For two lifers, the coronavirus
pandemic had a silver lining
San Quentin’s Darren Settlemeyer will never forget his first phone call with his son after 20 years of estrangement. When Darren reconnected with his son in 2020, he was 20 years into a life sentence and had not seen or spoken to his son since being incarcerated. His son had been only three years old when drugs, drama, and the police closed in on Darren, and his young family was ripped apart.
Darren was briefly able to connect with his son through letters when he turned 10, but after that, the trail went cold as his son’s mom tried to cope with problems of her own, tragically dying four years later. As his son entered his early teens, a time of maximal boyhood angst, he was suddenly parentless. Taken in by one of his older brothers, he went on to beat the odds by staying out of trouble and finding success. As he turned from a boy into a young man and eventually started a family of his own, he kept polite but firm distance from his imprisoned father.
“If I was to sum up prison in one word, it would be ‘disconnected,’ ” Darren said.
When COVID shook the world, however, everything changed.
In June of 2020, Darren’s son began hearing disturbing reports about a COVID outbreak raging at San Quentin. It was one of the worst viral outbreaks in the history of U.S. prisons, eventually claiming the lives of 28 incarcerated men and a correctional sergeant. As the body count kept climbing with each newscast, Darren’s son became increasingly worried his dad might die before he got a chance to develop a relationship with him — or even to say hello.
Shortly after, Darren received an unexpected printout of an email sent to the prison by his sister with a message from his son’s fiancée. It contained a phone number and an invitation to call. His son’s fiancée said they were worried about him, but further she was tired of hearing Darren’s son complain that he might miss the chance to connect with his long lost father.
“I was scared,” Darren said about receiving the invitation. “I always thought I’d start off with a letter, you know, but with the phone number in there, I had no choice but to call. I’m so glad I did.”
He gave credit to one of his friends who snapped him out of his hesitation over whether to call or just write a letter — borne of self-conscious uncertainty — by giving him his phone time slot and ordering him down the stairs to make the call.
By the time Darren reached the bottom of the five flights of stairs of San Quentin’s North Block — the beehive-like “home” that he shared with more than 700 people — the uncertainty was gone, replaced with nervous excitement. He walked past the openair segregated showers, squeezed past the men waiting line in various stages of undress, strode past the officers desk to the bank of 12 old-fashioned pay phone booths, and, after waiting for his turn, dialed the number that reached out through the ether to his long lost son.
“Hello, this is Global TelLink, you have a call from… ‘Darren Settlemeyer’…. at the California State Prison San Quentin, San Quentin, California. This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded. Say or dial five to accept,” said the robotic female voice. Darren tried to wait patiently as the seconds stretched into what felt like minutes.
“Hello Dad,” his son answered warmly, the sound of his voice cutting through 20 years of silence, uncertainty, and regret.
Darren’s estrangement from his son is an all-too-common part of the collateral damage that comes with crime and incarceration, damage borne by more than just those who are being officially punished for breaking the law. Mass incarceration is yet another factor contributing to the epidemic of disconnection sweeping the nation and dividing families. But while COVID has tragically disrupted and claimed numerous lives inside and outside of prison walls, many San Quentin residents have also reported reconnecting with long-lost loved ones during the pandemic. Nobody wants to lose someone prematurely before having a chance to say what needs to be said — to have the hard conversations and ask the tough questions about what happened and why, or to simply talk about the weather and hear the sound of their voice, and maybe even to share hope for better days to come.
Steve Drown, also serving a life sentence, reflected on these reconnections during a San Quentin Shakespeare’s class performance piece in the prison’s chapel titled COVID Story. During a monologue, Steve shared how his kid brother reached out to him unexpectedly during the pandemic after 44 years of incarceration — and silence.
His brother, who is a police officer, was seeing the devastating effects of COVID firsthand, and it motivated him to reach out to the older brother he had never known. In a letter to Steve he wrote, “As I age, I see things through a different lens. I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years reflecting on my life and my family. I’ve become saddened by the fact this was not how life was supposed to be a brother whom I have never met, a family estranged.”
Steve said later that when he saw the return address on the envelope from his brother he was hesitant to open it, uncertain as whether it would contain recriminations stirred up from the bitter family politics that
had boiled over after his arrest and incarceration. Uncertain as to whether he could handle any additional
emotional stress of top of enduring the harsh daily grind of prison life for decades with no end in sight.
The envelope rested gently in his trembling hands as he sat on his bunk with his head bowed, staring down at the hand-written address, lost in his private thoughts, oblivious to the boisterous noise of the
overcrowded prison all around him. Two hours later, he opened and read the letter.
“What I saw inside,” he recounted, “was a young man who had grown up, raised a family, and realized that he needed to reach out.” Steve felt of flood of relief wash over him that the letter was positive and encouraging. It was a ray hope for him amongst the dark turmoil of COVID in prison and the painful physical and emotional separation from his family.
Steve explained that his family kept thinking that he’d be out of prison in 15 to 20 years, based on their
experience from the Midwest. Yet with each denial by the parole board, some of his family became increasingly suspicious that he was messing up and getting in trouble, a manipulator caught up trying to
make a name for himself in the grimy world of prison politics. They assumed the denials were a reflection of his character, of who he was now. But what they didn’t understand, he said, was that while he was a
changed man, a man of integrity, he was caught up in a different kind of prison politics — the politics of a
board that often cared more about appearances than the actual risks and merits of a potential parolee.
Even though Steve still hasn’t seen what his brother looks like as a grown man, his brother has now seen him, thanks to online videos and pictures from his prison Shakespeare performances. And they write to each other occasionally. Steve said such family reconnections were one of the silver linings of the pandemic. He closed his monologue on stage by reminding the audience, “If someone reaches out to you, grab on, hold on, and keep squeezing.”
Steve says there are many misconceptions about people in prison, from society and sometimes from their families, too. “Pull back the curtain just a quarter of an inch,” he said, “and you might be surprised what you see.”
All sides acknowledge the importance of maintaining family connections — from the benefits to family members to reducing recidivism and improving the well-being of the incarcerated. Loved ones help those on the inside cope with the stresses of incarceration, and the incarcerated help those on the outside cope with the pressures of modern life in the free world.
Yet even when connected, maintaining family ties in prison is hard. On top of the emotional difficulties involved with crime and forced separations due to incarceration, there are many barriers to communicating with loved ones — from long phone lines to high costs to onerous visitation requirements. Waiting in line for up to an hour just to secure a 15-minute phone call every day — as many incarcerated sons and daughters, mothers and fathers must do — is frustrating. Not surprisingly, conflict over phones is one of the most common causes of physical altercations in prisons.
Imagine trying to have a heart-to-heart conversation with your intimate partner or needing to give fatherly or motherly counsel to your child with only 15 minutes to work with. Imagine being interrupted every five minutes during this call by a loud, robotic voice stating your conversation is being recorded. Imagine being interrupted by some tough guy with bulging muscles and a tattooed face telling you you’re on “his” phone. Imagine having to split those precious 15 minutes between multiple children or family members. Imagine having your phone or visiting “privileges” revoked for unrelated disciplinary reasons or curtailed by a parade of lockdowns.
Multiply these hardships by the 2.2 million people currently held in custody in the U.S. — with 70% to 80% of them being parents, according to a recent report by the ACLU — and you start to get a sense of the magnitude of the damage to the fabric of America’s families by the disconnections created by mass incarceration, especially to the all the children growing up without their mothers or fathers.
Darren knows about the hardships of growing up without a father. The last time he was around his father he was only two years old, far too young to even have memories to hold on to. When he turned 21, Darren set out to find his father, eventually learning his identity, only to discover it was too late: five years earlier his father had succumbed to cancer after being exposed to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.
The double disappointment was emotionally devastating for Darren at the time. First by not having his father around growing up, and then by having his hopes of finally getting to know him tragically dashed.
Much later in his life, as Darren sat behind bars with the full weight of a life sentence bearing down on him, the only thing that kept him from giving into the despair of suicide was knowing he did not want to deprive his son of the chance of getting to know him later in life. He decided he could not subject his son to the same double tragedy he experienced with his father. More than 20 years of perseverance later, and thanks to the silver linings of COVID, Darren’s son has.