Words | Ireon Roach, Staff Writer

To whom it may concern (and this does concern everyone),

 

THAT PRISON HAS NO WALLS. In 2004 my father was arrested, detained and sentenced to 50+ years in federal prison. I cannot tell you the details of parole. I cannot tell you the details of his sentencing, for I was only beginning to form my own sentences. Some of my words and phrases were parroted after my father, mimicking his cadence to Def Poetry Jam. We were fused early on over our shared love of language. In 2004, equal parts of both of us were cast away to the great state of Iowa, only to be connected by phone, through heavily screened handwritten letters or long drives to the penitentiary. Growing up, my father would often remind my younger sister and me that “Y’all supposed to be statistics - y’all know that?” From behind a thick glass pane, over a phone that used little to no modern technology, he would continue: “But y’all ain’t statistics.” 

I’ve spent more time inside of a federal correctional facility than many young women my age and color, only I was not dragged there in handcuffs anyone could see. I turned up willingly, emptying my pockets, tossing out my gum, locking my phone away in a tiny locker, walking through countless metal detectors. I would spread my arms so wide for the guard’s wand I might have flown away. I never did. I was chained there. Bound by handcuffs no one but my father could see. Always. He counted his chain links and told us we would never touch that number.

“Y’all ain’t statistics.”

 

I have some numbers of my own. We were two of six children taking the drive from Chicago to Iowa a few times each year. On those six-hour drives at 70 miles per hour in 75 degree midwestern summer heat, we would pass around his mother’s Big Gulp full of cubed ice. Approximately three buckets of sweat, one well of tears and two bodies of boiling blood in one car. Twenty-seven plays recapped over the phone. Ten school assembly re-enactments crammed into three-hour visits. One breakdown after eight grade graduation. One breakdown after high school graduation. One breakdown after college move-in day. So many more since then. Seven Google Hangout calls since the pandemic began. One positive COVID-19 test shortly thereafter. One phone call to notify us. No contact since then. You thought you took all the numbers for us. Caught all of the time so that none would come back for us. But here we are, sixteen years gone. And counting.

 

Linked by our words shooting through cyberspace or moving molecules over phone lines, I am fused to a man no longer free. Wherever I go, I see a place he has yet to know. It is as if that prison has no walls. 

“Write a letta to this address, he said. Send it there. You ever heard of clemency? I could get that! Judge could overturn my sentence and I could hear more of yours. Judge could lessen my number and I could start to count with you again. Not against you. Not on you. We could be a different statistic.”

 

Here is the letter I wrote to a judge whose name I have yet to learn and may never know. In it, I am counting all of the numbers he has to be proud of. In it, I count against all the numbers that drown us. Though this prison has no walls, they must be torn down. One. At a time.

...

To whom it may concern (and it does concern everyone), 

I am writing on behalf of my father’s release from federal correctional prison. His name is Michael Roach, inmate number XXXXXX at XXXXXX State Penitentiary in Anamosa, Iowa. My father has been under the jurisdiction of the Iowa Department of Corrections since I was about 5 years old or, in time relevant to you, approximately 16 years. Most families might be able to count the very days before approximating the year of their beloved’s capture, but I was so young I really only have the stories I tell myself of how my father was taken away from me. There is a lived memory and there is a collective memory. There is the father that loved me without walls and the father that loves me by barreling through them. There is the time I spent with him in my childhood home and the time given to me in parcels of visits to Iowa after six-hour drives outside of the city. The collective, the constructed, the latter, is the memory of a love I’ve been made to accept my entire cognitive life. It is the real, the lived, the felt and materialized former love that I know myself and my family have a right to experience again in my father’s presence. 

I would like to invite you to meditate with me on how hard it was (is) for me to write this letter. It took so long for me to bring myself to the keyboard. It took so long for me to move my collected and quilted life out of the way and be able to stare my lived experience in the eyes and lay it all bare for you. You—the power over my father’s full presence—will never understand what you have brought me to bury at such a young age. You—the existence over my father’s non-existence—will never understand that you have made me disappear with him as well. Imagine, a man removed twice over. A man removed from every memory of every member, else we risk disappearing ourselves. To love my father is to heal my own ghost wound. To hear my father’s voice is to crunch all of the numbers. This is a letter about how I have loved a ghost through my formative years and into my adulthood. This is a letter about the dirt I have used to bury him, the dried up bits of me coating his skin, his heavier husk behind every breath I take to cope with the depth and distance. This is a letter about how prepared I am, my whole family is, to dig him up. This is a letter about how he isn’t a ghost yet. If I am held in his captivity then the opposite must be true and, sometimes, he must feel free through me. Our collective memory no longer serves us, about how we wish to live again and have him be there. 

For, he is there! He is here, still, by some miracle of his own faith. As my family not only encouraged but ensured a continued relationship with my father, I am reminded of his faith every day. He often tells me about how proud he is of us, his two daughters, and how much strength he finds in us. I always try to remind him (usually to no avail) of his own goodness and strength. How much of your power is your own, Dad? I wish he knew. I have watched this man blossom through an incarceration made to destroy him. My earliest memory of any graduation ceremony was not my own, but his! Right in the halls of XXXXXX State Penitentiary, visiting for the gifting of my father’s earned GED. I was so proud! I spoke to a Cedar Rapids news reporter in joyous tears and smiled the whole ride back into the city. That was my dad! He would go on to reach so many achievements that our wall at home would carry his name more than I could bear some days. Even at a young age I understood that he was reaching goals where the possibility of achievement had been stripped from him years prior. And that I could do the same. I understood that he had begun a process of reconciliation and correction. Michael Roach, inmate number XXXXXX, has not been biding his time. He had been biting into. He has done some of the hardest work a man can do in once again becoming one. 

Through my father’s strength I have ventured into places not “made for me” and spaces not made with me in mind. I am the first person in my family to pursue a post-secondary education on full scholarship to Boston University. My father’s struggles through his incarceration have inspired me to acknowledge my priming to be a statistic and actively work against it. In less than a year’s time, at 22 years old, I will graduate from one of the best universities in the nation, with a BFA in Theatre Arts and a BA in Sociology. I converse with him often about the books I’m reading and the social theories at work in our lives. I listen to him speak or read his emails and want to cry. 

“This is work we can do together, I think, on this side of memory.”

In short, I believe my father is growing, learning and molding himself to be a person that is no longer attached to his inmate number under the jurisdiction of the Iowa Department of Corrections. I know that he is not yet done with his time but sees time coming to him in a new way. I know that I love him and that he is not yet a ghost and that I would like to love him in full presence before this is true. I know that you have an important weight on an important decision, and I invite you to meditate with me on the role a correctional facility has played in a life of deviance and how it has moved my father a few steps closer toward reintegration to society. 

Prison Has No Walls