Editor’s note: This week, The Marshall Project is publishing a series of essays and interviews about fatherhood and incarceration. This is the first installment.
Some of Michael Key’s earliest memories are traveling from his home in Chicago to an Illinois state prison to visit his father Kenneth. As a teenager, Michael joined a gang and fell out of touch with his dad—then he was convicted of murder and sent to prison himself. For almost 20 years, Michael and Kenneth have been incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center, both serving life sentences. Prison officials would not allow the Keys to be interviewed together, but in separate phone conversations, father and son talked to The Marshall Project about rekindling their relationship behind bars. At the time, they were living in cells next to one another. Their interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Michael: When I was younger, we was real close. My granny always made sure I went to see him. I remember eating ice cream and riding on his shoulders. Walking around the yard. Playing basketball. I remember talking to him on the phone and asking him what he was doing. And he said, ‘I’m sitting there watching TV, or ‘I’m watching the game.’ And I remember saying to myself, damn, I don’t even got a TV. I’m in a studio apartment with four brothers and sisters, moms and her boyfriend, and maybe a couple of other people that moms has let live with us. They got a TV? Prison can’t be that bad.
Kenneth: When Mike would visit me in prison, he used to always sit on my lap and raise my shirt up and look at my [gang] tattoo. And that’s what he gravitated toward. He would always hear the stories about his father in the streets, how big he was. I always didn’t want him to see that. I tried to save my son when my brother was coming to see me back and forth. I’d tell him go get my son, something’s going to happen to him. But didn’t nobody really want to be responsible for my son. Everybody thought that I should be there, and they were correct. Couldn’t fight anybody on that.
Michael: Where I come up at: Rough. And it’s the same neighborhood that my father came up in. When you out there, you’re not worried about the fact that none of your friends’ fathers are around. If you to go to somebody’s house and his mama has his daddy there, that’s like the white horse with the horn on its head. Moms, before she died, she did the best she could. But you dealing with a woman that’s a drug addict. So, we kind of like raised yourself. Because we had to.
Kenneth: At that time I was still “Blue,” this gang chief. We probably didn’t really start talking about things like family and his mother and relationships and stuff like that until we both came to prison. He had never been in a max prison. I really turned to my son and tell him that this is not a game we in. You and I both got natural life. This is where we gonna be and this is where we possibly gonna die. And so I kept him pretty close to me at all times. I taught him how to pull the law books, research his case. And I also wanted to teach him about the kinds of different men, about the dynamics of keeping your word, and who to mess with and not to mess with so he can become a good judge of character.
Michael: A lot of the officers here know that’s my father, and I’m his son. So, if I say something crazy or we going back and forth, they always threatening, “I’m gonna tell your Daddy on you!” And I say, “Tell him! I’m grown.” (Laugh.) I love my daddy, and I got plenty of respect for him. But I’m Michael, and that’s Kenneth.
Now that our cells are next door, if I got something going on in my mind, we can just have a conversation. I can just yell his name, stick my mirror out the bars and see into his cell.
Kenneth: We take turns holding the mirror to see each other. I’ll hold it awhile, and then he will. And we’ll talk for a couple of hours sometimes.
One year, for his birthday, I cooked him a pizza puff. I took crackers, bread, and seasoning, grind it up in a bag, put water in it, and make it into a dough. I rolled that out with a toothpaste holder, and then added vegetables; black beans, a little cheese, onions, whatever we can get our hands on. And I made a special sauce out of ketchup, hot sauce and seasoning. Fold that over, put it in a rice bag and steam it, and it becomes like a hot pocket. I usually try to do something for his birthday, just to let him know I know.
Michael: We’ve grown together. And I appreciate what he’s brought to the table. But at the same time, it’s bittersweet for me. Because while I appreciate the fact that because I'm here, we can be together, I also don’t like it. It took me years to finally realize that I have resentment for him. Built up anger deep down inside that I never knew was there. Because as I grow and I learn, I realize that everything he’s teaching me, if I had that out there, maybe I wouldn’t be here.
Kenneth: When I really broke down and cried and expressed my regret was in a meeting in the bible class. My son, we was in a circle and we was talking about different things. And I was telling him how this whole scenario, this nightmare, that took place happened. We both ended up with life. What was all this for? What was the message that was trying to be given to us? Cause this was the definition of a generational curse, to the core. I apologize because I couldn't save him.
Michael: We doing everything we can as a father and son to grow. But it’s like, because I never had a father, I can’t really say what it means to be a son. Or to act like a son. So we learning as we go.
There’s not much to do in the prison. We go to the yard. We work out together. We eat together. We conversate. Two or three years ago I implemented a father-son day. We do it on Sunday. I may cook or he may cook. Because we not in the cell together, it’s not that we can sit down and eat it together. We prepare it, and we send it to each other’s cells. It’s our day to celebrate each other. Jail is not a place with a lot of happiness.
Kenneth: We follow our fathers. Now, my father was a gangbanger, but he died at an early age. Died in his 40s. And I always wanted to be like my father. He carried me everywhere with him hustlin’. So when I was old enough to get in the streets, I went into the same places. And I would do runs and so forth and so on. And it’s the same thing with Mike.
Michael: You have to understand something about us: We’re not really get-in-touch-with-your-feelings kind of people. I can see it in his face and in his demeanor and sometimes his voice that he got a lot of regrets as far as not being out there with me and helping to raise me. So, I think it’s real hard for him. I think it’s harder for him than it is for me.
Kenneth: We had this conversation a long time ago. He said, “A lot of guys, hate they fathers. But I don’t hate you. I love you.” And that hit me. Mike is my only son. I don’t have any other kids. That’s all I got. And it hurts that he’s here. That’s my mistake.
Kenneth Key, 65, is incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, where he is serving a life sentence for sexual assault with a weapon and armed robbery. Michael Key, 40, is also incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center, where he is serving a life sentence for murder. Since these interviews took place, the Keys have been moved to separate areas of the prison.