This is the fifth article in a six-part series about young people with siblings in prison. Read part one here.
Dionna King’s older brother has been in and out of prison since he was 18 years old. Michael (a pseudonym to protect his privacy) is now 32 and currently serving time for a probation violation. King is two years younger than Michael and has had a front-row seat to his various incarcerations over the years. “The first arrest happened in our high school, and it was related to a drug offense,” she says. “I think it was possession of marijuana.” King’s life story is permanently imprinted with the effects of Michael’s journey and the fallout from his troubled relationship with the justice system.
Growing up in Atlanta, Michael liked being the center of attention, making others laugh, and being popular. For much of their life together, King yearned for a good relationship with her charming brother. She says that “seeing other sibling relationships, and idealizing that, and recognizing that we didn’t have such a strong bond” made her feel sad and alone. “I’ve never had that net-protector person,” King says. She pined for the fabled ideal: the older brother who looks out for his baby sister, who keeps her safe in the world, who shows her the ropes. “That was my vision of an older sibling,” she says. Instead, “I’ve always felt like I’m the person who had to bear that responsibility.”
King says Michael was deeply impacted by their parents’ divorce, which occurred when she was 13 and he was 15. Afterwards, the brother and sister lived with their father. “I remember it being a really contentious time between me, my brother, and my father,” King says. Soon her charismatic brother with the big personality started talking out of turn; he moved from the typical antics of a high-school class clown to more serious infractions, like ditching class and smoking. “I don’t think my dad was really equipped to handle it at the time,” King says. “He tried to talk to him, tried different discipline.” But it didn’t work.
So after Michael’s first arrest back in high school, the siblings’ grandfather, who was close to both kids and already a significant part of their childhoods, decided to step up his role in Michael’s life. He spent more time alone with Michael, taking him on long fishing trips, hoping the solitude and hours alone on the water would help to pry open his taciturn grandson and provide some insight into why Michael was behaving so differently. But there were no easy explanations, and Michael continued to withdraw. Several family members tried to help and gave Michael work at their small businesses. But quality time with his grandfather, job offers, and loving entreaties from those closest to him could not keep Michael from being arrested again—this time for selling crack-cocaine.
Michael said the drugs were for personal use, not for sale, and King recalls that he was required to live in a halfway house after his prison time. It wasn’t long before it didn’t even feel like Michael lived in the same house with her anymore. Especially since, if he wasn’t in an institution, he was bringing tension to their home. Michael’s encounters with the police began to take a toll on his father. “After my brother started getting in trouble and he was missing school, my father, not really having the skills to deal with him, would put him out the house,” King says. So there would be long periods of Michael not being at home punctuated by returns that were inevitably cut short by new legal woes. “Since then, it’s been a series of probation violations, and also a charge for, I think, credit-card fraud,” King says calmly, as she matter-of-factly catalogues her brother’s charges and custody status.
These days, King has reached a certitude and honesty about her brother that some might mistake for indifference. “I think the brunt of our relationship, and how it suffered over the years, is that he’s never shown personal accountability for what he’s done,” she says. King admits that her relationship with Michael “was never seamless,” but watching him deflect responsibility is particularly difficult. Nevertheless, she quickly adds: “He’s always my brother. I’m always going to want to see the best for him regardless of how we get along.”
To that end, she has often tried to offer Michael a hand up. She even almost got him into college. After graduating high school, King attended Florida A&M, a historically black university where she had friends. It was a profound and meaningful experience, one she thought Michael would find powerful, even life-changing. “I know what it did for me,” she says, “and I know what it did for black young men who were able to benefit from that education and also see other black men succeeding and feeling empowered in their academic successes.” She told her older brother, “I can get you into that school.”
King had reached out to a friend who worked in the admissions office to figure out if Michael could attend the school and receive financial aid despite his criminal record. “Yes,” her friend said. “We can do this.” King was overjoyed and relieved. She went straight to Michael. “All you have to do is apply,” she told him. “People are looking out for your application.” But Michael wasn’t up for it. Years later, King’s disappointment is still palpable as she tells the story. “Once I gave him the opportunity, he kind of disappeared,” she says. “All the pressure—and he wasn’t ready for it, and so he never applied.” It wasn’t long before Michael was again deemed in violation of his probation and sent back to jail.
Of course, King wasn’t the only person trying to help Michael. “He’s my dad’s only son,” she says. “For a while, my father would be the one stepping up, getting him out. Making sure that he’s in summer school. Making sure that he’s getting his GED. Paying for a car if he needs it. Paying for housing if he needs it. Really being a strong support for him.” Though she would not go into specifics, having so many of the family’s resources focused on Michael meant fewer for her. It’s a common phenomenon: There are considerable material repercussions for kids who remain at home when a sibling is incarcerated. But even King’s supportive father finally reached his limit. “Eventually, after constantly being let down,” she says, “my dad took a step back and said: ‘You have to figure this out on your own. We can’t keep bailing you out all the time.’”
In addition to the financial costs, losing a sibling to the criminal-justice system is a severe emotional strain for any child. At the same time that the siblings of incarcerated young people are dealing with the loss of that special relationship, they also often have to contend with grieving parents. For many mothers and fathers, the enormity of losing a child to prison is too much to cope with. King experienced that deeply. Early on in the aftermath of Michael’s arrests, it was evident to King that she would need to take on the emotional maintenance of her dad. “I knew my father wasn’t going to be the one to talk about it on his own,” she says. “He’s the kind of person who buries things. He’s a black man. He’s of a certain age. He deals with challenges as they come and doesn’t necessarily emote about them.” But her father was bereft after his only son made choices at odds with the family’s sense of values. “It also hurts him to not be able to have his relationship with his son,” King says. While Michael is in prison, his father does not get to see his son’s life flourish—something every parent hopes to do. Seeing things from that perspective has given King a great deal of sympathy for her dad. “Me and my father, we’re now able to better communicate,” she says.
That’s a relief, because over the years King has put a lot of energy into drawing out some of her father’s attention for herself. She has made progress on that front, but Michael’s absence still lingers between the father and daughter. “We’ll give our life updates. We’ll go to football games. We’ll talk. We’ll have fun,” King says. “But eventually, we have to talk about my brother and how he’s dealing with that.” Michael has left King with burdens no sibling expects. “It’s unfortunate because I’d like to be able to talk about other things outside my brother being in trouble all the time,” King says. “But the conversation goes to that no matter what’s going on.”
It has to. Michael’s intermittent absence has been complicated by an otherwise unmitigated joy: his 4-year-old son. “Now we have to talk about how we talk to my nephew about this, because he doesn’t know” about Michael’s time in prison, she says. King has already willingly sacrificed some of the care and concern that would have naturally come her way had Michael’s life turned out differently. Now she is resigned to the added responsibility of guiding another life through her brother’s web.
“If he were my child, I would tell him” where his father is, King says. “But I know that’s not my place.” She has gently tried to convince her father to be honest with her nephew, but “I don’t think my father has the language for it.” And King has a lot of compassion for that. “You don’t want to sully this child’s vision of the world and also of his father by telling him something that might be difficult to comprehend,” she says. Besides, sometimes it can seem like there are no easy conversations to be had. “He calls my dad ‘Dad’ sometimes,” she says, “and we have to correct him, like, ‘No, this is Granddad.’ And that sucks.”
King’s thoughtfulness and composure did not come easy. She struggled for years to forge ahead on her own terms, away from her Atlanta roots and a life encumbered by Michael’s mistakes. After college, King moved to New York City to become a photojournalist. She even landed a job at Vibe magazine. “I was out there living my best life,” she says. “It was early media. It was pre-recession, so there were still industry parties, and people who had money.” For two years, her nascent media career soared, and she was able to put her brother’s travails behind her.
But when her job sent her to work on location back in Atlanta, she was confronted by old ghosts. On a photo shoot with a rising rap star, the photographer sought out an old dilapidated home on the outskirts of the city for the setting. Then, when the musician was in place, the photographer handed him a gun to hold. The artist refused. King was glad he did. “It also didn’t sit well with me,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘We’re already doing enough to paint this image of the black man that the photographer wants to portray, and now you want to put a weapon in this person’s body? It’s not even his weapon. He’s not even in that life right now. This is the image that you want to create?’”
But then she realized that she was participating, too; she was working with the photographer. And, of course, King was well versed in the unglamorous tragedy that crime leaves in its wake. That moment of clarity led to a lot of questions: What am I glorifying? What am I a part of? “That was really uncomfortable. It was especially uncomfortable because I was back home,” she says. “My brother was in jail at that time, and here I am, sitting in my home city with a rapper, who I like, music I grew up with, and I’m participating in creating this myth of black men as violent predators. That shook me. I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
After the magazine folded and she was laid off in 2010, King and went back to school, where she took a course on crime and community structures that would lead to a transformational moment: She was certain that she wanted “to focus my life energy on updating this system.” King’s initial impetus was rooted in her family experience, but she also saw the connections between the criminal-justice system and the experience of being black in America. She became a community organizer for justice-advocacy issues, first at the Education from the Inside Out Coalition and now as the policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. “I didn’t know about work like this when I was a kid,” she says. “So I couldn’t say this is what I wanted to do, but once I learned about it, this was all I wanted to do.”
King also realized she was not alone in her pain. What’s more, she realized that such shared pain was no coincidence: Her community had been targeted. “I knew I had a brother in jail, but I never thought about mass incarceration as systemic and how that had not just impacted me, but impacted millions of people,” King says. “Why were there drug-sniffing dogs going through my high school? That’s absurd. … I went to a predominantly black high school in Atlanta, so I was like, ‘Why are you setting up traps for these young people to fall into?’”
Now she sees the deeper societal currents at work in Michael’s life. “My brother has definitely made mistakes,” she says. “I don’t glorify him, and I don’t deny his own accountability in what has happened in his life. But I also recognize that we’re from the Deep South. There are consequences to incarceration.” Once his family’s offers of help dried up, Michael found it impossible to get a job or to access programs that could help. King understands that, when society makes it easier to fail than to succeed, that’s just what will happen. That doesn’t mean she’s letting Michael off the hook, though.
“I felt a lot of resentment towards him over the years,” she says. “It’s been hard to carry those things. To have my commitment to ending the system, but also being very angry at my brother.” That anger has kept her from visiting Michael. “It’s mostly anger about how this is impacting my nephew,” she says, her voice breaking. “It made me just focus my energy on making sure this little boy grows up well, because he’s just so sweet and so loving. He’s a dark-skinned black boy in Georgia, and I know what happens to dark-skinned black boys in Georgia. I just want to keep him as safe as possible.” In pursuit of that goal, King’s professional life certainly gives her a major advantage. She has a systemic, theoretical, and practical understanding of the real-world hurdles that her nephew may face but cannot yet understand.
Right now, King has no idea when Michael is coming home. But she holds out hope that when he does, he will—with her support and her family’s love—attempt to make up for lost years by atoning for his mistakes. “There’s still a chance for him to come out of it,” she says. There’s still a chance he can “get back on course, and be happy, and be a father to my nephew.” There’s still a chance the brother and sister can “have a drink and be able to talk about what happened in a real positive and healing way, one that’s not rooted in resentment and anger.”
“I want that chance for us,” she says. “That’s something I want for my nephew, too. Because I think if my brother comes through this, he can be a great teacher for his son, and I want that chance for him.”
Sometimes working as a justice advocate is hard for King. She has devoted her life to helping people regain their lives through work or education. Every day, she attempts to redirect a life that has gone off course. But there’s one person she can’t save: her big brother. “I can do all of this,” she says. “But I can’t keep my brother out of jail, and that hurts.”
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.