Voices from See Us, Support Us: Danait W. Yemane
In October 2013, my father was sent to prison. An Eritrean refugee and veteran of the country’s war for independence, I grew up watching him grapple with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anger management. But one month into my freshman year of college across the country, these dire concerns became the least of my worries.
Prison ruined him.
I returned to Seattle for winter break and visited him before the sentencing. For the first time, we sat separated by a glass screen, unable to greet or hug each other goodbye. Hearing him describe the humiliation and struggle he faced in jail made my heart sink. The correction officers abused him. His trial was consistently postponed. His public defender barely returned my phone calls or emails until I showed up unannounced at his office. I knew the odds were not in my favor. I felt powerless.
When my father’s sentencing day finally arrived, I wrote a letter to the judge. I begged her to reconsider the impact of her decision on my family. Separating my father would harm us more than it would help. I suggested that she place him in counseling and mental health treatment. Anything but prison. But, she dismissed me. She saw the man pleading in front of her as a criminal offender, not a father. Not my best friend.
I’ll never forget the look on his face when the trial concluded:
He thought I could save him. He believed that as the first in the family to start college, I had the tools to navigate an unjust system better than he did.
But, I too, failed him.
I promised my father that I would support him in prison. I would answer all of his phone calls. I would write letters to him on JPay. I would visit him during all of my breaks when I returned to Seattle from school. Still, the time took a toll.
My first trip to the prison was horrifying. It took over 5 hours one way to drive. My uncle, who drove, was not allowed to enter because he did not have visiting privileges. The correction officers refused to allow me to bring any of my father’s belongings such as books and photos, or anything I knew that could comfort him. I couldn’t even wear my own clothes and had to change before entering the visiting room.
I watched as others more familiar with this unforgiving process awaited their loved ones and anxiously stared at the door separating my father and I. When he arrived, my worst nightmare was actualized. He was not the same as who I left behind. He came to my table distraught, and in a wheelchair, unable to properly hug me or articulate his experience inside.
Unfortunately, my father’s story is not a unique narrative in America. Incarceration disproportionately affects Black people in this nation. His experience reflects the tragic reality of countless Black men and women consumed by what should be identified as a national disaster.
Prison impairs almost every aspect of an individual's livelihood. I learned this was only the beginning for my father after my first visit. Over the course of his five year sentence, I was his only visitor. And, I helplessly watched as his condition only became worse. He was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, endured several invasive procedures including open-heart surgery and had a minor stroke. Now, he can barely walk on his own nor engage with people in conversation.
He forgets me.
When I try to speak to him on the phone, I am constantly greeted with an empty silence which leads to the following:
“Baba, are you there? Why aren’t you answering…”
After a few moments of hopelessly waiting for his response:
“Yes...huh? Yes, Danait, I’m here.”
My father was released from prison in May 2018. During the time that he was away, I graduated from college and completed my first year of graduate school. My siblings graduated from high school and are more than halfway through their undergraduate studies. We cannot get the time back that was lost without him. We also cannot appreciate it now like we did in the past. He is not the same. He no longer lives with my family. He is fatigued by the normal day-to-day activities he once led at ease including: walking, driving, and working.
Most of his days are spent sleeping. He tells me he’s tired.
If my father had access to adequate systems of support for both his physical and mental health, my family would look very different today. He might still be in our home. Similarly, if Americans like him were met with opportunities to access treatment, instead of punitive measures like prison when they actually needed help, communities might still exist in our neighborhoods instead of behind bars.
Please join me in becoming part of the See Us, Support Us network today. Learn more about how to support the children of incarcerated parents and lessen the stigma they face:
Loving daughter of an amazing Dad
Columbia University MPH candidate and Black and Latinx Student Caucus member