Reporter's Notebook

Your Stories of Siblings in Prison
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Readers describe the painful and complicated feelings of having a brother or sister behind bars. If you’ve had a sibling in prison, or if you served time yourself with a sibling growing up, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. (And if you, or someone you know, need support, the Directory of Programs Serving Families of Adult Offenders is a good resource.)

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‘Our Father Didn't Show Up to Court for the Child He Ruined’

The latest story in our reader series comes from a young woman, Ngeri, who is “still personally working through my anger with my father for taking away my best friend”—her brother, who’s currently serving a lengthy prison sentence. Her deep resentment toward her father stems from his absenteeism, flagrant infidelity, and the domestic violence that nearly killed her mother. She suggests that her brother’s close but toxic affinity to their father contributed to the “adventurous and inquisitive boy”’s eventual depression, bipolar disorder, drug addiction, and violent outbursts—even toward Ngeri, using a knife.

But let her tell the long story—one of the most compelling and well-crafted ones we’ve received thus far:

My younger brother is currently serving a 19-year prison sentence for dropping off two friends at a house where he did not know they had plotted to kill an elderly couple.

It’s hard to hear him referenced now as an Inmate with an identification number. I have many other names I apply to him, all with loving or funny stories associated with them. These days I know he hardly hears any of those stories, and that hurts.

We are 14 months apart. He was my first best friend. We did everything together. We shared a room with a bunk bed, went to the same school, shared many of the same friends, and even shared meals. Why did our lives end up taking such different paths?

Him being in trouble had become a norm in my life. When we were younger, it was the little things like climbing the shed in the backyard and other dare devilish stunts. Most of them could be chalked up to him just being an adventurous and inquisitive boy. I had no idea then that his trouble would leave the comforts of our home, and begin to involve law enforcement.

***

My brother adored our father. He always wanted to make him proud. Our father called him “Agu-Nna Ya,” which stands for father’s lion in Igbo. My brother loved hearing that. Our father would promise him endless things and leave much to be desired every single time.

A reader in Chicago details her first memory of her older brother—“behind the Plexiglas”:

Across from him is where I sit on the counter with my parents. There is snow on the ground, but I can’t see it. The only thing I see is my brother in his uniform, assigned to him a number—his name lost with countless others.

The mood is light, and the elephant in the room is being successfully ignored. It’s Christmas Eve, so why can’t I hug him? Instead I talk about what I asked Santa for Christmas and my mom is talking about the midnight mass we’ll be going to that night. My dress itches and my tights are uncomfortable. I hate this place, I hate the uniform, I hate the terrible lighting, and I can’t wait to leave—but I want him to come with me. He promised he would take me to Disneyland.

The elephant is still successfully ignored, as if it will no longer exist if we ignore it long enough. But that is not the case, and it won’t be for the years to come.

***

My brother has been in prison for 21 years, since I was 3 years old. The crime? Double murder due to gang affiliations. In most circumstances, that would divide a family, but it brought us closer.

While serving his time, my brother was allowed five visits per month—and my parents made sure that all five were met. He would help me with my homework when he could, and he would listen to my ranting about the latest drama. He is an artist, a syfy enthusiast, a Cubs fan. He is 13 years older than I am, but we are as close, maybe closer, than most siblings with less of an age gap.