Grasping at the Root: A young father's path to incarceration.

This is the first in a series of blog posts on fatherhood* and incarceration by Justice Strategies featuring Daniel Loera, a 21-year-old father of a 4-year-old daughter, currently serving time at Monroe Correctional Facility in Washington State. Daniel is navigating both the prison and child welfare systems in an attempt to maintain his parental rights.

Daniel was 16 when he committed the crime of assault. Along with a cousin, and under the influence of drugs, he followed two strangers outside of a Walmart to rob them. Daniel beat the young man he had followed with the butt of a gun and then fled the scene in his cousin’s car, only to be picked up two blocks away and then identified in a lineup. He was automatically charged as an adult, sentenced to 7.75 years of prison and 3 years of community custody.

When I sit across from Daniel, I can hardly imagine the young man described in the police report. When asked about his young self, Daniel says:

16-year-old Daniel would use aggression for everything without thinking. He would just act out, try to impress others. The new 20-year-old Daniel, he stops and thinks, he doesn’t let things bring him down as easily as when he was younger, and he actually tries to strive for success every time."

A factor that has solidified this commitment to his “new self” was that about 4 years into his sentence, he found out he’s the father of a beautiful 4-year-old girl named, Mila (short for “My Lady”). He says:

“When I found out I had a daughter, my heart dropped…my dad was never really in my life… he wasn’t a positive influence on me, he would even tell me he saw me more like a friend than a son, so it kind of hurt me really bad. So, I decided I don’t ever want to be like that, I want my daughter to know me as a father and somebody that’s gonna be there for her and protect her.”s

Mila is part of the many African-American and Latinx kids who, due to a racially unjust criminal justice system, are respectively seven and two times more likely to have a parent in prison. More than 5 million children have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives, and since the 80s, the number of kids with a father in prison has increased 500%. Mila now has a relationship with her father, but due to our child welfare laws and her father’s long sentence, he may lose his rights to her.

Daniel’s ability to parent his daughter is constrained specifically by two bad sentencing policies—one our harsh juvenile sentencing laws, and two, our limited alternative sentencing programs. Daniel at the time of sentencing was a young, thin, Latino man with a shaved head and a gang member with an attitude that appeared to lack remorse—exactly the candidate that our failed “tough on crime” approach to juvenile justice promises to take off the streets to make us “more safe.”

Although studies now show that youth are categorically different from adults in that they are more impulsive, less able to fully comprehend the consequences of their actions, and hold promise for rehabilitation, our policies have not changed to reflect this reality. In a majority of states youth under 18 who commit certain serious crimes are automatically sent to adult court.

What would help Mila most would be her father’s return to the community. Unfortunately, with a violent crime, Daniel is a person in prison deemed not worthy of sentencing reform. For example, Oregon and Washington (where Daniel lives) have both taken steps to create alternative sentencing programs for parents but have explicitly excluded parents with violent crimes (more on this in the next blog).

Many believe it will take a radical shift in the way we view crime in order for us to enact the change necessary to truly make our communities safer. According to prison activist Angela Davis, “Radical, simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” So, what is at the root here? Our failed tough on crime approaches are based on an unproved theory that if the punishment is harsh, individuals will be less likely to commit crime. But, these policies fail to recognize the underlying reasons as to why people, and specifically young people living in poverty get involved in gangs and or behavior that leads to violent acts.

Daniel recounts that his gang involvement was not related to illegal activities. Jumped into a gang at 8 years-old by his uncle, the gang was a space that provided him “family,” respect, and a “father.”

Daniel recounts that just before the incident he went to live with his father in Mexico. Instead of a bond, he found an emotionally abusive relationship and a circumstance where he took care of his father. His father encouraged Daniel to use drugs and alcohol. His father was arrested and Daniel had to get a job to take care of himself and his father. It was during this time that Daniel experienced the ultimate violation of trust by an adult in his life, he was sexually assaulted by his father’s male friend. Daniel then experienced a second violation of trust when his father refused to believe him.

Daniel recounts that at the time of the incident he was struggling with his experience of sexual assault and had begun to hear voices. Terrified, he used drugs and alcohol and violence to cope. It wasn’t until he was placed in juvenile detention that he was diagnosed with both schizophrenia and depression. After two years of extremely hard work with his psychiatrist, they found a medication and behavioral treatment plan that worked. He found positive mentorship. He began working with the dog training program where he could help dogs—who like him had experienced trauma—recover behaviorally.

Daniel is not alone in his story as black and brown youth are more likely to be incarcerated, mental health affects a majority of men in prison, and these men often have a history of sexual assault. Instead of being treated for trauma, depression, addiction, and other injuries of violence, individuals like Daniel are displaced into the criminal justice system. Stories like Daniel’s can help us get closer to grasping at the root of our failed policies and help us find effective alternatives that give young parents like him a second chance.

* I will use father, fatherhood and parent interchangeably and would like to recognize that many queer, transgender and gender non-conforming parents in prison may not choose to use the terms father/fatherhood and/or live beyond the gender norms and roles usually associated with these terms.

Lillian M. Hewko

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