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“Where’s my Daddy?”

“He‘s gone to prison.”

These words are a precursor to the destruction of yet another American family unit by the meat grinder that is our criminal justice system. Innocent children fall to the wayside in the wake of this incarceration machine, becoming collateral damage in a war we are losing as a society.

Welcome to the front lines of America’s war on crime, a battlefield littered with confused and lonely children who have lost one or both of their primary caregivers. I’ve been both a victim of this process as a child, and a perpetrator of it as an adult.

At four months of age, I permanently lost my mother when the criminal justice system took her away and I became a ward of the state.

On January 16, 1990, my own three-month-old son was saddled with a similar fate when federal agents arrived at our home with a freshly minted marijuana trafficking indictment for me. I have not seen my son since that cold morning.

This issue was once again brought sharply into focus for me recently when a man I barely know approached me with a humble request for help.

Antonio was about my age, and his metal bunk was within sight of mine. I watched him push his walker toward me, and I was surprised when he stopped next to me and remarked, “I see you spend most of your time writing.”

He hesitated for a second, then he added, “I can’t write very well because I shake so much.”

Antonio then pointed to the manuscript I was working on and said, “You must be pretty good at saying things on paper.”

I smiled at this compliment, then I listened as Antonio told me about his wife’s passing a few years ago, leaving him with two young children to care for.

Antonio had been disabled from a gunshot wound he sustained earlier in life. As a single parent, he managed to care for his two children for roughly a year before becoming ensnared in our criminal justice system. 

He received an eight-year sentence and his two children became wards of the state. Now, after a year of fighting in court, he had just been granted the right to correspond with his eight-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter.

Antonio shared all of this very personal information with me, then he bravely looked directly at me to say, “I’m not very good at writing, and my hands shake really bad, so could you help me write a letter to my kids?”

This man impressed me with his straightforward request for assistance, so together we created a nice letter for his two kids. With the aid of a Lutheran services organization, the letter went to the children.

The determination and bravery of this man has given me the inspiration to attempt to locate my own son even though the process is made nearly impossible by a lack of funds, access to public records, or social media outlets. Many inmates like myself also have no outside contacts, further hampering these types of efforts.

Children of all races and ages are victimized by a cold and efficient incarceration machine that infects our society generation after generation. Once a family becomes caught in this repeating cycle of incarceration and abandonment, our dysfunctional criminal justice system just keeps grinding them up.

This means there is a very good chance my son may be incarcerated if and when I find him. And he may have children.

The madness continues …

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Eric Finley

Eric Finley is a writer incarcerated in Florida.