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Life Inside

How COVID-19 Tested the Family Bonds I Was Building When I Got Out

After serving more than 21 years for a crime he committed at age 15, Angel Alejandro was reintroducing himself to his family. Then the virus took three relatives.

My release from prison last September was a joyous occasion. It ended 21 and a half years of sitting in a cell and planning all the ways that, if released, I would try to recapture the decades gone by.

But just as I was beginning to get my feet under me and enjoy my newfound freedom, COVID-19 hit. A series of coronavirus deaths in my family forced me to reflect on how my incarceration had transformed my relationships with loved ones.

The family that I knew as a teenager, before I entered prison, had grown and changed. Meanwhile, they still knew me as the kid who got locked up instead of the man I am today. But this virus literally closed off the possibility of us getting to know each other again.

During my childhood, I was raised to value family even as we experienced challenges. I was the oldest of three siblings living in New York City with a single mother who struggled with substance abuse. There was often no food in the house.

I came to believe that I needed to provide for myself. And at the time, I thought that being in the streets selling drugs was my only real option. I joined a gang and became involved in violence, despite the best efforts of my extended family—the same folks who are now dying from COVID—to talk me into taking a different path.

In 1998, when I was 18, I was arrested and charged with being a lookout in a gang-related shooting that occurred when I was 15 years old. Tragically, the victim died. It haunts me to this day, and I remain deeply remorseful.

I was offered a plea deal—15 years for conspiracy and gun possession. But at age 18, I couldn’t imagine willingly forfeiting 15 years of my life. I went to trial, was found guilty and received a mandatory life-without-parole sentence. The shooter himself took a plea for 50 years.

I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on what being sentenced to life for a crime I committed as a teenager did to me. My life, including my relationships with my family, effectively ended. I thought that I would never freely see my loved ones ever again.

But more than 15 years after my arrest, advocacy efforts from organizations like the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (where I am currently employed) led to the Supreme Court ruling that most life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Following this decision in the case of Miller v. Alabama, I was re-sentenced to 25 years. (I got out early due to good behavior.)

As I approached my release, I began to hear from family members whom I hadn’t spoken to in decades. Many expressed regret that they hadn’t saved me from going down the path that I did, but I didn’t want anyone to feel that way. Our initial conversations revolved around me taking responsibility for my actions and trying to take the onus away from them.

But what I really wanted was to show them the man I am today. I am more thoughtful, less selfish, and know myself better, among other things.

Proving all of this would be complicated. I had grown up in prison. I had never paid any bills, I didn’t know how to drive, and I was about to enter a city that had drastically changed since the last time I was free. I was starting from scratch at the age of 40, so showing my family that I was a mature, capable adult would be a difficult task.

It turned out that my initial transition was more seamless than most people experience, thanks to my fairly large support system.

When I was still in a halfway house, my Uncle Mervin, for example, graciously reached out to set up a time to meet. I had remembered him as one of my relatives who was in the streets when I was a kid. But when I saw him now, it was obvious that he had cleaned himself up. He was happy, healthy and remarried.

He too expressed that he felt responsible for where I ended up because of some of the things that he was doing during my childhood. I began to assure him that that wasn’t the case, but we didn’t have time to have a full conversation about it. I was only allowed out of my halfway house for three hours, and he lived across the city.

We planned to meet again when I moved somewhere new. I was so looking forward to bonding with him about how we had both grown in the years since we’d last known each other.

I didn’t even know that Mervin had contracted COVID until he had already passed away. While everyone was quarantined at home, his oldest daughter called to tell me that an ambulance had been called. He was dead before I arrived at his apartment.

I was in shock, and there was a lot of disbelief throughout my family. Everyone thought he had been doing well, and we knew that he had taken precautions against the virus like wearing a mask outside and social distancing. It was heartbreaking that it hit him when he was in such a good place in his life. It hit home for all of us that this pandemic wasn’t just a scary news story, but rather something that could devastate our potential as a family.

I held it together until they wheeled out his casket to take him to a burial we could not witness due to social distancing. I felt guilty for crying, thinking that it was more appropriate for me to be the shoulder to cry on for people who were already close with Mervin and who knew him from spending years together.

I never got to fully meet Mervin as he was, and he never got to meet me as I was. And though that carried its own sense of heartbreak, I felt that I didn’t have a right to the same pain that my other family members felt. But I cried in part because I’d never had a chance to truly face losses before. In prison, you have to keep your mask on so that people don’t think of you as vulnerable.

Only days later we lost my cousin’s wife, Jane, to COVID. Not a week after that, my cousin Dougie also died of the disease.

Dougie was someone who was the life of every party, who knew everyone and put everyone at ease. He lived next door to my sister and was the kind of guy who wouldn’t even knock before walking into your house.

When I first got home from prison, he didn’t miss a beat. He didn’t care that I had been incarcerated; it was like we’d hung out just the day before. It was comforting and refreshing to know that what I’d done hadn’t changed how he viewed me, and I’d looked forward to bonding with him again.

But that chance at something new between us was taken from us.

Losing Dougie and Jane so quickly after Mervin sent shockwaves through my family. Nobody felt safe seeing each other, even to grieve together. For someone just released from confinement, this was profoundly tragic.

As with Mervin, I felt that I needed to be there for others who were closer with them, like my nieces who had grown up with Dougie and seen him every day up until that point. Still, I feel a tremendous sense of unfinished business when I think of the time I never got to spend with these people.

I also worry about all of the people I left behind in prison, those who may have family members dying, too.

One year removed from my incarceration, I’m not sure I’ve figured out how to process and express my grief. I’m still used to doing things on my own even though I know that my family is ready for me to open up. But I do have a source of hope: my younger brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. Seeing how quickly they have made adjustments to wearing masks and taking necessary precautions shows me that the next generation is ready for anything, and that brighter days are ahead. The losses that our family has experienced have been gut-wrenching, but have also brought us closer together. I smile thinking about what newly loving relationships the future may have in store.

Based in Westchester County, New York, Angel Alejandro serves as grants officer at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY). He is also a member of the Incarcerated Children's Advocacy Network, an initiative of the CFSY that amplifies the voices and leadership of those who were sent to prison as children.