AN OPEN LETTER: EBONY'S STORY - THE IMPORTANCE OF FATHERHOOD
A feeling of complete joy came over me as I watched Ms. Alice Marie Johnson run across the highway into the loving arms of her family. I was so happy for her and her daughters to finally be reunited. After over 20 years incarcerated in federal prison, Ms. Alice Marie Johnson was free, due to a commutation she received from President Trump. As I watched, I realized that my faith had been restored and that maybe, just maybe there was hope for my father to be released, too. After 30 years in federal prison, with a life without parole sentence, a presidential clemency seems to be the only sign of relief for my 64 year old, Dad.
In December 1988, during the war on drugs era, my father, William Underwood was arrested and charged with a continuing leadership role in a narcotics conspiracy, despite being engaged in a full-time career in the music industry. Two years later, as part of the first round of drug convictions made under the newly enacted federal Sentencing Guidelines of 1987 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, he received (3) mandatory minimum 20-year concurrent sentences on drug conspiracy charges plus, life without the possibility of parole. This was my Dad's first and only felony conviction.
Completely stunned and confused by this devastating news, it took me nearly 9 months to actually visit my Dad in prison. On my first visit I remember seeing him in an orange jumpsuit shackled at his hands and feet. My younger sister, Miko, burst into sobbing tears seeing our Dad shackled. Her devastation prompted my emotion and we both were in tears. By the time our Dad finished consoling us, the visit was over and he was gone. In retrospect, I realize that visit was just a scab that formed over 30 years into a deep-seated wound from the ambiguous loss of my incarcerated father.
Before my father’s arrest, he was a prominent music industry executive who promoted, managed and jumpstarted the careers of top R&B and pop stars of the 80s and 90s. He, also, was an extremely devoted father. Amidst his busy work schedule, he made sure to spend quality time with my 3 siblings and I. We would go the Natural Museum of History or try new and exciting foods in different New York City restaurants like, Mr. Chows and our favorite pastime together was going to the movies. That all ended when my Dad was arrested.
In 2013, President Obama announced his commitment to reform the criminal justice system. Prior to this announcement, my father had for 25 years studied every law in the law library, sought all types of legal support from around the country, and arduously exhausted all resources to appeal his case. The most unfathomable part about his case is that every law used to deny his appeals have all been overturned and deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, but these laws lack retroactivity. Therefore, a presidential clemency was his only hope for freedom. I was compelled to create a documentary short and campaign called #HopeForFathersDay, a website, www.Inprison.netand publicly share my story of being a daughter impacted by parental incarceration.
What I didn’t expect was the ton of buried emotions I had stored away from this experience. I realized I built a wall of resiliency. This was my protection from the pain. A collateral consequence of my father’s incarceration. The bigger issue, I was not alone. In 2016, I was awarded the Soros Justice Fellowship. In my research, I discovered of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the US, 50% of them are parents. There are over 10 million children in the US who have been at some point in their life impacted by parental incarceration. At any given time, 2.7 million children under the age of 18 have a parent incarcerated. A population greater than the states of Maine and New Hampshire combined. To makes matter worse, we are a historically invisible population because of the trauma, stigma and shame caused by parental incarceration.
In 2017, I formed www.WeGotUsNow.org- a national movement and nonprofit organization built by, led by and about children and young adults impacted by parental incarceration to raise awareness, build community and take action through advocacy. Through We Got Us Now, I see, hear and feel the overwhelming joy from daughters and sons around the country who are happy to know that they are supported. However, the work, for me, is bittersweet because my father is still sitting in prison with a life without parole sentence. He was the only reason I started this journey and I sadly feel incomplete because he is not here to enjoy it with me.
Last month for Mother’s Day, I spearheaded and produced the Google-initiated digital campaign, #LoveLetters, to show the unbreakable bond between a child and their incarcerated parent. For Father’s Day, We Got Us Now is curating a guest contributor series called, Our Voices where daughters, sons and Dads share their truth about the importance of Fatherhood. I believe in uplifting, engaging, elevating and empowering children and young adults that have suffered silently through parental incarceration. We Got Us Now aims to create safe and inclusive spaces, content and experiences that begin with healing, support and opportunity for this community.
President Trump’s grant of clemency to Ms Alice Johnson has reignited my siblings and I into action. We have forged a campaign #FreeWilliamUnderwood to bring our Dad home, a website, www.FreeWilliamUnderwood.com, a www.change.org/FreeUnderwoodpetition with over 72K signatures and a sign-on letter of over 200 supporters in the music, entertainment and sports industries, advocacy organizations, civil rights and conservative leaders, scholars, activists, faith-based groups and members of the community who believe 30 years has been punishment enough. My Dad has never received any infractions on his institutional record. He has no substance abuse issues and any type of criminal activity is buried in the distant past. Now, instead of influencing promising young artist in the music industry, my Dad mentors imprisoned youth about their choices in life. He is a changed man and deserves a second chance to be reunited with his family outside of prison walls. Five years ago, I created the hashtag #HopeForFathersDay because I believed whatever day my Dad comes home will be considered Father’s Day. Seeing Ms. Alice Johnson holding her grandchildren enjoying freedom has renewed my belief that anything is possible. I am hopeful again.
Ebony Underwood is the founder/CEO of We Got Us Now, a filmmaker, content creator and Soros Justice Fellow at the forefront of reform initiatives supporting children of incarcerated parents. She is a herald voice championing for the millions of children and young adults impacted by parental incarceration speaking nationally at Yale Law School, Columbia Law School, NYU Law School, American Law School, John Jay School of Criminal Justice, Sing Sing State Correctional facility, Google and YouTube. #WeGotUsNow.