Reentry: Learning to be a father after spending half a lifetime in prison
A note to our readers: this is part 3 of our series on reentry. The names of formerly incarcerated men and their families in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
It’s a long drive from Oakland to the Deuel Vocational Institution, a prison in Tracy, California. For Brianna Bennett, growing up, that meant she rarely saw her father, William. He had never picked her up from school or gone with her to a movie. In fact, they had never stepped outside of the prison gates together.
“It was hard being little, going to visit him,” she says. “When it was all said and done, and it was time to go, I would cry because I would want him to come with me.”
More than 2.7 million minors in America live with a parent in prison. Studies show that the majority of incarcerated parents reside over 100 miles away from the home they occupied before arrest. That makes visits time consuming, expensive, and difficult to coordinate.
Behind the glass
In 1991, Brianna Bennett was born while her father was locked away. When she was only about a year old, he got caught selling drugs in prison. After his drug tests came back positive, he was denied contact visits.
“I went behind the glass, and my daughter was behind the glass,” he says, “and she couldn’t talk, but it was like she was trying to say, ‘Why are you in here? Why can’t I touch you? Why can’t I give you some popcorn?’ Stuff like that. And I started feeling like I was doing the same thing my father was doing to me. I’m doing this to my life and it’s affecting her. So I said, ‘Man, I can’t keep continue doing this.’”
Katherine Katcher, executive director of Root & Rebound, a reentry advocacy center in Berkeley, says that for a lot of people in prison, family can be extremely motivating.
“So just like getting a job is extremely important to a lot of people, and the reason why they’ll get out of bed every day, for some people the chance to see and reunite with their children or another member of their family is what motivated them to work so hard in prison and to get out,” she says.
Bennett describes that moment when he saw his daughter behind glass as a major turning point in his life. When he started attending Narcotics Anonymous, or NA, meetings, things really started to change for him.
“I heard my story in there. Each time I go, I’d get something and take it. ‘Ooh, yeah, I can identify with that! Oh, I can feel that too, I can understand that,’” he says.
The fourth step of the NA program required Bennett to write a short story about his life. He wrote about his father.
“Mainly about the way he treated my mother. How it affected me. How I wound up with all that prison time,” he says. “When he read it, he said it hit him right in his heart, and he said that he almost wanted to go drink, but he didn’t. And he came and apologized to me. That’s what enabled me to start my change, just that, what he did.”
(Partially) controlling one’s destiny
Bennett started attending college programs in prison, volunteering with nonprofits and earning work certificates. He realized he could do a lot to improve his life and his chances of getting out. But when it came to being a father, he had less control.
He and Brianna’s mother divorced when she was around five years old. Bennett barely saw his daughter after the divorce.
“My last five, six years I stopped seeing her,” he says. “And then she didn’t know when I was ever coming home. She didn’t know because I didn’t really know, and I didn’t want to tell her. And then they deny me and something happened, so I would never tell her.”
Over half of incarcerated parents don’t receive any personal visits from their children. When there’s little to no contact between incarcerated parents and their children, it becomes much harder to establish a relationship later on.
Bennett tried to maintain and strengthen his relationship with Brianna through letters.
“He wrote me more than I wrote him,” she says. “I would write every now and then. But yeah, he wrote me every week.”
I ask her if she liked receiving the letters.
“Yeah,” she says. “I liked the way they smelled too.”
Bennett smiles and says, “I wear Gypsy Musk, and put it on letters, too.”
One day, Bennett came home after spending 31 years in prison.
“I remember giving him a hug, a nice big hug,” says his daughter. “We took pictures, we went to eat, it was nice. We went to a cheese steak shop since he was on curfew, and we got there kind of late.”
“She was 20 years old,” says Bennett. “But I was able to develop a relationship as her being a woman now. She’s not a kid no more, she’s a grown person. We go out to eat once a week.”
Brianna Bennett says building a relationship takes time.
“I have to relearn him while he’s out,” she says. “It’s a whole other process. I learned that I’m more like my dad than I actually knew. A lot of the artists that I listen to he listens to. Kendrick Lamar, for example.”
The benefits of reunification
Katherine Katcher doesn’t think that family reunification is appropriate for every single person in every case. But she says the potential benefits of reunification are huge.
“It’s not just healthy for that person. It can be very healthy for the child,” she says. “Studies have shown that when someone lives with an absent parent who’s incarcerated, that child is far more likely to end up incarcerated themselves or system involved. So if someone comes back in your life, even if they haven’t been there for 10 years, if you’re 10 years old or 12 years old, they can still teach you a lot about, ‘Don’t do it the way I did it. You have choices.’”
Today, William Bennett is going to school to get his bachelor’s degree. He’s also working full-time and trying to be a supportive parent and role model for his daughter.
“So she’s seen me do it and now she can do it too,” he says. “If I can do it, anybody can do it.”
To hear the entire Re-entry series, click on the "Related Content" below.