usual long commute to work, but thank God she made it. The tires all stayed on. I was so stupid. She could've had an accident and died.

Because I was in and out of detention and treatment centers so much, it was no shock to people when I was sent to prison in 2003 for the first time at 18-years of age. I was convicted for selling and using drugs and given 20 years, of which I served four.

When I got out, I wanted to change, but it was hard because everyone I knew was still selling drugs, smoking, drinking, and gang banging. Shortly after being released, I got together with my daughter’s mom and had my daughter in 2008. But I saw my friends taking care of their kids by selling drugs, so that’s what I did.

When she was just a toddler, I got pulled over “randomly” and the officer found three ounces of weed in my vehicle. I was later charged with possession with intent to deliver and sent back to prison when I was 23. Since I had prior felonies, I was sentenced to 15 years.

So the day, almost two years later, when I was in solitary confinement for fighting, I had no one to blame but myself. I could see where my choices had been leading me my whole life. It was the moment I finally let go of my pride and cried out to God for help.

I didn’t want to be the father that my father was to me.

Two months later I got word that my daughter’s mom had applied for a visitor’s form so my daughter could come with my aunt for a visit. I saw my daughter for the first time in over two years. That first visit, she sat with me the whole time but didn’t say much. She didn’t really know me yet. But being with her made me even more determined to clean up my act and become part of her life.

I didn’t want to be the father that my father was to me. I knew it was ultimately a choice that I had to make. I could fall back into terrible choices, but then my daughter would grow up without a dad, or worse, know I'm her dad, but that I would never come to see her. She might think I didn’t love her or care about her. Kids make assumptions. I know I did.

I got out in 2012, but when I refused to get back together with my daughter’s mom like she was hoping, she kept my daughter away from me. So I worked to pay the child support and health care bills for a child that I couldn’t even see.

I couldn’t afford my own place yet for my daughter to come to for visits, so I went out and got a decent paying job and rented a house with two bedrooms. I set up one bedroom with a bed, toys, and clothes I bought for my daughter. Then I went to court and represented myself. It was an 18-month process, but I successfully overcame objection after objection and was finally granted joint custody and 50% access to my daughter. She spends every other week with me now.

She is not going to be fatherless. It’s a joy and a pleasure to be part of her life and to see her grow, and to know that the man I am now is the type of person she will hopefully look for when she wants to find a man. I’m not a perfect dad, but I think I’ve become a pretty great one.

Maybe, like me, you haven’t really had a father and you’ve made some bad choices. If you see your life spiralling out of control and want to turn it around, I encourage you to reach out for help. It’s so important to have people in our lives to help us believe that a better life is possible — that we can change, one good choice and one day at a time. If you feel like you’re fighting your demons alone, we have confidential and free mentors who would love to journey with you and encourage you to step into your best possible future. Just leave your contact information below and someone from our team will connect with you soon.

Photo Credit: Johnny Silvercloud