A heartbroken daughter wants her dad back in time for her medical school graduation in 2016.
By Taylor Palmer
I am as old as my father’s time behind bars.
My father was arrested January 12, 1989. Seven days later, I was born.
Like many other men, mostly black, my father is serving an unjustly long life without parole sentence in federal prison for a non-violent crack offense.
But I don’t want to tell you about his case. I want to tell you about mine.
I want to tell you how things turned out for the two-year-old in the photo, the one squirming in her father’s arm and looking at the ground. That infant is me.
So is the grown woman in the black sweater in a photo taken on a recent prison visit.
My name is Taylor Palmer. I am a 25-year-old medical school student beginning my clinical rotations in the Atlanta area.
I am one of the millions of children growing up with a parent in prison, most serving sentences far beyond what is reasonable or just.
A child does not have standing in court. No one hears us in court or crying alone at night. When calculating whether a prison term should be two years or decades, no sentencing guideline asks: What about the kids?
As a doctor-to-be, I’m telling you it’s time to ask: ‘What about the kids?’ I’m one of those kids.
Please listen to my story. It’s just one story. But I am not alone. And I am not ashamed any more.
* * * *
When I was a child, my mother didn’t tell me my father was in prison. She didn’t know what to tell us kids. She said daddy was away at baking school.
In fifth grade, we took a vacation – at least I thought that’s what was happening. We drove from the New Jersey to Indiana.
My grandmother said, “We’re going to see your father.” She never said jail or prison. She said we were going to see him at school.
My sister and I held my grandmother’s hands as we walked into the “school.” It had towers and barbed wire.
“Where are we going?” my sister asked.
“We’re in jail, stupid,” I said.
That’s how I learned. My instinct blurted out the truth.
When we got inside, I didn’t know what to think. It was awkward. I thought I was in the movies. I’d always imagined my father looked like Mel Jackson, an actor from the movie Soul Food, or like Ginuwine, the R&B artist.
But when he walked into the visiting room, he didn’t look anything like I’d imagined. He looked like me — a male version of myself. I felt I was looking into a mirror. When he talked, he sounded like me.
I didn’t know what to say. We didn’t talk much. I was quiet. I was disoriented and confused. This older person, a version of myself, was a stranger to me.
One moment, I was a 10-year-old girl with a fantasy dad from the movies; the next moment, I had a real father – a flesh and blood dad – who was in a penitentiary, not school.
* * * *
I became pen pals with my father. We talked a little on the phone. To be honest, it was weird. He understood me like nobody else. He got my jokes. He knew what I was thinking before I told him.
As a girl who suddenly had a father, I kept asking my mother, “When’s Daddy coming home? When will Daddy be here?” My mother was secretive. “He’ll be at your middle school graduation,” she’d say. Or “He’ll be at your high school graduation.”
My teenage years were a series of heartbreaks, longing for my father to come home. He missed my graduations, of course, and my birthdays and father-daughter events at school.
I grew up in a very nice area of Teaneck, N.J., a suburb just outside New York City. We lived for a while in Florida, also in a nice area outside of Miami. I didn’t grow up in places where having fathers in prison was common.
Nobody knew my Dad was in prison. I never told anyone. It was a family secret.
One day, when I was 15, alone in my bedroom, I got on the Internet and found the inmate locator on the federal Bureau of Prisons web site. I typed in my father’s name and the word “LIFE” appeared in capital letters.
I was stunned. I became hysterical. I called my brother and sisters and told them the devastating news that had been kept from us.
Almost instantly, I went into a rebellious stage. I didn’t want to have much to do with my father or mother. “There’s no point getting to know you because you’re never getting out of jail,” I sassed at him.
I became combative, got into trouble, started skipping school and stopped studying. I became distant to my family.
* * * *
My bad attitude didn’t last because I had two great parents who laid a foundation of how to live.
Today, at age 25, I have only love for my parents. In retrospect, I realize what an amazing job they did — financially, emotionally and in many other ways — in very difficult circumstances.
Robyn Taffe-Palmer, my mom, always put her kids first. She worked non-stop to support us, in retail or whatever she could find. Today, she works hard. I have a tattoo near my heart honoring her. On top of wings, it says, in the Mayan language, “I am you and you are me.”
My mother didn’t divorce my father until two years ago. I used to complain, “Why don’t we have a stepdad? Everyone else has a stepdad.” But, for whatever reason, she remained loyal to her family at great cost to herself.
My father and I became close after I went to Temple University at 18. He kept writing letters, even when I didn’t respond. In college, I realized, “Wow, he is the smartest, most inquisitive man I’ve ever met.”
We began talking on the phone and writing letters. In my junior year, the prison started an e-mail system called Corrlinks, so we could e-mails back and forth. My father has become the best friend I never had.
From prison, my daddy worked with me on college homework, a connection I’d missed in elementary school. We talked philosophy. We interpreted proverbs from class. We didn’t always agree, but we understood each other’s perspective. We had a DNA match.
I decided then that I wanted to go to medical school, to be a doctor in neighborhoods like those where my dad grew up.
I used my father – and my intense desire for his freedom — as motivation.
Whenever I started to relax, I’d say to myself: “Study harder and daddy will get out.”
“If I pass this exam, daddy will get out.”
“If I write this paper better, my father will come home.”
* * * *
I begin clinical rotations in the Atlanta area in December and residency after that. I plan to graduate from medical school in the fall of 2016 at age 27.
I desperately want my father at my medical school graduation.
My father missed my middle school graduation, high school graduation and college graduation. He missed the birth of the children of a brother and sister.
My oldest sister, Yani, had to play a second parent, so only now is she focusing on her own education. She will graduate with a bachelor’s of science degree in 2017.
When a parent goes to prison, the children are sentenced, too. The damage a prison sentence does to children must be considered when deciding how the punishment fits the crime. At some point, enough is enough. After 25 years, my brother, two sister and myself deserve to have a father.
When I was young, I dreamed of my daddy tucking me in at night and telling me a bedtime story. Today, I dream of a daddy hugging me as I walk off the stage at medical school graduation in 2016.
My mom has Stage 3 breast cancer. My father is serving a life sentence in federal prison. I dream of my family being together, for the first time in my life, to see me become a doctor. I want my wonderful parents, my brother and my sisters to know that we did this together, as a family, who stuck together through trying times.
Today, we have a black president who also grew up without a father. I imagine sitting with him in the Oval Office, talking to him in person, about how we missed our dads but persevered through pain and succeeded.
Michael Palmer is more than the crack dealer of his youth. He is my father and I am proud of him. He deserves his freedom. I deserve my father.
I don’t like self-pity, but I believe it’s fair to ask: What about my life sentence — and those of so many fatherless children like me?
I want my father at my medical school graduation to celebrate an academic achievement that my family earned together in the face of great adversity.
I do not exaggerate when I say: “I have a dream today.”