By Angela Silletti – I was ten years old the first time I knew my father was in prison. My mother picked up the phone and shortly thereafter passed the phone to me.
“Hey Ange, do you know where I am?”
“Florida?” I responded.
“No, I’m in prison.”
“What did you do?”
It wouldn’t be the last time I had to ask that question, as getting “locked up” is a recurrent theme in my father’s life. According to my mother and my father’s side of the family, he was always in trouble for stealing things, mostly things with two or four wheels to be taken for joy rides, and then later fenced for parts. He often took my sister, cousins, and me along for the ride. One time, my cousin pleaded with my father to let him drive as he drove us drunk over the Seaside Heights Bridge hugging the guardrails. This is around the same time I remember that first phone call.
My memory of that day is fuzzy, perhaps for a reason. Who wants to remember the first time visiting their father in prison? What I do remember over the years is going through metal detectors with my younger sister, being kept in “holding rooms” until everyone was screened, and then having to wait in the screening area until everyone was done with their visit before being released back into the free world.
I remember one day being old enough to drive through Camden to get to Riverfront State Prison. I pulled over to get Mister Softee ice cream for me and my sister, trying to make an otherwise horrible experience fun. Experiences like this were commonplace throughout the years—from Northern State to Yardville to Trenton. My sister lost patience long before I did—I sometimes still wonder when he will “learn his lesson” and “age out of crime.” Sadly, this day has never come; he is in prison at the time of this essay’s publication.
In my mid-twenties, I too began to give up the hope that he would ever get it together. I started receiving calls from prison social workers trying to plan for his re-entry, and I would make it clear that I would not be taking him in. I know how difficult it is for someone to successfully reintegrate into society after being incarcerated, but I have lost motivation to help him or be a part of his life. It’s mentally draining, and I often do not want to take responsibility for him.
At the same time, it often occurs to me that he will likely be nearing 70 years old the next time he gets out of prison. Will anyone be around to help him then? How is it that this elderly man still commits crimes without considering that he may be homeless after every incarceration? It’s even possible that he will die in prison.
Today, I’m a second year doctoral student in Criminal Justice at John Jay, where I first received my bachelor’s degree in Forensic Psychology many years ago. I’m sure trying to understand the criminal mind is related to my experiences with my father, but I have always had a strong sense of fairness and passion for defending those who are treated unfairly. Perhaps this came from my mother, a retired law enforcement officer, who gladly gave speeding tickets to anyone who was one point over the limit (I’m glad she doesn’t drive along with me too often). My mother provided a support system for my sister and me, and she settled for nothing less than success for her daughters.
But I do know the stigma of having a parent in jail, and I know people can benefit from my knowledge. As a student in high school, a “friend” told a boy not to go out with me because my father was in prison. My father’s own family (with a few exceptions) stigmatized and criminalized my sister and me because we were “the devil’s spawn” and “just like your father.” By virtue of being his kids, we were bad too. Only in the past year have I been willing to share my father’s status with my students to highlight the challenges that children of incarcerated parents face.
As I move into the research and dissertation phase of my program, I hope to focus on elderly offenders, geriatric parole, and death and dying among elderly inmates. I believe people are people, and everyone has the right to die with dignity—even those who are incarcerated. I do not believe I can save my father from himself, but if I can help someone else, I’ve done my job.
Angela Silletti is a PhD student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York/John Jay College of Criminal Justice.