Kara Gordon

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

“I’m not going to discuss how I ended up in the criminal-justice system,” Lettisha Boyd tells me. “I did end up there—I guess that’s the biggest thing.” Boyd, now 41, was sent to a prison in New York state more than two decades ago for a felony conviction received one month before her 19th birthday. She ended up spending 16 years behind bars. Her brother, Eric (not his real name), was just 9 years old at the time.

“We were pretty honest with him,” Boyd says. “We let him know what the circumstances were. It didn’t become really real for him until I wasn’t there.” As her only sibling and with a 10-year age difference between them, Eric “was like really my child,” she says. “I’m the one who did the park thing, helped with homework. … I was doing a lot of different things at the time, but whenever I was home with him, it was all about him.” Sometimes they stayed up together watching movies; sometimes she took him shopping with her.

Even on the day of her arrest, when detectives showed up at the house looking for Boyd, Lettisha and Eric were there together. Boyd and her family talked him through what was happening with his older sister. “The biggest thing with my family and I, we were not of that culture of hiding and being shameful,” Boyd says. “This is what happened. This is what’s about to happen. He was there in the home. There was no way to just dance around that kind of thing.”

The impact her incarceration would have on her little brother was very much on Boyd’s mind when she made the decision not to go to trial. “He was actually the reason why I accepted the plea agreement that I did,” she says. “Part of it was ignorance, too, because I was afraid of trial.” A lot of that fear was based on her race: “A disproportionate amount of black people were going to trial, and blowing trial, so I was kind of scared of that whole process.” The prospect of risking her freedom for an indefinite amount of time with an unpredictable trial was too daunting.  

“I just constantly thought about the time difference—how old he would be if I did this amount versus that amount?—that actually played a role in my decision, as crazy as it may sound now,” Boyd says. The problem was, she had no idea how the system worked or what variables were in play. “I did the math based on his age, not understanding what the parole system was like and all the other politics regarding that,” Boyd says. “Ten years actually turned into 16 years.” In hindsight, Boyd says, she should have gone through with the trial.

So how did 10 years turn into 16? According to Boyd, New York state’s corrections system is leery about granting parole to first-time violent offenders. “It’s been a big challenge,” she says. “It’s at the discretion of the parole board.” She notes that “a lot of people” have fought to change rules that give so much power to parole boards, rules that result in frustrated prisoners with no certainty about their release dates. Boyd was eligible for parole after 10 years, but it wasn’t until year 16 that Boyd’s good behavior while incarcerated earned her a conditional early release. Six months was cut off her total sentence.

But Boyd and her younger brother managed to stay close through it all by writing letters and having visits. The state shuttled her among different facilities, some better than others. One facility had trailers set up for family visits. But no matter where Boyd was transferred, her family always made the trip to see her. Boyd struggled to “hold it together when I seen his little face,” she says, but afterward, there were a lot of tearful nights. During the earliest visits, Boyd says she tried to explain to Eric why she was in prison; she went into as much depth as was appropriate about what had happened and why it happened. She desperately wanted him to understand. But she soon realized that her need to explain was not as helpful as his need to share his life with her. “We passed that stage,” Boyd says. “Then we focused on a lot about what he was doing and what he was into in school—all his little dreams—talking about a picture he may have made for me, or a letter that he may have wrote, to try to make it as normal as normal can be.”

For her part, Boyd made crafts for him, she sent him gifts, she remembered his birthdays. “When he got older, he would come up on his own,” Boyd says. No questions or subjects were off limits, she says. She always answered him as honestly as possible, and he trusted her to help him understand the world. “Who was going to be there to guide him? You’re not going to open up to mom and dad about certain things that you would to your sibling; that’s just how it is,” she says. As Boyd tried to “stay sane” inside and ensure her brother’s well-being on the outside, Boyd says her biggest worry was always for Eric’s emotional health.

She started to notice changes in him. “He became very withdrawn,” she recalls. “He didn’t become bad in school or anything, but he wasn’t the stellar student.” Even as he graduated from high school, Boyd says he seemed to do so in a fog, sleepwalking through the formative years in a young man’s life. Boyd only makes casual references to her own experiences in custody, but she stresses the details of her brother’s ordeals as a changing adolescent and man.

Today, Eric is 31, and he has a family—they all live with Boyd in her home. The brother and sister also share a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and the pair started a real-estate investment company called Network Conglomerate LLC together. And though Boyd has been home for six years, old sibling dynamics die hard. For a time, she still saw him as a kid, and at first, they bumped heads. “I had to basically learn how to be a better communicator with him,” she says. “At one point, it was like we didn’t even like each other because I’m the big sister, so you do what I say, as opposed to having any questions about it.” But thing have improved a great deal. In fact, nowadays, it is Eric who often has to look out for her. “I’m a complete workaholic,” Boyd says. “So sometimes he’ll say: ‘Listen, just put your feet up, sit still, stop moving around. Watching you is exhausting.’”

Sometimes the two talk about what could have been. He recently explained to his big sister that he believed, “under my direction, he could’ve [gone] so much further in life, but he was so stuck in the missing and the anger of me not being there that he just took a different direction,” Boyd says. Eric never went to college, something that she says he thinks about now. One recent Sunday over barbecue, she was touched when he told her he was proud of her and what she had made of her life. “Seeing that makes him feel like there’s absolutely nothing that he can’t do,” she says. Her little brother also still sees her as a role model. “He says there’s no reason to make excuses in life, because I came home and did all these different things,” she says. “He’s pretty inspired.”

For Boyd, the time she was away from Eric was primarily a physical absence, not an emotional one. She relinquished her freedom, but not her place in her brother’s life.

This article is part of our Next America: Criminal Justice project, which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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