Devin Cole last saw his mom when he was 2 years old. Then she went to prison. That was 22 years ago, when Alisa “Lee Lee” Stanifer began serving a life sentence at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona.
Cole has been wearing denim at San Quentin for a year serving five years on a domestic violence conviction.
Mother-son incarceration on felony charges is rare indeed and Cole says it is not easy. Over the years, he says he has learned to forgive, cope, and is struggling to break this generational prison life.
One in eight African-American children has a parent behind bars and one in 10 children of prisoners will be incarcerated before reaching the age of 18, according to San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership.
Cole is trapped in this statistic.
“I can’t wait to see my mother face to face,” Cole said. “I will give her the longest hug; I know we both need it.”
After his mother went to prison Cole was raised by his grandparents in Pittsburg, Calif. “When I would ask about my mother, the conversation wouldn’t last long,” Cole said. “They would show me pictures of her and tell me she was in prison.” When he was older, they finally told him, she was in prison for murder and robbery.
His mother would phone home for the holidays, but Cole admitted he didn’t know what to say. He had become numb emotionally because he didn’t know her.
“Our calls were real short,” he said. “We never talked about when she was coming home.
“I remember at age 10, I got a bike from a church who said your mother sent you this; I really felt she was real in my life at that time.”
Cole had to grow up fast once his grandmother died. His grandfather was a good provider, but he lacked the nurturing of a mother.
A move from Pittsburg to Turlock at the age of 11 led Cole into trouble and juvenile hall after being bullied by other teens who resented the newcomer. Cole retrieved his grandfather’s gun and committed an assault with a deadly weapon.
At the age of 14, sitting in juvenile hall, Cole would see his mother on a TV program called Lock Up.
“She looked liked she was doing good,” he said. “She was talking about prison life and how she was dealing with her situation. At the end of the show, the guard said she was constantly in trouble.
“I started to think my mom is a real gangster, but being in prison myself I see that she was just going through her struggles.”
Cole sometimes thinks about what life would be like if she had never gone to prison.
Cole, 25, is serving his sentence in San Quentin because of violence against a longtime girlfriend, who happened to be older than he is.
“I started to look at her like a mother figure,” Cole said. “I started to lash out at her when I couldn’t get what I wanted. I truly apologize to her and I know I messed up. I had so much jealousy and anger build-up from my childhood.”
Cole says he accepts responsibility for his action. He has taken advantage of rehabilitative programs by completing Nonviolent Communication and is presently in the Next Step program. He is a computer programing class member and plays on the prison’s flag football team.
“I learned to show empathy because I wasn’t doing that,” he said. “You have to have empathy to connect with people.”
He currently is going through the approval process to correspond through letters with his mother in CIW.
“I wish it was a way I could just hear her voice,” he said. “Just like with the writing process, we should be able to talk for birthdays or holidays. Prison policy does not allow family members in separate institutions to have phone calls.
“I love and miss her; I just hope she does what she needs to do for the parole board.”