As I stand over the stainless steel toilet, brushing my teeth with a toothbrush that’s smaller than my finger, I can’t help but exude excitement. It’s Monday, which means a visit from my 9-year-old daughter. The anticipation is so overwhelming, I almost drink the brownish waste that comes from the sink. Gathering my bearings, I grab a bottle of water, rinse out my mouth and continue to prepare myself for a stressful two and a half hours.
Inside the walls of Stateville Correctional Center, every incarcerated resident is allotted a certain amount of privileges based on their individual behavior. Privileges consist of the following: recreation (yard), commissary, phone, tablets, job assignments and various electronic devices.
Despite all those privileges allotted to us, no privilege surpasses that of the in-person visit. While the penal institution views you as a number, the in-person visit allows you to become a personal definition of yourself. In my case, an in-person visit allows me to become a father. After rinsing my mouth out, I dab on my cologne, which is made up of magazine strips diluted into water. Now that I’m smelling good, I put on my pressed prison blues, which consist of a sky blue shirt and navy blue khaki pants. I slip on my all-white Nike uptown sneakers, and stare at pictures of my daughter while I wait for the officer to come and take me to the visiting room.
Out of all the pictures I have of me and my daughter, there are two that stand out the most. One is a picture of me and her at her kindergarten graduation. We’re standing side by side with matching smiles as our almond-colored eyes stare back at the camera.
The second picture is more recent: it’s a picture of us here at Stateville, and the best thing about this picture is that she has the same smile four years later. A smile that tells me two things: the first being that I’m still her hero, and the second saying “I’m gonna love you no matter what.”
Tears escape my eyes just as the officer comes to let me out for my visit.
As I approach the visiting room, my mood changes like the Chicago weather. Anticipation is replaced by frustration as I enter the room where I am stripped naked and vigorously searched. The search is degrading and mentally challenging.
As I step into the visiting room, the excitement returns to my body. I survey my surroundings, then turn my attention to the vending machines that sell $3 candy bars, $4 bottled water, and $8 cheese burgers. Before I can locate my daughter and mother, my daughter is already jumping into my arms.
“Daddy! Daddy!” The tears come down my face as expected, and I try my best to hide them, but fail miserably. I kiss my daughter on the forehead, and stare at the one thing I did right in this life. My daughter leads me in the direction of my mother, who greets me with a passionate hug, and a tear-streaked face.
As if on cue, my daughter asks one of her off-the-wall questions. “Daddy, why would the judge give you two natural life sentences, when you only live once?” she asked.
I don’t answer immediately, I just digest her question, while my mother gives her a look that speaks volumes. I process the question and begin to tell her the story of Marvin Wheatley, which some claim is a prison myth within the walls of any penal institution.
According to the legend, Marvin Wheatley was sentenced to life in prison. During a prison riot, he was stabbed 26 times and pronounced dead on the scene. His body was then shipped to the coroner’s office, where he miraculously came back to life.
As expected, Wheatley was sent back to prison to serve his sentence. Unfortunately for the criminal justice system, Wheatley’s attorney had other things in mind. Armed with incident reports and medical records stating Wheatley was pronounced dead on the scene, his attorney was able to get Wheatley’s sentence overturned to time served, since you only have one life to live. And since he was pronounced dead, his new life constituted a new sentence, which resulted in his freedom.
My daughter takes in the story thoughtfully before finally responding. “Well if that story’s true Daddy, will you please die twice already!” she says in an annoyed tone.
I can’t help but laugh and cherish the moment. Because in that moment I become more than a number. I’m a son. A father.
I’m a “somebody.”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.