Brothers Behind Bars

What happens when the only life you’ve known has been in an institution?

This is the second article in a six-part series about young people with siblings in prison. Read part one here.

“The only photograph I had of her, growing up, is from a scrapbook from a social worker,” Shelton McElroy says about his mother, “from a visitation that we had at a women’s prison called Pewee Valley.” Shelton and his two brothers grew up careening between one foster home to the next. Their mother had been sentenced to prison when Shelton was just 4 and his brothers were 6 and 8 years old. Neither Shelton nor his brothers were ever adopted, and he sees his and one of his brother’s subsequent prison sentences as extensions of the same state-ward system they grew up in. “We never came out of it,” he says. “From being a ward of the state from 4 to 12, in less than six months, I was a prison ward of the state.”

At first, the brothers were sent to two different foster homes in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. “My earliest memories are of being in this place called the Home of the Innocent,” Shelton says. “I was in a crib with other kids, because they had so many kids, each of us couldn’t have our own crib. It wasn’t with Mom. I do have vague recollections with Mom.” As the youngest of the group, Shelton was allowed to go to the same foster home as his oldest brother, William. Middle-child David went to another foster home alone. About every other week, Shelton would visit him. Later on, when Shelton was 6 years old, the three were assigned together to a foster home in Fort Knox, a military base outside the city. For a time, it seemed possible that the sergeant who’d taken them in might even adopt the three of them together. “We ended up messing that up,” Shelton says.

It came down to a bike. While at a swimming pool on base, David, then 8, stole a bicycle. Shelton jumped on the back, and the two started pedaling away from the pool and toward the sergeant’s house. But the sergeant’s two biological sons jumped out from behind some bushes, catching the two boys with the contraband red-handed. According to Shelton, the sergeant was embarrassed, and he sent the brothers back to the foster-care system. “We had that happen a lot,” says Shelton. “We’d go somewhere with particular people being interested in us, maybe 10 times, and then we would get sent away.”

As the boys got older, Shelton says, the possibility of being adopted began to fade: “You get to an age where three black boys are… there’s really a low probability of anybody taking us. That started to be really apparent to the social workers.” The fact that David had been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and prescribed Ritalin likely did not help his case. William, on the other hand, exhibited no behavioral issues and instead showed musical aptitude and high intelligence. So administrators nominated him for a special foster-care program for promising children. “If you were in foster care, it was the one place in the whole state of Kentucky that everybody wanted to go,” Shelton says. But he wasn’t so lucky: “I ended up going to a group home for misbehavior.”

After just a few months, he was returned to the foster-care mill. That’s when, on Halloween, Shelton pointed a BB gun at a couple of young girls and demanded they give him their candy. “I was arrested and charged with wanton endangerment,” he says. That would be his first experience in a men’s jail; at the time, there were no separate facilities for juvenile arrestees in Kentucky. Because he was underage, Shelton had to be separated from the general population in the men’s jail until his trial. When he was finally sentenced, he was sent to another group home for a couple of years.

Following his release, Shelton ran away from the foster-care system. He was homeless. Desperate and hungry, Shelton broke into the house of a friend who dealt weed—and who kept his stash at home. Shelton planned to steal the drugs and sell them. But he lingered too long, eating sandwiches and drinking beer. He was caught and charged with burglary. The mandatory sentence for that crime was between one and five years. The judge gave Shelton four.

From 16 to 18, Shelton lived in Georgetown, Kentucky, a dry county with a handful of bootleg businesses. He got by with petty crime—stealing things and trading them for cash. At night, he slept in a bootlegging den. “Sitting down at a dinner table with my head on my arms for rest at night,” he says. By the time he turned 18, Shelton had not seen David for four years.

By his 19th birthday, Shelton was in prison again for a minor crime—but he broke out. “I climbed this 16-foot-high razor-wire fence and escaped,” Shelton says. “I was caught less than three or four hours later.” For that, a judge added three years to his sentence, for a new total of seven years. The maximum-security prison he was then sent to had two 16-foot-high razor-wire fences back to back and gun towers around the perimeter.

Shelton reimagines the scene in disbelief: “I come in a petty criminal, but now I’m incarcerated with people with every level and degree of charges.” He served at Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex, known as the “Pink Palace” because of its paint job. Inside, the building was organized into two halves, each housing about 1,000 inmates. The two sets rarely mix, but they can see one another through thick glass partitions. On occasion, some of them might run into each other in the library or medical area. One day in the cafeteria, as he was pushing his tray down the food line, someone caught his eye. “Across from me, it’s the first time in almost five years that I’ve seen my biological brother David,” he says. “You can’t really put that in words, what that’s like, to look across and see your brother through glass.”

Through improvised sign language, they arranged to meet. “My brother was in there for murder at 19 years old,” Shelton says. “He had murdered a man who had tried to steal his drugs from him. It was a drug deal gone bad. He fought his case completely himself.” As Shelton tells it, the judge wouldn’t allow David to represent himself alone and assigned him an attorney, but David took the lead and eventually got his charge reduced to manslaughter and a 10-year sentence. The two brothers were able to move into a cell together. “It was awkward and strained and still is to this day,” Shelton says of the adjustment to one another after such a long absence. Shelton says it felt more like being half-brothers, and they would often even refer to one another as “brothers from different fathers.”

Being brothers also had an unexpected consequence. “It actually increased the potential for violence, because were somebody to have a beef with me, now they understand that my brother was there,” Shelton says. “You have to know that you’re going to fight my brother and me. Then you need to go get a couple of people, and then that turns into maybe a gang.” But that kind of escalation also put the differences between the two brothers into sharp relief.

David may have been in for the more violent and serious crime, but it was Shelton who was into “a bunch of inappropriate activity” in prison. By contrast, David was a “model prisoner” who did not fight, who converted to Islam, and changed his name from David to Dawud. “I was playing poker and gambling and being involved,” says Shelton. “If anybody smuggled in any kind of drugs, I wanted in on it—maybe not to use it as much as to sell it. [David] wasn’t. I kind of brought more drama his way than he would have anticipated.” David also ended up leaving prison before his younger brother, because Shelton compounded his sentence by constantly getting into trouble while in custody.

At 25, Shelton was finally released from prison. He headed home to Louisville.

The three brothers had become strangers to each other. After decades of personal limbo between foster homes, juvenile institutions, and bouts of incarcerations, the three lost touch. While Shelton and David struggled to create lives they could be proud of, William, who had gone to the special foster program for gifted children, found success. Shelton says that William was “older, wiser, more settled, not having behavior issues.” He got a job and a car. He visited his younger brothers when he could. Once William surprised Shelton by bringing a young girl along with him on a prison visit; she was their youngest sibling, a child their mother had had after being released from prison herself.

William tried to be there for his brothers. He hired an attorney for Shelton and paid the legal fees. But the circumstances would prove overwhelming, even for a committed older brother. “He really became very dismayed,” Shelton says. “He gave up, because he tried so hard.” But it’s hard to help someone when they won’t help themselves. “The pressure was always on Will to be some kind of father figure,” Shelton says. “He never could do it to the level that he put on himself and maybe even the level we put on him.” Shelton recalled his brother trying to offer support to David and himself while also attempting to get close to the new sister who had appeared in their lives. “It was just too much for him,” Shelton says. “He’s this guy trying to weave all of these things together.”

William ended up leaving the United States for a while. He lived in multiple places, including the Netherlands and London. “Him traveling internationally and getting away from it all was, for him, probably the best thing he could have done, because we were real selfish,” Shelton says. Even from across an ocean, William’s brothers still demanded much from him. “My letters to him were all about ‘I need money for this, I need money for that,’ with no idea what I was asking a young man to provide. I really wanted him to be my father. I wanted him to provide just as if a father or my mother would provide to me.”

Today, William is a music producer and entrepreneur with his own business. Both David and Shelton are fathers, but David struggles with addiction. Maybe the good behavior in prison and the conversion to Islam were not enough to fill the void that a troubled life had left him with. “Now the roles have changed,” Shelton says. “He actually tells relatives of mine that he’s younger than me. The role has turned into me being this older brother to him.” He worries about David constantly. “He’s stuck. He’s stuck. My brother will reference what happened in 1983 as if that’s justification for why he’s at the hospital witnessing the birth of his baby six months early and yet he’s asking me for $5 for gas money.” David seems to be “not healing, not overcoming, not being able to rewrite the narrative of his story, and really being stuck in his resentful, bitter state,” Shelton says.

That wisdom has been hard to come by for Shelton. After cycling through the foster-care system from the time he was 4, and then rotating through the correctional system from age 18 to 27, Shelton was left with a fractured existence, knowing little about the world beyond those institutions. His experiences cemented his belief in the interconnectivity of the foster system and the penal system in the United States. “A lot of my concern is about how that system perpetuates and helps to contribute to the prison-industrial complex,” Shelton says. “How the foster-care system has done that in a really insidious way.”

“I’d been running away from foster homes and trying to get to Louisville my whole life,” he says, looking for a family that didn’t exist—not the way he needed it to. Usually when Shelton ran away as a teenager, he’d be found within three days and be sent back to foster care, back to the system. But during those furtive days of freedom he’d search for his extended family. “I would get a phone book and look up ‘McElroy,’” he says. “I would say, ‘Are you a McElroy?’” Nine times out of 10, he heard a stranger on the other end of the line say, “Nope, don’t know you.” But once in a while, he’d stumble on a cousin or older relative. When the topic turned to his mother, there was little variation to the answers: “We don’t know where your mom’s at.”

His mother’s drug addition and mental-health complications contributed to an untenable situation that led to the brothers’ removal. But it didn’t have to be an irrevocable severing. Through William, Shelton saw his mother again while she was raising his half-sister. His mother was receiving appropriate help and had become functional, even successful, and was leading her life instead of falling prey to it. What if they had reconnected earlier? “We don’t have a system that’s set up that helps people that struggle with mental health. The only way our system knows how to do it is to take their children and not even to look at familial alternatives,” Shelton says. “In Europe, they never terminate the parents’ rights, never. In the U.S., they terminate the rights.” As a result, he says, there’s a lot of unnecessary hurt, and “every foster child at 18 is looking for their biological family.”

In his late 20s, Shelton recognized that to become a man, he’d have to go it alone. “I started this introspection, this external experience of rebuilding who I was without foster care as the dominating factor, without being a child who had no mother or father—becoming a man who didn’t have that as the catalyst of his life,” he says. “The only way you do that and you move forward is turning it into some way to help others heal. The pain is there, but as long as you’re healing others in that nexus, you don’t suffer from it. It becomes almost like gold in your hands when you walk toward another person who suffered any atrocity—molestation, incarceration. You just go to them in this genuine way, and you say, ‘Let me tell you just a snippet about me, so that you identify, and you know that I come from a very similar, horrific background.’”

At age 39, Shelton now has a master’s degree and is a trained counselor. Today, he works at an alcohol-counseling program for recently released inmates. He also does pro bono work with families who “have lost their children to the system” to help them navigate their cases until they are reunited with their kids. He has also worked in the foster-care system itself, helping children redefine the narratives of their lives. His own experiences, of course, are central to his work. “I can connect with you from my pain and also show you my change and make it so that you realize that it’s possible,” Shelton says. “That’s what my life has been about.”