A long prison sentence, and a lifetime of waiting

The first time Emani Davis’s father saw her as a baby, he was behind a glass partition at the Brooklyn House of Detention. At that moment, neither imagined that this first encounter would set the stage for most of their interactions in the decades to come. When Emani was six, her father was again headed for prison–this time sentenced to 107 years for his role in a shooting in Virginia. For the past 22 years, the time she spends with her father has been monitored by armed guards and limited to prison visiting hours.

Her father’s incarceration started to affect Emani immediately. Most of her classmates stopped talking to her when they found out that her father was in prison and sometimes she would get into fights with kids who teased her about her dad.

“It was the first time that I realized that this was something that people thought that I should be ashamed of,” she said.

These experiences made her aware of the stigma that befalls children of incarcerated parents, and she learned to be more selective in sharing this part of her life with those around her. When she came to understand the circumstances around her father’s imprisonment, she also found herself doing a great deal of explaining, making sure that people knew that even though he had been convicted of felony murder, he was not the one who pulled the trigger.

At 29, Emani is no longer as burdened by others’ negative reactions to her father. She has come to terms with the events that landed him behind bars and has spoken publicly about being the child of an incarcerated person.

In the confines of detention centers around Virginia, she has developed a tight relationship with her father. When she visits him, they play cards and do puzzles together. He gives her newspaper clippings and she talks to him about her life. Her friends tell her that she has a better relationship with her incarcerated father than they do with their own.

“My father is my homeboy,” she said, smiling proudly as she spoke about him. “We kick it on a visit.”

Despite their closeness, his incarceration has been the cause of a void she can’t seem to fill. She feels it in her relationships and in the constant waiting that has marked a big part of her existence: waiting for the next visit, on line at the detention center, for the next ruling in his case. She says that she has put her life on hold waiting for him to come home, which explains why she did an extra year of high school and college, hoping that perhaps next year he’d be there to celebrate with her.

However, his imprisonment has also imbued her with a sense of purpose. Her family’s struggles with the legal system have led her to work with social justice organizations around the country, most recently with urban youth in Oakland, Calif. Her father is the reason she moved from California to New York, to be closer to him and continue to work on getting him released on parole. He has been eligible for release for 11 years, but convincing the parole board that her father is fit to be back in the community has been quite a struggle. This year marked the eleventh time that his parole petition was denied.

This denial dealt a particularly strong blow to Emani and her family. Now that her father is 65 and in failing health, there is a new sense of urgency to succeed in securing his release.

“He can’t die there,” she said.

About Ana Toro