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A pile of scattered greeting card envelopes
Photo by kemalbas on iStock

Terminal Island federal prison rests on a benign 25-acre plot shared with a U.S. Coast Guard station on San Pedro Bay, near Los Angeles. If it were not for the fences topped with razor wire surrounding the facility, the visiting room could be mistaken for a seaside cafe.

On a cool Saturday morning in November 1993, I ambled out of my ancient three-tiered housing unit at the prison. The rising sun was burning away remnants of fog. Several hundred other incarcerated men drifted out with me, seeking the warming air. The 60-year-old buildings where we lived were meat lockers.

While I relaxed on a bench, dozens of guys rushed toward the chapel. The throng headed to several tables staffed by two civilian volunteers, with a couple of guards nearby. 

The volunteers were women who organized a semi-annual greeting card giveaway. The popular event distributed free cards for holidays of many cultures and in several languages.

I strolled in that direction expecting these freebies to be gone — most of them hoarded by the entrepreneurial guys looking to hawk to the tardy. The guards did little to police the frenzy, which brought to mind the great American holiday, Black Friday. 

As the supply dwindled, I edged closer. I found the tables littered with empty envelopes, snakes of string and shreds of cardboard. I was about to turn away when the last two men departed. There were half a dozen cards still in a stack.

I assumed the remainders were religious or foreign-language greetings irrelevant to most of the population, but I walked up anyway.

The abandoned selections were all Father’s Day cards. This surprised me. The top two were askew, as if someone had picked them up before dropping them. I picked up the top card, then looked at one of the chapel ladies to thank her. 

It hit me why the Father’s Day cards were untouched. I had spent less than two years in prison at that point. But even from this limited experience I knew fathers were seldom a topic of conversation, except to denigrate them. Fewer than half of my acquaintances ever spoke of positive relationships with their fathers. I assumed that absent father figures had hurt many of my incarcerated companions. 

My peers were reluctant to discuss their family relationships, and I absorbed this boundary of prison life without question. 

The lonely Father’s Day cards seemed to verify my hunch. I knew this was too sensitive a topic to ask about around the facility, so I inquired of the volunteers: “Did you guys just find these cards? Were they lost in a box?” 

“No,” they replied simultaneously.

“Are these the last of the Father’s Day cards?”

“We usually only bring a few,” one replied. “This is typical. It has happened before.”

I took two of the cards, and left.

My dad and me

My father was ever-present in my and my siblings’ formative years in L.A. during the 1950s and ’60s. He frequently took our family of five on camping trips. He taught his three sons how to fish, hunt and track down evidence of ancient Indigenous campsites in the California deserts and mountains. 

I remember Dad once found a rare wooden cradleboard wedged between two rocks, likely left more than a century before. He made his discovery known to what was then called the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, which as far as I know has kept the artifact in its collection. 

Dad also welcomed his sons into his workshop and encouraged us to handle saws, drills and every other variety of tool. Though gruff and aloof at times, he was our go-to guy and always made himself available. 

When I could not decide between college or military service during the Vietnam era, he invited me to sit down in the workshop and discuss my options. We discussed the mandatory military draft, the war and the adventure of college. He added that he would finance any college I wanted. No one in our family had ever gone. I could be the first.

Yet when the time came, in 1967, I volunteered for a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Air Force. Somehow, war felt safer than the unchartered territory of higher education. 

Dad beamed at my decision and drove me to the enlistment center at 5 a.m. on my 18th birthday.

Fathers still a forbidden topic

Later in life, I was arrested at age 42, and Dad supported me through this turmoil, both emotionally and financially. No one in our family had ever been arrested, and no one has been since. I told my dad I was innocent, and my dad believed me. 

Sometimes he would drive up to four hours to visit me in prison. He visited me until his death at age 95, in 2010, just nine days after my mother passed.

As I started writing this article, 31 years after seeing those lonely cards outside the chapel, I thought I could finally interview other incarcerated individuals about their relationships with their fathers. But I quickly learned that paternal relationships are still a forbidden topic.

My queries on family life — especially fathers — elicited cold stares, and even some aggression. I did, however, find that inmates with extensive experience in self-help groups had developed insights about their paternal relationships, and their relationships with their own children.

I shared a draft of this article with my editor and close friend at the Mule Creek Post, a prison newspaper. He said, “Many of us can relate, including me. I never sent my father a card due to our non-existent relationship.”

I remember walking away from the chapel volunteers at Terminal Island in 1993. I glanced back at the solitary stack of Father’s Day cards. I felt like I abandoned a puppy at a landfill. But I was grateful knowing my own dad and our relationship would be happily remembered in June.

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.

John L. Orr is a writer incarcerated in California.