Stain of Mass Incarceration: Exposing the Wound of My Father’s Life Sentence
27 years ago on my 14th birthday my father took my sister, Miko, and I out for lunch. We decided to dine at the newly opened Hard Rock Cafe. The music was blaring from the sound system. The walls were filled with an assortment of music memorabilia. I sat for a good 15 minutes in awe and amazement. While Miko and I glanced over the menu, my father left the table for a brief moment. He came back to the table with 2 members from the hip-hop group Whodini & R&B singer, Bobby Brown. I was in complete shock! They all sang an impromptu rendition of Happy Birthday to me. OMG - I was floating. This was one of my best birthdays yet. I looked over at my father and he just smiled. Little did I know that in the months ahead our lives would be changed forever.
THE WAR BEGINS
Nine months later, on December 6, 1988, my father, William Underwood, was arrested. Shocked and completely numbed by the news of his arrest, it took Miko and I six months to actually visit our Dad. While sitting in a tiny visiting room waiting for his arrival, he finally appears. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit and his hands and feet were shackled. All I can remember is him hobbling over to sit down next to us. Miko and I burst into sobbing tears. We were completely devastated and traumatized by the appearance of our Dad chained up like a slave. By the time he finished consoling us, our time was up. The visit was over and he was gone – again.
After that my life became a blur. From what I remember, my thoughts were: Why was Daddy there? What did he do? When is he coming home? None of it made sense. Two years later, he was sentenced to a mandatory minimum 20-years plus LIFE without parole. In disbelief, my range of emotions were: "What? Life? Nooooo... you mean, Forever? He's never coming back? Ever?" The news of his sentence punctured a wound so deep in my heart I could hardly breathe.
Feeling completely abandoned, my hurt turned into anger. I rebelled against school, my Mom and life. How could my father be locked away forever? He was a music enthusiast. He ate, slept, and breathed music. My father was a prominent music promoter from the late 70s up until his arrest in 1988. He promoted top acts such as Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Earth, Wind & Fire, Kenny Loggins, Wham, New Edition and Guy. He managed the R&B funk band, Slave and lead singer Steve Arrington. He later went on to discover and manage R&B singer, Johnny Gill, ultimately aligning Johnny with the boy band, New Edition. All I ever saw my father do was talk about music, listen to music and hold meetings with music industry artists, executives and up-and-coming celebrities. Some of these people even testified on behalf of my Dad in court, including recording artist Keith Sweat and an Atlantic Records executive who willingly flew over from London to give testimony to support my Dad during his trial.
I remember being on the phone with my Dad after his sentencing. He said, “Ebony, this sentence means no matter how long I live, no matter how much my life has changed, no matter what steps I take to better myself, no matter how many laws have changed – I can never, ever, leave prison alive. I am going to fight this injustice." I listened intently to each devastating word. Yet, I still didn’t understand. How could anyone be sentenced to die in prison? My Dad was incredible. My Dad defied the odds and made it out of poverty. He raised my sister and I in the suburbs. My Dad was fun, not evil. He was full of life. My Dad was educated. He was an Ivy Leaguer, having studied at Columbia University. My Dad was successful. My Dad was influential and had many influential friends in the world of entertainment. In my heart-of-hearts I knew something was wrong. But, what could I do? I was 16 years old. In retrospect, there was no way I would ever understand the magnitude or severity of his sentence.
Visiting a correctional facility is no cakewalk. We have always had to travel at least 3 hours or more to visit my father. Over the years, Dad was relocated to different maximum-security federal prisons in several states including Indiana, Georgia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, upstate New York and a medium-security in New Jersey. I've seen grandmothers get turned away for wearing open-toed shoes, girlfriends and wives having to take down beautifully-styled hair that was pinned up because bobbie pins are not allowed in the visiting room, baby bags filled with diapers not allowed, women gathering in the bathroom to cut the wire out of their bras because you must get past the metal detectors without anything beeping, including the wire in your bra. The worst experience was a special trip my younger brother, Justin, made to visit Dad. At 5 years old, he was the only one of my 3 siblings present during my father’s arrest – a traumatizing experience to witness at such a young age. After years of not seeing my Dad, Justin flew 3000 miles from California to NY and we drove 18 hours down to the correctional facility in West Virginia that was nestled in the mountains. We arrive ready to visit and Justin gets denied visitation because he was wearing khaki pants. The prison guards tell us there was a Wal-Mart 20 miles away. There was no GPS at that time. We weren't familiar with the area. Plus, it was already Noon and visitation at the prison ended at 3pm. So, Justin waited in the car while we visited with Dad. I was gutted. After so many years of watching people being turned away, I have a standard outfit for visitation - jeans, sneakers and a long-sleeved sweater or shirt, no jewelry, no belt.
Nonetheless, there is a brighter side to all of this. The beauty of seeing family connection. Once in the visiting room, the prisoners have to immediately check-in with the guards and only then are they able to sit down across from their families. At this moment is when you see ALL the LOVE emerge. You see the surge of excitement arise as a child runs up to their Daddy. You see fathers hug their sons. You see fathers kiss their daughters. You see parents grab and squeeze their incarcerated sons’ faces with joy. You see wives and girlfriends embrace their men. And for a few hours, that correctional facility is filled with an abundance of real LOVE brought about by human connection. The importance of connection cannot be understated.
THE POWER OF CONNECTION
The connection we’ve maintained still bewilders me. Especially when I think about the quarter of century we have spent on this journey. My father has always remained Daddy and my Mom understood and respected that. My parents are my two greatest teachers on this planet. Both inspire me with their resilience, persistence and determination. My Dad has not allowed prison to change him for the worse. He maintains and strengthens ties with all four of his children. Although he did not have the ability to attend any of our school graduations, visit us in our own homes or witness the births of our children, he remains a committed father. For example: I was unable to visit him during my pregnancy, but the day after I delivered my son, my Dad had a big, beautiful bouquet of flowers sent to my hospital room with a special note. I cried. He sends birthday cards, Valentine's Day cards, Mother's Day cards and Christmas Cards and he calls us almost everyday. He has even developed and maintained a solid connection with his grandchildren despite never once meeting them outside prison walls. He empowers us all to continue to educate ourselves. At times, he even informs us about the latest current events and technology. For instance, he is really fascinated with Nano technology. He has been talking to us about this scientific study since 2000.
ERASING THE STAIN
The injustice that Dad promised to fight has finally reared its ugly head and it’s called Mass Incarceration. His conviction was one of the first under siege of Mass Incarceration. Thereafter, it propagated itself and STAINED the entire nation, making the U.S. the most incarcerated nation in the world. Today, there are over 2 million people incarcerated in the United States and the rippling effects are the 2.7 million children impacted by the loss of their incarcerated parents. The effects of Mass Incarceration are so severe that The Obama administration and frmr. Attorney General Eric Holder forged a sea-change of reform in the criminal justice system. President Obama even began a White House Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, which my eldest brother, Anthony, and I had the pleasure of attending on more than one occasion. The issue is so pressing that the political parties have come together and Mass Incarceration has become one of the primary issues that there is Bipartisan support for. The racial disparity against black males is so prevalent that entertainer John Legend noted in his Oscar winning speech that “There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.” In addition, the New York Times recently published an article “1.5 Million Missing Black Men” http://nyti.ms/1P5Gpa7 identifying the rise of missing black men with the increased prison populations. I believe, however, the biggest weapon against Mass Incarceration has been the monumental power of the worldwide web and social media. It has given my siblings and I a place to create awareness, advocate for our father’s release and share our story. We created a website, a petition, 2 hashtags: #HopeForFathersDay and #UnderwoodShouldBeHomeByNOW and we are working on a documentary, “Hope For Father’s Day.” You can view the trailer to the documentary and sign the petition on our website: www.INPRISON.net.
My father’s ability to maintain some semblance of normalcy and still laugh, baffles me. Especially when, for years, no opportunity for relief availed him. Interestingly enough, my father's favorite quote is from Paulo Coelho's book The Alchemist which reads, “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” As he promised me, my father fought against the injustice of Mass Incarceration and never gave up, even when nobody believed him. Yes, he made mistakes at a young age, should he be forever condemned to die in prison due to Mass Incarceration? I think not. Chiefly because my father, at the age of 61 years old sits in a prison cell with a clean institutional record and an out-dated prison sentence. President Obama is the ONLY one who can grant my father relief through clemency. I pray that Mr.Obama will help heal my family’s wound. Justice must be served!
To learn more and support Ebony Underwood's aim to improve America's criminal justice system, visit INPRISON.net.
Photo Credit: Ebony Underwood