Ever since I reconnected with my 10-year-old daughter in January, I’ve been tussling with hard questions about being a father. I wonder if it’s possible to be a reliable parent behind the wall of a Level 5 maximum security facility.
Staying in contact is one of the biggest challenges. At Baraga Correctional Facility in Michigan — where I am serving 20 years — 40 men have one hour to use six phones. At any time, six phones can become four because two of them are often broken. Each conversation has a 15-minute limit that begins as soon as someone accepts the call.
The JPay email kiosk system is equally frustrating. To get access, 40 of us have to leave our cells one at a time, go to a small room and plug up our small tablets. We download and send messages — unless the JPay is broken that day.
I don’t fully know why I fell out of touch with my daughter’s mother — and my daughter — for six years. I called their number one day, and it was out of service. I started writing to them twice a month but got no response. So I limited my letters to holidays and birthdays, but still didn’t hear back. Eventually, I learned through a friend that my daughter’s mother had had more children. Maybe she was too busy to maintain a connection with me, too busy living her best life.
When I heard my daughter's grandparents were moving away from the last address I had that was connected to her, I knew I had to do everything in my power to make contact. Somehow, their presence had made me believe that if I was quiet enough for long enough, my daughter would ask them about me. But she didn’t, and their move prompted me to get her mother’s number from a friend.
Once I got the number, it took me a couple days to secure a phone. I had butterflies in my stomach; their wings beat against the biscuits and gravy I had eaten for breakfast. As I dialed, I wondered if my daughter would curse at me or if she would talk to me at all.
“Hey,” her mother answered.
“You good though?"
“I'm doing OK.”
I read between the lines. What she was actually saying was, I have a family now. I’ve been living without you. Have you grown? So I asked her to put my daughter on the phone. I heard her breathing, but she didn’t speak.
“Hello?” I called out.
I asked her if she knew who I was, and she blessed me with, “Yeah. It’s my daddy.”
“Are you mad at me?”
She said no, and I took off explaining — poorly — why I’d been away. I didn’t tell her I murdered a man; I couldn’t admit that to her yet. Instead, I said I left town for work and then went overseas for more work. I also told her I loved her about 30 times. Before she gave the phone back to her mother, I asked her when she wanted me to call her again.
“Every day, daddy.”
Right there, on a maximum-security prison yard surrounded by robbers, killers and rapists, my eyes filled with water. I spent the rest of the day thinking of how I could stay in touch with her. I knew it was impossible to call every day, but I had to try.
Since that day in January, I’ve been calling my daughter three times a week and sending her JPay emails often. JPay goes by character count, and one time I wrote her about 6,000 characters. “I’m old from reading your long message!” she told me. “I’m like 100!”
I’ve tried to shorten my messages since then, but she still complains. “I fall asleep reading your messages, wake up, and the messages are still going,” she once told me. I laughed. My daughter is a poet and doesn’t even know it.
About a month into our new relationship, my daughter asked about visiting me. “You in jail, right?”
“Well, how long you gonna be there? I wanna come to your house.”
I didn’t tell her how long I will be here, only that we could eat pizza and play board games when she comes to visit. That was my way of explaining that this is my home.
“Ugh! OK,” she said. “But don't expect me to talk a lot.”
I agreed with her. She’s only 10 years old, and I don't always know what to talk about, either.
Another day, I asked my daughter if she knew of any powerful Black women besides her momma and grandma. She said no, so I named a few for her to look up: Marian Anderson, Harriett Tubman, Kathleen Cleaver and Ericka Huggins.
“No,” she said. “I don’t know them people. And I will never like any of your girlfriends.”
“What?” I asked, laughing at her bluntness. Then, trying to sound firm and fatherly, I said, “I don't even have a girlfriend. And if I did, you shouldn't be mean to her.”
“If she ugly, I’mma tell her she ugly,” said my daughter.
“That's not nice, young lady,” I replied in a firmer tone. I got the “young lady” part from TV.
“I'm sorry, Daddy...” she says and trailed off.
When I heard this, I felt defeated. My baby girl was apologizing for voicing her opinion.
“Don't ever back down,” I said, trying to get back on her good side. “You hold your ground.” I bet she was confused.
She changed the subject. “Daddy, can I get a puppy?"
“OK,” I said, already trying to fix things with gifts. Now I have to convince her mother to buy her a puppy when they already have two dogs.
One day I asked my daughter what career she wants to pursue when she gets older. “Doctor? Nurse? Judge? Biotech?” I ticked off.
Eventually, she asked again when she could see me.
“Soon, when I get closer to Detroit,” I told her. I was supposed to have been transferred to a lower-level facility in that area months ago, but transfers paused because of COVID.
“Daddy, I can’t see you because of your poor choices!” she snapped at me.
“Yeah, you're right. And this is why you need to do your best in school.”
Suddenly, she was full of questions: “Do you get lonely, daddy? Do you have friends in there? Can you go outside? If I come see you, will I have to be locked up, too?”
I found a way to change the subject until her mother got her off the phone.
Answers to her questions rumbled in my core. By 12 a.m. count, I was sweating a lake. The truth is that I don’t have friends to claim in prison; most guys end up fighting or stabbing each other. Outside is just a small box, fences, barbed wires and more fences. And if she visits, she will be in kind of a lockup for that hour. She will be patted down. I will have to explain what that means, and she will have to decide if she is comfortable going through that process to see her father for the first time.
In April, I missed a week of talking to my daughter due to COVID shutdowns. Then the facility allowed us to Skype or Zoom in place of visits. One day, when my daughter didn’t have her home-school classes, her mother woke her up and gave her the phone.
“Hey daddy,” she said, groggily. “Guess what?”
“Chicken butt,” I said loudly.
She laughed and came back with, “Guess what? Chicken feet.”
We did this for so long we ran out of chicken jokes.
“OK, for real, I will be able to Skype with you very soon,” I told her. “We can see each other. Momma says you’re tall now.”
Before I could go further, the voice messaging system said we had one minute left.
“Who is that White lady, daddy? Why is she on the phone? Is she listening to our conversation?” my daughter demanded.
Prison officials listen to every conversation, but I only had 20 seconds to explain. So I joked, “If she’s being nosy, I’mma curse her out.”
My daughter laughed. “Uh-uh, daddy. Then they ain't gonna never let you out.”
It feels that way already.
Demetrius A. Buckley is a poet and fiction writer. His work has been published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, RHINO, The Periphery and Storyteller. He's currently working on a novel, “HalfBreed.” He is serving a 20-year sentence for second-degree murder at Baraga Correctional Facility in Michigan.