Rediscovering Fatherhood Against All Odds

Sunday, June 16, 2013

By Dorsey Nunn

By the time I was seventeen I had helped produce two children with two different mothers. As with most men who become a father so early, it was more about pleasure than intention. To make things more difficult, I was living a lifestyle of crime that put greater emphasis on male bonding than on family or monogamous relationships.

I wish at the time of my children’s births I had possessed the maturity to be responsible and, more importantly, the means to actually contribute to their support. Not having the means to support my children or myself drove me deeper and deeper into a life of instability, which ultimately lead to my conviction, at age 19, of first degree murder and over a decade of prison.

Several days before my arrest, I visited my son and his mother. Up until that time I would have seen the urge to tell people I loved them as a weakness; but the sense of impending doom compelled me to let them know. In only a few days I would start to toughen myself for a life sentence or death.

As I came to find out later, this journey was not unique to me. My community—like many others—had a poor educational system, a police force addicted to racial profiling, a high unemployment rate, and a racist criminal justice system. I see now that all these ingredients contribute to the fact that spending time in prison is more common among young Black men today than completing a college degree or military service.

My first few years in prison, visiting days were usually a letdown as I rarely got visits. Eventually though, the mother of my daughter told me that when I got out, it would be my responsibility to take care of our child. When I got out? I was a lifer. But her insistence on this future, planted a seed of hope in me. I might get out. I might have a life after prison.

As the visiting-room photographer, I took many pictures of what appeared to me to be happy families. There were moments that overwhelmed me with fuzzy feelings—Christmas, Easter, birthdays, and the beginnings of summer. From thinking of my children on special occasions only, I shifted and began thinking of them all the time.

As a result of thinking about my children, I first experienced something I could clearly identify as remorse. Thinking of my children made me consider my victim and what he was not able to provide for his family. Through my feelings about fatherhood, I was able to tap into my own sense of humanity and compassion for other people.

In fact, thoughts of my children were at the root of many positive changes for me, starting with fighting back a strong compulsion to act out against my captors in order to earn a family visit. One of my driving impulses to find a way out of prison was my desire to have a real relationship with my children. Beginning to study in prison was inspired by my desire to be a better person for them.

In 1981 I had the good fortune of being released on parole. I still remember ringing the doorbell where my son lived with his mother the very next day and announcing my name over the intercom after almost 11 years away. Up until then, I associated people running down stairs with violence or prisoners being released for chow . . . until I heard my son running down three flights of stairs to meet me.

Several months after that came the reunion with my daughter. For the first time, I realized I was not prepared to take care of children. Actually, I was not even able to take care of myself. It was easy to send cards, make promises, and nurture dreams, and much harder delivering on them.

Fathering in the first few years after prison was a struggle against structural barriers that precluded me from supporting my children, leaving me feeling absolutely inadequate about not being the knight in shining armor I dreamt of being. Underneath my own personal feelings was once again, a larger, collective reality. I had come back to the same world that set me up for failure to begin with, only now I was more stigmatized because I had a prison record. This made employment, education, and housing even more difficult than they were to start with.

It took me approximately six years to find my footing and even longer to make amends to my children. Nothing supported my reunification with family. Family connections are ultimately our greatest “re-entry” resource. But neither the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation nor our government will invest in poor families directly impacted by incarceration—only in outside service providers.

The truth is that incarcerated Black fathers are never meant to reunite with their families.

Fortunately, unlike many kids I grew up with, my family had the full participation of my mother and father, so I did at least have a model. It has been 32 years since I walked out of San Quentin and I have proven to be a better grandfather than a father, and a better great-grandfather than a grandfather. I am grateful that against all odds, I found my way home, to family and the meaning of fatherhood.

Dorsey Nunn is the Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and co-founder of All of Us or None, a grassroots civil rights organization fighting for the rights of formerly- and currently- incarcerated people and their families. To learn more please visit our website:

This blog post is part of the Strong Families' first Papa's Day celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blog. Strong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.

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