By Watani Stiner
For nearly three years, since March of 2013, I have enjoyed contributing to the San Quentin News with my OG’s Perspective column, glad to let my son Larry Jr. pinch-hit occasionally. But with this column my time in the lineup comes to an end. When I paroled from San Quentin a year ago I promised editor in chief Arnulfo Garcia that I would continue for a year. That year has ended. Arnulfo likes to encourage the newspaper staff to “move forward.” That’s what I’m going to do, with a focus on my family that is so dear to me and to completion of my memoir. As you can see by the theme of my recent presentation to the men at San Quentin and my last regular column, printed below, I believe that family is an essential part of life. The restrictive terms of my release from prison will soon be eased and I will be able to connect more easily with those children and grandchildren that I cherish. I will also be able to get more involved in various social justice issues that interest me in my community. As I leave the pages of the SQ News I want to thank all those involved for the chance to have my say. If the readers and SQ News staff would allow, I would still like to be able to submit articles on an occasional basis as important issues arise and that I feel passionate to speak to.
LESS THAN A YEAR AGO, I was a California state prisoner serving a life sentence. And although I spent a total of 26 years behind these walls of San Quentin, the last time I actually walked the streets of this country as a “free” man (prior to January of this year) was 1969…. That was 47 years ago.
Now we certainly don’t have enough time for me to bore you with details of my whole life-story, so let me just give you a thumbnail sketch of my journey and make one brief observation:
For those of you who don’t know, I escaped from San Quentin in 1974 because my life was in serious danger in prison. I fled the country to South America where I remained an escaped-fugitive for 20 years. In 1994, I made a deal with the state department and voluntarily surrendered to U.S. authorities in exchange for my family being given safe passage to the U.S. I was brought back to San Quentin to serve out the remainder of my life sentence. I realized tonight that I just might be the only person in this country to have successfully escaped from San Quentin and then volunteered to return—not only once but volunteered to come back to this prison twice! Once in 1994, and then again tonight! I just hope they don’t decide to keep me as long as they did the first time. So Lt. Sam Robinson… I’m trusting that you will let me out of here TONIGHT!
For the thousands of fathers who are currently in prison in San Quentin and this country, it is certainly no secret that our children are collateral damage. Yes, sadly but truthfully, and rarely ever acknowledged or discussed by political pundits and policy-makers, millions of children are innocent casualties of our criminal injustice system. It is one of America’s dirtiest little secrets, and a national tragedy.
After being in prison for so many years, separated from the lives of my children (who, by the way, did not get the promised safe passage from the U.S. government until 11 years and almost their entire childhoods had passed…), I had made up my mind that since they had all grown up during my incarceration, I had missed my chance to be fully present in their lives. I actually believed that my children no longer needed me as their father. After all, I had missed practically all their birthdays, their school graduations, family picnics, marriages; and so many holidays have passed without my presence. And most importantly, I had missed my God-given right as a father: the right to lower my voice and strike terror into the hearts of all my daughters’ conniving little boyfriends. Yes, why would my children, after all these years of my absence, need a father now?
Although I was separated from my own children, during my incarceration I have found myself being a surrogate father to so many young prisoners who have also become my surrogate sons. As with any family, some of my sons I scolded because they were hard-headed and difficult to reach, while others would argue with me, repeatedly ask annoying questions, and listen to what I had to say. Yes, there were those I had become disappointed with, and those that made me so very proud of them.
I recall one of my many prison sons who came to prison when he was just 16 years of age, unable to read or write and too embarrassed to admit it. He would not ask for help for fear of being exposed to the other prisoners. Instead, he chose to withdraw, losing all contact and communication with his family. Like a father, I tried to give the love, the time and the patience to this young man that I was denied the opportunity to give to my own children. If I couldn’t be their father, I would try to be somebody’s father. In addition to helping him learn to read and write, I tried to encourage him, build up his sense of self-respect, and help him sort out his own identity as a man. He would later go on to get his G.E.D. and AA degree. When I was paroled, he was taking a correspondence course to obtain his B.A. All he needed was a father and a chance!
If anyone here is holding onto the assumption that your children do not need you anymore because you have been separated from them for so long, or because they are grown, let me assure you that your assumption is far removed from reality: Once I had been released from prison, I first began to experience overwhelming feelings of anxiety. For I now had full access to all of my children: their scars, their hurts, and all their traumas. I was suddenly confronted with the difficult day-to-day experience of being a father. I did not realize it at the time, but prison serves as a kind of buffer to our relationship with our children. It hides from us their nightmares and their dreams.
I quickly found out that my children needed love and healing… they needed both a reassuring embrace from me as well as a silent and sacred space to scream: WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME DADDY? I HATE YOU AND I LOVE YOU TOO! The human heart must ask: Where is this love and who in the hell locked up compassion and justice?
It is my hope that one day you all will find out, just as I have… that no matter how long the state decides to contain us under a broken criminal justice system, our children are the ones who suffer the most. And no matter how many years you are incarcerated, when you are released, you too will find that your sons and daughters still need their dads!
My message to every father in prison, and to all of the fathers here in this room who are not in prison, who feel they are no longer needed in their children’s lives, is to find a way to stay connected (or get connected) to your children. For me (while in prison) I poured most of my time and energy into writing. Writing became my passion, my salvation, and it created a life-line from my heart to my children’s heart. It literally kept me sane and connected to my children during my 21 years of re-incarceration. I continued to write to them each and every day, even when there was no response. Against any temptation to despair, I urge you to find a creative way to stay connected with your children.
In closing, I’d like to leave a message and a poem to all my brothers who are currently locked up behind bars. The message is crucial: Discover and explore your creative passion. If you have children, that passion, whatever it may be, can help provide that difficult and necessary bridge to them, a starting point in building a creative relationship that can sustain all the separation, hurt, anger and loss that is intrinsic to a having a parent in prison.
So, if you would just indulge me, I’d like to share this short poem with you. It is a poem I wrote 10 years ago while a prisoner here at San Quentin. I titled it: I Write For My Children.