William Anderson, then 64, breathes a tiny sigh of relief when he sees his youngest son, Naeem, sitting across the table from him. His son looks back with the same wide brown eyes he’s always remembered. At 23, Naeem (a pseudonym, as are all the names of the family members in this article) still has a baby face, more pronounced now that he’s clean-shaven, his coiled locks no longer sprouting wildly from his head. Unlike the many times before, however, he isn’t visiting his father in prison; this day, he’s housed in the same facility. William and Naeem have only this one face-to-face visit to connect in real time before Naeem embarks on his own long sentence. William hopes to mentally and emotionally prepare his son for “the life inside.”
People will tell you that parenting is hard. Incarcerated parents trying to maintain relationships with their children often face insurmountable challenges, which are magnified by prison rules and regulations. William has always found a way to stay in touch with his boy—he’s used collect phone calls, handwritten letters, cards on special occasions, and the coveted in-person visits where eye contact and a brief embrace seal the love in for a bit.
When William and his wife, Ruth, met as teenagers, it was love at first sight. From the day he spied her billowing fire-red Afro at a movie theater in Jackson, Miss., he knew she was “the one.” It was the early 1970s when they became smitten with each other and decided to get married soon after.
In the early ’80s, their lives completely unraveled when William was pulled over during a traffic stop and found to be in possession of a gun that was linked to a murder the year before. He was convicted of homicide and sentenced to life in prison. William insists to this day that he’s not guilty of the murder. At the time, he and Ruth had an 8-year-old son, and she was pregnant again. For the next 40 years, Ruth raised their three Black sons alone on the outside, while William did the best he could from behind bars.
The young couple was able to maintain and later expand their family by participating in Mississippi’s Extended Family Visitation program, the most liberal in the country. It allowed unsupervised visits between immediate family members and their incarcerated loved ones that lasted three to five days and took place on the facility grounds, in small apartments. They also had conjugal visits where, as a married couple, they could spend one private hour together once a week.
In 1995, Ruth gave birth to Naeem. A week later, she bundled him in blankets and drove him to meet his father. Shortly after, she took him on his first extended family visit. William was able to feed Naeem and rock him to sleep as a newborn. Naeem slept between Ruth and William in the bed they shared. “He was a little ol’ bitty baby,” William recalls. “I used to hear people roll over on babies; I ain’t never rolled over on him.”
Ruth continued to take Naeem on regular visits every two weeks, which allowed the Andersons to forge a bond despite William’s confinement. They provided him the opportunity to take an active, physical part in raising his sons, especially Naeem, the one he considered the most impressionable. Naeem’s brothers were already teenagers by the time he was born, and William worried that the age gap might cause Naeem to form friendships with boys who might lead him astray—which is eventually what happened. These regular visits served as a space in which William and Naeem could traverse the range of emotions and experiences as father and son. William likened the access to something similar to a father working out of state or overseas.
Over the years, William talked to Naeem about doing well in school, listening to his mother, staying out of trouble, being respectful to girls, and more. He played basketball with him, barbecued, and even taught him how to fish. When Naeem got older and eventually became serious with a young lady, Brooke, he let her speak to his dad on the phone and eventually took the leap of giving her an application to fill out so she could be approved to visit. “He’d never brought a girl to meet me,” William says. “I’d been telling them how to get along over the phone for a while, but that visit was real important.” It was more than just a phone call, more than a letter or picture. “You could see that she cared a lot about him.” William approved and thought, “She’s good for him.”
Naeem and William were as close as possible given the circumstances, which is why William was surprised that Naeem didn’t come to him or his mother when he was struggling financially. Ruth has worked as a registered nurse for over 30 years, and William has worked at various jobs for the entire duration of his imprisonment. It was a work ethic that Naeem picked up: After his first job in high school, he made it a point to stay employed. For him, providing for himself was the one thing he could do to alleviate the burden he believed his mother was carrying.
Yet for all the terrain Naeem covered with his father, he didn’t tell William when he lost his seasonal job at Walmart. Frantic at the thought of joblessness and not being able to cover his bills, he agreed to rob a restaurant where his friend worked—after hours and using a BB gun. “I had a little money, but Christmas was coming up and my car note was due,” Naeem says. “So I was kind of desperate, and he came up with the idea that we would rob Ruby Tuesday.” Since his friend worked there and stayed until closing, he knew the routine. It was going to be easy, they thought. They would use a fake gun, no one would get hurt, and they’d make off with some quick cash to carry them through the holidays.
But things didn’t go as planned: The two were arrested, and Naeem found his life upended. His attorney managed to get the charge reduced from armed to simple robbery, which carried a sentence of zero to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Naeem had no prior convictions; no one had been harmed during the robbery; he didn’t use a weapon that could hurt anyone; and he’d been gainfully employed for most of his young life. His lawyer presented those facts and asked the judge to show leniency. Instead, the judge sentenced Naeem to 15 years—the maximum penalty for his crime.
Once arrested, Black people are far more likely to be convicted and far more likely to receive harsh sentences than white people. Today, they are locked up at nearly five times the rate for whites in state and federal prisons. William knew the statistics were not in favor of men who looked like him or his son, but even he was stunned by the sentence. “He’s just a racist judge,” William fumes through the phone. “I could see if he was truly a troublemaker out in the street, truly wreaking havoc on the public—if he was a troubled kid, got into something all the time, if he was robbing folks all the time. But you know, it’s not the case. It’s the case that you have a chance to be lenient, let a young boy correct a mistake that he made. But you give him the maximum?”
Eventually, William had to move on from “why?” and “how?” and start considering the next steps for his son. Unable to afford bail, Naeem had already spent 20 months in jail before he was sentenced, so he had some familiarity with “the life inside” by the time he had the visit with his father. When William learned Naeem would be transferred to his facility, he figured he could look after him, at least guide him to some degree. But Naeem was housed in a unit away from William’s, one where drugs, violence, and illegal activity proliferated, William says. He didn’t want his son sucked into that viciousness, and if he was ever transferred to another prison, he wanted him to be equipped. During their visit, he talked to Naeem about knowing whom to trust, what to be skeptical of, how to keep to himself without offending people—how to survive. William knew that prison was a tough place for a young man, especially if he hadn’t already been hardened by the streets. “People prey on young people. They use young people in institutions,” he says.
“A lot of people in the world don’t really understand the seriousness inside the penitentiary,” William adds. In recent years, several news reports have documented the deplorable and dangerous conditions inside Mississippi prisons—everything from black mold, leaking pipes, mice infestations, and no running water to abusive guards, gang violence that has left prisoners beaten and burned, and a spike in unexplained prisoner deaths. “It’s not a good place when you first come in, because a lot of the guys are just coming out of jail,” he explains. “They got all that foolishness on their mind, and then you got the gangs just coming off the street, and they still got that mentality.” Naeem had to be prepared, because he could be transferred away from his father at any time.
Shortly after their visit, Naeem put in for a transfer and was moved to another, more peaceful facility, where he is still following his dad’s advice. He’s keeping his head down, has a job working in the kitchen, and is pursuing his GED. William is proud of his son for transferring prisons and glad that he listened to his advice. “He’s a smart kid,” he says. “He listened. Some people get to the point where they think they know everything. But mine, he listen, ‘cause he know one thing: I ain’t gonna tell him nothing wrong.”
“I’m worried about him, and his mama is worried about him,” William admits. Since they’re no longer in the same prison, he and Naeem have to work even harder to stay connected. They can’t have phone calls or visits; instead, Ruth has to carry messages between the two. Naeem has nearly a decade left to his sentence, so William is resolved to stay hopeful and trust that his son will do the best he can. “I like for him to call home and let his mama know how he’s doing. If he’s having some trouble, don’t hold back, let her know, and she gonna let me know. And I know who he can call for some relief.”
Beyond that, there is not much either man can do until at least one of them is free.