A Family's Growth Behind Bars

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Daniel Bowes, JD, child of a formerly incarcerated parent ~

In my second year practicing law, I stood before a room full of young men imprisoned at Polk Correctional Institution in Butner, NC, and experienced a powerful moment of reflection. I was at Polk to discuss available legal services responsive to the barriers to reentry these young men—all between the ages of 19 and 25— would confront upon their release from prison.

While I arrived at Polk early in my legal career, I had presented on the issue of reentry dozens of times—to employers and directly-impacted individuals, on television and radio, in court rooms and statehouses and churches. I should have been comfortable and confident. And yet, as I opened my mouth to speak to those young men, I felt my face turn red. My hands began to sweat and shake. I could not recall a presentation I knew by heart. After a few false starts, I stumbled through my usual introduction before embracing the gravity of this full-circle occasion with words that had the tone of a confession, “I am the son of a man who sat in one of those same seats 30 years ago—he was 21-years-old, had multiple felony convictions, and was about to be released from Polk.”

Even today, having literally spent tens of thousands of hours speaking out on behalf of individuals striving to move beyond their past mistakes, it is often difficult to find the voice to identify myself as the child of a formerly incarcerated parent and effectively convey the complexities of the attendant experiences and emotions.

I was first introduced to my father during his imprisonment. A picture shows me sleeping in my father’s arms, dressed for the occasion in a red suit and bowtie. But he was paroled when I was still very young and so I have no real recollection of his incarceration. Accordingly, I did not grow up seeing my father through bars or separated from him by great distances. Instead, I experienced the less familiar but, in many respects, no less harsh aspects of his segregation. As is common, the long and destructive reach of the collateral consequences of his criminal convictions defined my childhood experiences more than anything else, impacting not only my family’s access to resources and opportunities, but also how we viewed ourselves and our place in the community.

It has taken many years of maturation and reflection for me to gain a sense of just how much my father’s scarlet letter maligned our relationship. Growing up, I witnessed my father’s struggles through a very narrow purview and with very little context—and so I watched without really seeing. Indeed, my reexamination of my early experiences is akin to the exercise of an attorney coaxing from an eye witness a truth obscured by bias and misinformation. I would see my father go to work every day and return home tired and detached—I would feel dejected when he said he didn't have the energy to play with me. I didn't understand the significance of him simply being there, having chosen to leave behind old associations and vices in order to dedicate himself to our family. Nor did I realize the exhausting and dangerous nature of his work—excluded from many employment opportunities, he worked for many years in steel fabrication. Similarly, I was there when my family moved from a dilapidated trailer to a brick bungalow but didn’t recognize the fortitude and sacrifices that forged that path. I was merely glad that kids could no longer make fun of me as trailer trash—at that time or ever before, I did not find comfort in the fact that none of my classmates actually realized I lived in a trailer.

Even in a new home and a new school, I never invited friends over. By that time, I had become keenly aware that I should be ashamed of my father. First from television and then from newspapers and conversations, I gathered that he was of a class of people—labeled felons, ex-cons, criminals—who had done things that were so bad that it meant they were bad people. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, this scarlet letter alienated me from my father’s embrace and obscured his incredible strength and dedication from my view. And yet, even confronted with such antagonism in his own home, his dedication to our family’s welfare never wavered.

For as long as I can remember and still today, he and my mother have consistently told me that I could achieve whatever I aspired to do. At 17, I graduated high school and left Burlington, NC, to attend Duke University, thinking I would never return. Fortunately, the more I experienced the world, the more I grew to appreciate the family I left behind. For all it gave me, Duke was not the passage to the promised land I had envisioned—it couldn't be. Given occasion as much by my feelings of insecurity and indecision as the common college experiences that grow one’s perspective, I often reflected on the nature of my childhood experiences and my relationship with my parents. These reflections continued into law school as I began working with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. I vividly remember, for example, teaching a legal research skills course to women incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York and hearing the women talk about how difficult it was to be separated from their children. Hearing their resolve to do better in order to be there for their children, and knowing that my father had achieved that only to be rebuffed by me was, at once, devastating and enlivening. Over the years, such experiences and the reflections they inspire have incited me to learn more of my father’s experiences in prison and his struggles with reentry. After much time and effort, our relationship is now one of acceptance, trust, and mentorship—I now recognize him for the pillar of strength and model of integrity that he has long been.

Standing before those young men at Polk, I was cognizant of all of this at once. Looking out into that crowd of youthful faces, I was besieged by feelings of pride, gratitude, and shame. Coupled with these emotions, though, was a prevailing sense of hope—hope that I could continue to build my relationship with my father and that those young men would soon return to their families and provide the same strength and support to their children that my father provided to me. 

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bowesDaniel Bowes, the child of a formerly incarcerated parent, is the supervising attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Second Chance Employment and Housing Project and also a staff attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center. He serves as the Co-Vice Chair for Our Children's Place.


  1. Brenda Bean's avatar
    Brenda Bean
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    Daniel, thank you very much for your eloquent article about how you came to develop empathy for yourself, your Dad, and young men and children of similar backgrounds. Your clients and colleagues are lucky to work with you, someone who has advanced legal skills and the wisdom and compassion to know how to use them. Brenda Bean
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