StoryCorps 502: One Iota of Light
[MUSIC “Step In Step Out” by Blue Dot Sessions]
MG: Here in the United States, we lock up more people per capita than any other nation in the world. More than 2 million people are currently incarcerated in jails and prisons and the majority of those people didn’t commit crimes that carry a life sentence. That means at some point, they’ll be released and have to figure out how to start their lives over.
In this episode, we’re going to hear about life AFTER incarceration. Stories that ask “what’s it like on that first day of your release?”
Jamal Faison (JF): On the bus ride leaving Rikers, I was scared.
MG: How do you talk about what you’ve been through with friends or family?
SP: What was it like to be pregnant with me in jail?
MG: And is there something that seems to help you make it, above all else?
RS: I think I survived it by always having hope. What is life without hope?
MG: This is the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m Michael Garofalo. More after this short break.
MG: Welcome back. In this episode, we’re listening to stories about life after incarceration.
[MUSIC “Aspire” by TAPE]
MG: If you know someone who has been in jail or prison, you might think of that fact as a taboo subject. Something that you don’t want to bring up. Maybe you think — that part of their life is over, why remind them of it?
But being locked up can have a very, very long tail. For many people who have been incarcerated that history is very much a part of their everyday life, and it’s rarely far from their minds.
For the people we’re about to hear from, even though they’ve served their sentences, and in the eyes of the law they’ve paid for their crimes, they still feel like they’re doing time.
Take Jamal Faison.
In 2012, Jamal was a college student, home on break, when one night, he was part of a group that tried to steal mobile devices from a subway passenger.
He served 8 months on New York City’s Rikers Island. The jail complex there is one of the largest in the world and tens of thousands of people, many o f them young men, like Jamal, pass through there each year.
And when someone is released from Rikers, they are often put on a bus and dropped off near a subway stop, in Queens, often at 2 or 3 am.
That’s what happened with Jamal. And at StoryCorps he told his uncle, Born Blackwell, about that night.
JF: On the bus ride leaving Rikers, I was scared. I remember feeling this tremendous weight of fear of what my life would be like. Can I go back to school? What are my options?
BB: What did you really want to do?
JF: I wanted to get off that bus. But when I got off there was no one there to pick me up. And I remember just riding the train until I felt like it was a decent hour to come to your house.
And I didn’t realize what was going to be the fallout from this. It doesn’t just affect jobs that I can’t get. It affects every aspect of my life. I have a son now, and he’s going to be three in September, and I’m scared every single day that he’s going to grow up to be embarrassed of me.
BB: What do you think it’ll take to improve the situation?
JF: There’s nothing that can. I feel like my criminal record is written all over me. And no matter how much you shine it up, at the end of the day I’m a 25-year-old convicted felon.
BB: I feel where you’re coming from, but no matter what the label is, we make mistakes, we pay for our mistakes. And when y’all committed that crime, as mad as I was, I was just hoping things would get right again where y’all could get that second chance.
JF: How do you think our relationship changed after I got incarcerated?
BB: I still feel the same way. I still got love for you, of course. I’m always there if you need anything. Because you could’ve spiraled down easily, and I just felt in my mind, somebody’s got to be there for him. Just like I would hope somebody would be there for me.
JF: There’s no words that exist to explain how thankful I am for you being there, Uncle Born, and not choosing to walking away. It meant the world to me, and it still does.
[MUSIC “You Know Who You Are” by Alan Singley]
MG: That’s Jamal Faison speaking with his uncle, Born Blackwell, in New York City.
Today, Jamal works for the Osborne Association, a nonprofit that helps people get on their feet after they’re released from jail or prison.
What if your time in jail is forever tied up with one of the most significant events in your life, becoming a parent?
Kellie Phelan was pregnant with her daughter when she was sent to Rikers Island on misdemeanor drug charges, and gave birth to a daughter, Savannah, while serving her sentence.
Savannah never knew this until one day, when she was 8, she found a video online of her mom talking about being pregnant with her in jail.
And after that discovery, they came to StoryCorps and had this conversation.
Savannah Phelan (SP): Why did you go to jail?
Kellie Phelan (KP): Because I started using drugs when I got into an accident and I broke my knee. And that caused me to start taking pills that was prescribed from a doctor. But then mommy kind of got out of control with them and I wound up getting arrested.
SP: What was it like to be pregnant with me in jail?
KP: It was kind of lonely because I really didn’t have anybody then. And it was very scary.
SP: When you were in jail and I first came out, who was I with?
KP: You were born in a real hospital like every other baby that’s born, but then you came back to Rikers Island with me. So you stayed with mommy, because there’s a part of the jail for mommies and babies there.
SP: What went through your head when you first saw me?
KP: Oh my god, I loved you so much. And I just wanted everything in the world to be perfect for you.
SP: I wanted to know why you never told me this stuff? Why didn’t you?
KP: I guess I would have told you when I felt that you were old enough to understand. But I think that I was afraid to tell you, because it breaks my heart, and I get very sad when I talk about it. In the hospital, here I was walking into the nursery to see my beautiful baby, and there were other mommies and daddies seeing their babies, and here I was in this big orange jumpsuit and shackles. And I was really, really, embarrassed. So after you knew the truth, how did that make you feel?
SP: It made me feel very sad because I don’t want you to be lonely. And I will never walk away from you. Mom, it feels good to be talking to you about this. It makes me understand why you went to jail.
KP: You know, mommy had it a little rougher than you. My education wasn’t great when I was young, and that’s part of the reason I failed later on in life. But I don’t ever want you to be embarrassed or ever feel like you should be ashamed of where you were born, because you, you are my angel. You saved my life. And I will forever be grateful for you. Not everybody gets to save their mom’s life.
[MUSIC “Jubilee” by Unwed Sailor]
MG: Kellie Phelan with her 8-year-old daughter, Savannah, in New York.
After her release, Kellie and Savannah moved into Hour Children, a nonprofit that provides support and housing for women and mothers who have been incarcerated. And today, she works there as a program coordinator and youth mentor.
Both the interviews we’ve heard so far were recorded as part of the StoryCorps Justice Project this is our effort to record interviews with people directly impacted by mass incarceration.
And when we were first thinking about how these interviews might go, what kind of questions and stories might come up, we reached out to Rob Sanchez, a social worker from the Bronx who helps people coming out of jail and prison.
You might remember Rob from an earlier episode actually. Several years ago, he did an interview with his friend and former client, Felix Aponte.
Rob Sanchez (RS): Felix was coming to a job placement center where I worked as a case manager. I think Felix was nineteen, twenty years old
Felix Aponte (FA): Yeah. I was twenty.
RS: And immediately I saw that he was a pain in the ass.
[MUSIC “In The Backroom” by Blue Dot Sessions]
MG: When Rob fell ill with a serious kidney disease and needed a transplant, it was Felix stepped in.
FA: I was like, What’s up so, what about me? You think I could get tested? I mean like I got mad tattoos so I don’t know if I could donate.
RS: And sometimes when I’ll play the MegaMillions (laughs) I’ll play the MegaMillions and, you don’t know this. And I lose. I’m okay with it because I felt like I won already. Cause he saved my life. What greater gift is that. That was my million dollars.
MG: When we talked to Rob, I asked him what he thought was the number one thing that people coming out of jail and prison weren’t talking about and he answered without hesitating–fear.
And that’s something that’s shown up again and again in interviews like Jamal’s and Kellie’s. What we hear is that people are afraid of what comes next. Afraid of what other people will think of them, and, they’re afraid of failing.
It’s not surprising that Rob was right about this. Not only because of his work, but also because Rob has lived it. He served 15 years in Sing Sing prison for a first time drug offense. By almost any measure, if you looked at Rob today you’d call him a success story. He holds advanced degrees, he’s respected and accomplished in his work. And Rob attributes a lot of that to his mentor, Fred Davie. A Presbyterian minister who heads Union Theological Seminary. They met in a Theology class, while Rob was completing his master’s degree.
RS: We met at Sing Sing in this small windowless room.
FD: Yeah exactly.
RS: Which didn’t look like much of a educational setting (laughs).
FD: I know (laughs).
RS: But that room created magic. I think it was 16 men, most of us there for about 15 to 20 years.
FD: I remember being impressed at how well-read you guys were. I was thinking, Gee, I went to an ivy league school and I can’t quote all these people you guys were quoting.
RS: Fred, we didn’t have much else to do. (laughs)
FD: (Laughs) I remember that you said that you had no arrests prior, nothing in your system, and nothing on you, and you got 15 years to life for a non-violent drug charge. But I thought, he’s making that up. (laughs)
RS: It can’t be possible. (laughs)
FD: It can’t be possible. Right.
RS: I think I survived it by always having hope. What is life without hope? Even an iota of light can go a long way. And my first impression of you was, here’s this beautiful kind man who for whatever reason, just represents hope to me.
FD: All these years I never knew that this had that much impact on you.
RS: Oh it did Fred, it did.
FD: Huh? I mean, I was not locked up, I could leave Sing Sing.
FD: Yeah. But you had to stay there and you were not without hope, and maybe I was simply reflecting back to you what I saw in you. A guy who was determined to make it.
RS: I’ve been home for 16 years now.
RS: When I came home I was so afraid, but I knew that I could pick up the phone and tell you, “Fred, I don’t get this shit.”
FD: Right. (laughs)
RS: I could just ask the dumbest questions ever.
RS: About relationships, asking you about, “Am I getting paid the right amount? Like is this what I’m worth?”
RS: But you never told me they were dumb. And even though I was a bit haphazard at times, your voice was always at the back of my head, saying, Okay, what should I do?
FD: For me, I had people in my corner every step of the way. My dad wasn’t there, but, if things messed up, no matter where I was, I could always go to my mother’s front porch, open that door, and know that I was welcome.
RS: I have that from you, but I didn’t have that from anywhere else.
RS: You know it’s weird because I’m not your son.
FD: Right. (laughs)
RS: But, you know, I didn’t grow up with a father neither. My father died from an overdose, my mother was an alcoholic–you know beautiful lady with a beautiful spirit–but she couldn’t do the things for me that I think I needed. So I saw you as, like if I had a dad, if I had somebody that was going to guide me, that was you.
FD: Wow, thank you. Most folks who’ve been through what you’ve been through don’t get this far.
RS: I’ve got to be reminded every now and then. There are times that I get bitter and angry at my situation. I live a pretty lonely life, and if I’m not careful, I can fall into these doldrums. But just you being there to be able to listen to me and say, “You know what, you’re going to be okay,” it’s a tremendous gift, and I’m a lucky man.
[MUSIC “Step In Step Out” by Blue Dot Sessions]
MG: That’s Rob Sanchez and his mentor Fred Davie in New York.
MG: You know, at the top of the podcast, one of the questions we asked was when you’re released from jail or prison is there one thing that seems to help you make it, above all else?
After listening to these stories maybe the answer is–other people.
[MUSIC “City Limits” Blue Dot Sessions]
MG: Whether it’s someone who provides a place for you to go that first day out, or somebody who reminds you what it is you live for, and why you don’t want to give that up, or somebody who will answer your dumbest questions. For the people we’ve heard from in this episode, it’s the strength of their relationships that have made the difference.
That’s all for this episode. These stories were produced by John White, Jasmyn Belcher-Morris, and Jud Esty-Kendall…
The podcast is produced by me and Elisheba Ittoop.
The StoryCorps Justice Project is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation.
Special thanks to all the organizations and partners who have worked with us over the past year to record Justice Project Interviews. Learn more about the project and our partners at StoryCorps dot Org.
That’s where you can also find out what music we used in this episode.
And if you want to speak directly to someone you hear on this show… leave a message at 301-704-T A L K, that’s 301-744-TALK.
I’m Michael Garofalo and this has been the StoryCorps Podcast. Until next time, thanks for listening.