My father and I have a wonderful relationship. He calls me almost everyday, sends birthday, holiday and even Valentine's Day cards. He's 61 years old and technologically savvy so nowadays he emails me. I can talk to him about almost anything and he will lovingly impart knowledge and wisdom. So you might expect that Father's Day would be a day of celebration for us. It is not. It's a day that's bittersweet. In April 2015, the NYT wrote that there are 1.5 million men missing in the Black community because of mass incarceration. My father is one of them.
In 1988, amidst the so-called "War on Drugs" era, my father, William Underwood, was arrested under the newly enacted Sentencing Guidelines and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. In 1990, he received his first and only felony conviction, an extremely harsh mandatory minimum drug sentence of 20 years in prison, plus life without parole under a continuing criminal enterprise, despite an FBI document that states, their investigation was closed in 1986 "due to lack of activity."
I was 14 years old and hearing my father's arrest put me into a complete state of shock. If that wasn't enough, his sentence to die in prison was devastatingly, traumatizing and utterly confusing to me because my father was deeply devoted to my 3 siblings and me. We spent a lot of quality time together and he created indelible moments in our lives. Professionally, my father was a very prominent music promoter, publisher and manager. He advised and mentored top acts and executives in the music and entertainment industry up until his arrest. He lived and breathed the business of music. So, how does he end up in prison for life?
I soon discovered that my father wasn't perfect and as a teen and young adult he made mistakes by selling drugs before his career in the music industry. As a result, he was arrested. When I asked my father why, he says, "When you grow up with your stomach growling and your parents cannot afford to feed you 3 out of 7 days of the week, the lure of money becomes very appealing. I made mistakes in my younger years - ones you, your siblings and your children should never consider and I am remorseful. I did deserve to do some time, but not life without parole."
December 2015 will mark the 27th year that my father will have languished in prison. What he received -- what all of us who love him received -- was not just punishment, but a sentence that amounts to something cruel and unusual. My father's life without parole sentence was based solely on hearsay. It was not a decision made beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of his peers, but rather by the judge and prosecution on a much lesser standard. Every law used to deny his many appeals have today all been overturned and are now deemed unconstitutional. But these laws have not been made retroactive and my father continues to linger in federal prison. My eldest brother, Anthony, so eloquently explains the lack of retroactivity, "it is the same thing as telling a slave that yes, slavery is over and your children and your grandchildren will be free, but you must remain a slave." Due to mass incarceration, my father's life without parole sentence condemns him to die behind bars. This is inhumane.
Only through telling my story have I begun to realize how much my father's incarceration has not only taken an emotional toll on my life, but the lives of countless others. Even as now adult children of an incarcerated parent, my siblings and I endure a lot of emotional pain. Although my father has maintained a solid relationship with each one of us from behind bars throughout the years, we are all still numb. My hope is that by sharing my story I can show other children and families whose fathers, grandfathers, uncles and sons are part of that 1.5 million missing black men that they are not alone. There is no legislation to change my father's prison sentence. His only avenue for relief is through presidential clemency. After 26 years, the laws have changed, my father has changed and his sentence must too. My one wish for Father's Day is that President Obama will grant my father clemency. Whatever day that happens and he comes home will be considered Father's Day to me.
Ebony Underwood is a filmmaker and advocate leading a campaign to bring her father, William Underwood, home who was sentenced 26 years ago with an extremely harsh mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole. To sign Ebony's petition go to: www.change.org/freeUnderwood and for more information about the Underwood family, go to www.INPRISON.net.
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