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An infant is cradled in the arms of his father.
Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi (Source: Depositphotos)

One day a friend told me that he and his wife were trying to have a baby. Like me, he was a teenager when he committed the crime for which he was now serving a life sentence. Unlike me, he was a married man who regularly received family visits. 

For those fortunate enough to receive them, visits in prison are valued above almost anything else. Among them, the family overnight visits, known as “conjugal visits,” are the holy grail. They are overnight events during which eligible prisoners have an opportunity to spend 30 to 40 hours with immediate family or a spouse in a private space equipped with all the amenities of a small one- to two-bedroom apartment located on prison property. 

These events come with access to better food that we can prepare ourselves with people who genuinely care about our well-being. For a brief moment in time they provide a break from day-to-day prison life, allowing one to feel like a full person. 

At its inception the privilege was extended to all California prisoners, but the rules were modified in the mid-1990s to exclude those with life sentences as part of a tough-on-crime approach. Only with the election of a new governor, paired with a shift in public sentiment, were family visiting privileges for life-term prisoners restored in 2017. 

Following the change I noticed a spike in jailhouse marriages through pen pal connections, prison yard hookups or the return of old flames. 

Some time later, my friend excitedly revealed that he and his wife were pregnant. I was honored he’d share such a personal detail with me, but I was conflicted because I didn’t know how to respond.

In the real world, after hearing such life-altering news, social etiquette requires a smile followed by a congratulatory hug or handshake as people share in the celebration of new life. But because I’ve spent more years in prison than I have in the free world, I had never congratulated a friend or relative on an engagement, wedding or pregnancy. 

In prison there is no culture of celebrating life’s milestones. Standard rules of social etiquette in the penitentiary aren’t normal. They’re complex, twisted things that promote hyper masculine self-expression about people, events or ideas. It’s a toxic energy that breeds envy at witnessing another person’s happiness. 

Knowing someone who intentionally created a family while in prison was a brand new experience. I wanted to support my friend, but I had questions.

How could a father raise a son from inside prison, teach him an honorable code of conduct or set an example of the kind of man a son could aspire to become?

What message does a daughter learn about safety, security or the type of people she should make herself available to when her relationship with her father is from within the confines of prison visitations? 

How does a couple parent together with such an obstacle? 

I spent five years living with a cellmate who was conceived during a conjugal visit. He wasn’t planned; he was just something that happened during one of his mother’s visits to his father in the state penitentiary. Like the majority of those housed in prison, my former cellmate’s upbringing was full of challenging experiences that left psychological scars. His visits to his dad in the penitentiary left some of the deepest. He used to share vivid memories of his childhood visits to his father at the same prison where he himself would later reside.

Still, I also had to acknowledge that my knee-jerk analysis of my friend’s situation was based on my personal beliefs and it was unfair to judge him. 

My friend has a good support network, and he has character attributes that would make him a great father while incarcerated. He is actively redefining expectations of how a family is created and cared for.

Despite the circumstances, he is excited about bringing a new life into this world. What better way to give back to a world he has hurt than to gift it with a person who is wanted and loved and could make this world a better place for the next generation? 

Even better, my boy is gonna be a girl dad. I’m happy for him and his wife. I also feel lucky to be connected to something so uniquely amazing. 

With this in mind, I shut off my critical brain, smiled and congratulated my friend with a firm handshake and hug as we shared in the celebration of new life.

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.

Emmanuel G. Vaughn is a writer who has spent years turning his life around and helping to ensure that other kids don’t make the same mistake he made as an at-risk youth. He is incarcerated in California.