November 12, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
Marcus Maldonado has been locked up for so long his older kids barely recall him living any other way.
His youngest never knew him as a free man.
His oldest is matter of fact about it:
"It's like your dad has his own house," Franchesca explains.
To get there, the Maldonado kids must make the trip from their home in Hartford on an even day of the month - to correspond with their dad's inmate number. They pass through open fields until reaching the entrance to the Enfield Correctional Institution. It is marked by a tall fence topped with a roll of razor wire. As the family reaches the end of a long driveway, there's more razor wire, climbing up a wall that surrounds the prison yard.
The four children and their mother shiver quietly while the guard on the other side of the darkly tinted, bulletproof glass cross-checks their names with the list of seven sanctioned visitors dad is allowed to see.
Finally, they hear the mechanical buzz. The heavy outer door unlocks. Step in. Wait. Another buzz. Another door opens. Lockers for jackets and bags are to the left. Metal detector straight ahead. Seats are bolted to the ground.
The air is warm, but the room is sterile, cold.
Time drags while guests of other prisoners check in, take their turn in the metal detector.
Franchesca, the oldest at 18, her hair styled in corn rows, wears wire-rimmed glasses for a studious yet modern look. The 16-year-old twins, Lizbeth and Yamaira both have long, dark hair and the gentle features of their mother. Marcus, the 12-year-old baby of the family, wears short-cropped hair and a baggy sports jersey.
After a wait, the door to the visiting area opens and the visiting families pour slowly through one door; prisoners pass through another. There is Maldonado. He looks a little different from the snapshots he's sent home showing him in a light shirt and dark slacks. Tonight he's wearing a khaki jumpsuit, like all the other inmates.
Overhead, cameras mounted to the ceiling whir and scan every corner, every guest, capturing the smiles and the hugs. This trip to Enfield, a little different from the others, is to celebrate Maldonado's completion of a parenting class. There's cake to mark the event, but the children show little interest in the icing-less dessert.
The foods they've eaten in different places help the kids track their father's journey through a series of prisons since he was locked up 13 years ago. When their dad was housed in a prison in Virginia, there were vending machines that visitors could use to buy snacks for the prisoners.
"There was orange soda, Starbursts, honey buns, pizza and buffalo wings," Lizbeth says. "We had to get there early because there are a lot of inmates. Sometimes we would get there, and there was just soda."
Once, Franchesca says, her uncle took her and her siblings to Virginia to visit with their father on Thanksgiving, a holiday memorable for the "nasty" food they were served in a restaurant near the prison.
"We ended up eating pizza and we went to a movie and saw `Elf.'"
Enfield doesn't offer machines for the children to buy treats for their father, but Maldonado has conjured up a little surprise for his kids. He is permitted to buy his own candy and he's melted two Jolly Ranchers and six Skittles in a microwave and wrapped the mixture around a Tootsie Roll.
Marcus Jr. likes the concoction and nibbles away.
Maldonado sits quietly, listening to the chatter of his children. Then he steps forward to speak on behalf of his class of incarcerated fathers, a speech he has been practicing for three weeks. The fluorescent lights cast a greenish hue, but Maldonado's voice is sure; laden with remorse:
"Due to my bad decisions," he begins, "my kids lost their daddy."
There's no mention of the decisions that landed Maldonado behind bars.
Maldonado was a leader of the Kings in Hartford during the bloody gang wars that gripped the city in the early 1990s, authorities said at the time of his arrest. Although the motive remained unclear, he was accused - and convicted - of shooting a reputed member of the rival Los Solidos five times and leaving him on the street to die. Maldonado pleaded guilty to the 1993 murder in exchange for a minimum sentence of 25 years, though he argues that it was not him, but his companion, who did the shooting.
"Sadly, I failed them," Maldonado says, continuing with his speech. "They lost their daddy and their mother a companion. I am working hard to make sure my children will have a daddy. I'm changing my life. Being a daddy is not something we are entitled to. We have to earn it.
"I want you to know I am totally determined to be your daddy again."
Kids Doing Time
The Maldonado children are not a rarity in Hartford.
In a city with 36,000 children, as many as 6,000 - one in every six - have at least one parent in prison, according to Hartford-based Families in Crisis, an organization that helps families of prisoners. The agency's estimated range is 4,500 to 6,000, though experts say those numbers, based on the proportion of Hartford residents in prison, are conservative.
Among children in the Hartford area under the care of the state Department of Children and Families, a staggering 40 percent are estimated to have a parent in prison, on parole or recently released.
Those numbers have been fueled by a dramatic increase in the number of people going to prison in Connecticut over the past two decades. Between 1985 and 2006 the number of incarcerated adults has more than tripled in the state, from 5,790 to 19,243 as of Nov. 1.
But the story of adults behind bars is about far more than numbers, it's intricately linked to the story of the children they leave behind.
Parents in prison don't help with homework. They don't help pay the bills. They don't corral youngsters on bedtime patrol, advocate for them at school or advise them on the daily trials of life. They simply aren't there.
"When offenders do time," says Susan Quinlan, executive director of Families in Crisis, "families do time."
While the phenomenon of incarcerated parents is just one of many social ills facing youngsters in Hartford and other cities across the nation, experts say it affects children in ways that are different from the trauma caused by other separations such as divorce or death. Children of prisoners, the experts say, feel both abandoned and betrayed.
"Children of deceased parents - it fits into their natural order of life. They may get mad at God, but most of them will work through that," said Dee Ann Newell, a senior justice fellow at the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation of New York.
But when parents are arrested, she said, there is stigma and shame and little support for the children. Youngsters left to make sense of why parents would break the law at the risk of losing them struggle with complex feelings of abandonment - and questions about their own self-worth, the worth of their parents and the worth of the system that put their mom or dad away.
"Older children feel a sense of betrayal that their parents won't do what it takes to stay out of prison," Newell said. "Younger children have trouble understanding that a parent has done something wrong."
The effects are often devastating.
The home lives of children with parents in prison tend to be less stable; children suffer from a broad range of emotional problems; they commit suicide more frequently. Often, they mimic the models set by their parents and end up in trouble with the law themselves.
"There is such a prevailing sense of hopelessness and despair," Newell said. "The fact that there is an 11 percent higher rate of suicide compared to other groups of vulnerable, at-risk kids tells you they experience a greater loss of hope."
High rates of incarceration among minority groups also contribute to the development of a complicated pathos in children where the stigma of arrest disappears and youngsters come to think of incarceration as normal for their race or ethnicity, experts say.
"The loss of liberty is the greatest sanction a society can impose," Quinlan said. "If we're locking up folks in such numbers, then that no longer carries a negative stigma. We should be very concerned about that."
"There are some neighborhoods where every family knows someone in prison," Quinlan said.
It is a phenomenon educators in Hartford are familiar with.
At the district's most troubled schools, teachers, principals and violence prevention specialists wrestle with a pervasive culture of violent and irreverent behavior. Each year in Hartford, there are 13,000 to 14,700 suspensions for bad behavior - including preschoolers and kindergartners
With so many children in the schools who have parents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, cousins and grandparents in jail, the harshest threats for punishment often don't deter youngsters, Quinlan said.
On the contrary, many children embrace the familiar outlaw culture of the parents they love. When Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez visited Manson Youth Institution last year following a spate of violence among youngsters, Chris Chapman, of Hartford, was one of the inmates.
Chapman, who used to attend Wish Elementary School in Hartford but had spent most of his life since sixth grade behind bars, said he was a good student in elementary school until he realized that getting arrested brought him "fame" among his peers.
"I got more love for doing bad than for doing good. It seemed like everybody applauded my dirty work."
Despite the prevalence of children with imprisoned parents, advocates say little attention is paid to them.
The state Department of Correction doesn't know how many children its prisoners have; the state Department of Children and Families tracks the incarceration of children's parents through individual case files, but doesn't keep tallies or offer specialized treatment; the Hartford school district does not know how many of its students have parents in prison.
Families in Crisis is leading a statewide effort to create a bill of rights for children of incarcerated parents. The document is being modeled after a similar one created in San Francisco that calls for the consideration of children's needs during their parents' arrests, court proceedings and incarceration.
The group, along with the state child advocate, the state Department of Children and Families and others, is convening a summit at the Legislative Office Building Wednesday to work on the project.
"Families of offenders don't belong to anyone," Quinlan said. "They are invisible. But they are the most at-risk of the at-risk kids."
Andrew Serrao, the principal of Fox Middle School in the city's North End, said around this time of year - when students are talking about their holiday plans - many students at Fox start to misbehave. Without family plans to look forward to, he said, they feel hurt and left out.
"I don't think it's about poverty, Serrao said. "It's the whole idea of family not being there."
One of Serrao's students at Fox, whose mother and father are both in prison, said she felt betrayed by her mother because she promised she would stay out of trouble. The girl said she was contemplating suicide.
Another expressed fear that the enemies of her imprisoned father would take revenge by attacking her.
And Corinthia Brown, who was 1 when her father was locked up, lost her mother too for a time. His incarceration plunged Brown's mother into crisis and drug use, and the state removed Corinthia and her siblings from their home until her mother recovered.
Even now, Corinthia said, "I cry myself to sleep every night. I cry myself to sleep every night because my sisters talk about how my father used to take care of us.
"I wanted to know him."
Just days before school let out for summer, Yamaira Maldonado was infuriated by the way a girl looked at her. Words flew. Then fists.
Yamaira was suspended and barred from taking all but one of her final exams her sophomore year at Bulkeley High School. She spent the rest of a sunny afternoon lying on a bed in her family's dark basement, bacitracin soothing the scratches on her cheeks; her eyes closed to the world.
Her mother, Gladys Lopez, was sad, but not surprised when the call came to pick Yamaira up from school that day. Of her four children, Lopez thinks Yamaira is affected the most by her father's long incarceration.
"The aggressiveness and the anger, I think it would be very different if her father were a part of her life," Lopez said. "I think everything would be different. I wouldn't have to work as much. I could be there for her. And she would have support from both parents, not only just one."
The first time Yamaira fought a girl for looking at her the wrong way, Lopez said, she nearly knocked the girl's eye out, and was arrested.
But on this point Yamaira is clear: The threat of another arrest, or even incarceration, doesn't scare her. Jail is a known place to her. She's visited lots of them as her father's been transferred around the state, and to other states. In all her visits to prison, she says, she hasn't seen any prisoners who scare her.
"They all look nice," she said. "The people who work there are nice."
Nearly every man the Maldonado children know well either is in jail - or has been recently. Lounging in the sunny living room of their Hamner Street home in the city's South End one day, they listed the crimes of their elders with the ease of naming the contents of a refrigerator:
There's one murder - well, a conviction anyway - a stabbing, several car thefts, a handful of bank robberies, drug use and sundry other crimes.
The youngsters know so many people in jail - including friends and acquaintances of their own - that they seem almost amused ticking them all off.
Topping the list is, of course, their dad. Marcus is the biological father of Yamaira, her twin sister Lizbeth and their little brother, Marcus Jr., who hadn't yet been born when his father went to prison. Franchesca Nadal, the older sister in the family, is not Marcus' biological daughter, but she considers him her father.
Franchesca's biological father, in fact, was recently released from prison. So was Gladys' husband, the stepfather to the four children. The children's uncle, who has lived at times in the family basement, was recently released from prison after spending years in jail.
The twins, Lizbeth and Yamaira, have their best friend visiting. Her father is in prison. Also visiting that day is a young relative who was shaken by his father as a baby and is still suffering the effects. The boy's father went to prison. Oh, and Franchesca's boyfriend's father - locked up.
With so many men she knows behind bars, Franchesca - who wants to be a teacher - knows exactly what she is looking for in a guy:
"He has to be respectful," she insists.
"With a good job," her younger sister, Yamaira, adds.
Will it be hard to find someone like that?
"No," Franchesca answers swiftly. "Those are the guys nobody wants. The women are attracted to the bad boys."
She turns to Yamaira:
"That's all she likes," she says of her sister. "She doesn't like guys who care for her. She likes guys who get suspended a lot and have kids.
"Everybody feels bad for the bad guys," Franchesca continues. "People think the guys who do everything wrong - they're covering a soft side. They look good. They have money because they're out on the streets hustling. That attracts women. They feel money could help them with their kids. Most women have no college degree. They just work real hard at Burger King or McDonald's."
Yamaira is unabashed by her sister's barbs:
"The good ones are boring," she says. "The tougher ones are fun. I know it's bad, but they'll just take a car and you can have fun with them. They'll always have a car to take you places, even if it's stolen. The other ones, all they'll do is talk on the phone and just come over and do nothing."
Lizbeth chimes in: "The good boys - they can't protect you. They can't fight. They're so wimpy. I wouldn't want to go out with somebody who can't fight - it's embarrassing."
That kind of talk is worrisome to Lopez, who has tried to create a sense of order for her children. The rooms in her house are tidy - a testament to the chores she assigns. She cooks dinner each morning so it will be ready before she gets home from work. But she also knows how volatile teenagers can be, and feels an increasing urgency with her daughters - especially Yamaira.
Her nagging worry is that her children will "follow the path of their father."
Their adoration for him is obvious.
Lizbeth has eight pictures of her father sprinkled around her room, some in frames that Maldonado crafted out of foil. The mirror on Yamaira's bureau is a virtual shrine to her father. Around the edges, she has affixed 10 Polaroid pictures of him. In each, he is striking a pose in front of the prison's white cinderblock wall and wearing state-issued khakis.
The pictures offer Yamaira a blank canvas to conjure her dream father: For one, he'd reconcile with their mother and live at home with the family. But unlike their mother, he wouldn't be strict.
"We would get to do what we want. He wouldn't give us any rules," Yamaira says. "I don't think he would want us to get mad at him. He missed all of our lives, so I don't think he would do anything to mess that up."
Once, Maldonado tried to flex his fatherly authority from behind bars. As Yamaira tells the story, a boy gave her a hickey when she was 13, and her father tried to lecture her about boys over the phone.
"He raised his voice. He said: `Why did you do that?' He's not here to be telling me what to do. I stopped visiting him. He's in jail. There was nothing he could do. He saw I stopped visiting him, so he stopped being mad.
"He called and said `I'm not mad at you. Come visit me.' He'll never talk to me about boys after that time he got mad. ... He knows he's in there and if we get mad, we'll stop talking to him."
Their dream dad also really isn't a convicted killer. To Maldonado's children, his stint in jail is more a bad twist of fate than a punishment.
"We don't see him as being there for murder," Lizbeth explains. "It's him being accused. Our father's not like that."
"It wasn't his fault why he went to jail," Yamaira elaborates. "The guy he was with shot somebody."
"Just because you're in a gang doesn't mean you're going to kill somebody," Lizbeth adds.
Marcus Maldonado plunks down on a cushioned chair in a small room at the medium-security Enfield Correctional Institution to reflect on his kids. He's heard all about his children's plans for him to marry their mother when he's released. He doesn't see that happening.
A lot has changed. He was arrested at 22, convicted at 23 and is now 35. The earliest he can be released is November 2011, when he'll be 40 years old. Gladys, to whom he was never married, is now married to someone else.
But, Maldonado is still struggling to be a father. He's missed having contact with his children's teachers. No report cards, no conferences. When he was temporarily housed in a prison in Virginia, he had access to materials so he could make gifts for his youngsters for their birthdays and Christmas - a dollhouse, picture frames.
"That means a lot to them," he explained.
Back in Connecticut, though, there are no materials for crafts, no catalogs to choose presents from, or even cards. He was denied a request to make videos of himself to send home because it would violate security policy.
On the rare occasion when his children get a ride to prison, Maldonado said, he has had to restrain his urge to share his thoughts with his children about their lives for fear they'll get annoyed and stop visiting him.
"It slows you down in the way you want to approach them. There are so many things I want to talk to them about, but I know they don't want to hear it from me," Maldonado said. "That makes me a little bit soft. But sometimes I take my chances. I don't care if they get mad at me. I tell them I've got to do my job. I can't stop doing my job."
He struggles with a sense of guilt over leaving his children, but he says he doesn't feel responsible for the problems it causes them, largely because he believes he's been wrongly imprisoned for a crime that he said he did not commit. Maldonado said he was outside a convenience store with an acquaintance who suddenly pulled out a gun and opened fire on another man.
"They know I didn't do it," he said of his children. "I'm not supposed to be here."
And they eagerly await the day he isn't.
Franchesca is looking forward to picking him up from prison and reintroducing him to the world. A lot has changed during his time behind bars, including clothing styles and the prevalence of computers. She plans to take her dad shopping and dress him for the new century.
Lizbeth is planning to come through with a place to live.
"We want to go to school and get a good job and make money and have an apartment so he'll have a place to stay," she said.
Yamaira is still waiting for that perfect family reunion.
Marcus Jr. can't wait to go to wrestling matches with his dad.
The hope, those dreams, may be unrealistic. But for children with parents in prison, they're near universal.
"Magical thinking," Quinlan, of Families in Crisis, says.
"They're going to come home and be the parent I always wanted them to be," she said. "More often than not, that's not the case. And when that's lost, it adds another layer of depression and loss."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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