Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Even through a long prison stay, this mentoring relationship stayed strong

On January 15, in the middle of National Mentoring Month, my 85-year-old father was looking for his mentee – a hunt that took him into the heart of Cook County, Illinois, and a jail system that makes Denver's look like Club Med.

Byron had been raised by a single mom in a tough area of Chicago, but he got a break: He was chosen for the Link program, in which mentors paid tuition so that promising, inner-city kids could go to a private Catholic high school that would give them a good education and a shot at college. My parents, who live in the Chicago suburbs, had signed on early through their church to be a part of this, and Byron was their third mentee, the first boy. My parents would visit him at school functions, meet with his mother; they'd occasionally take him to their house, where Dad would enlist Byron in the type of carpentry projects he'd done with my brother. One day, my mother learned that it was Byron's birthday, and she asked what he wanted. A chest of drawers, he said; he'd never had one.

Byron did well through high school but decided to postpone college, taking a delivery job so that he could help his mother pay the bills. As it turned out, though, Byron's life wasn't all work.

It was about a year after Byron had graduated that my father got his first call from Cook County Jail: Byron had been arrested after a gang shooting. Three kids had fired guns that night; a rival gang member had been shot to death. Byron got the longest sentence: He'd had a chance to break out of the life, the judge told him, and he'd wasted it. Byron was sentenced to twenty years for murder and sent to prison in 1994 — right after his son was born.

My father is a lifelong law-and-order Republican, the sort who doesn't understand an unpaid parking ticket — but he'd signed on to mentor Byron, and he wasn't going to stop now. And so for the next sixteen years, he visited him at an assortment of Illinois prisons. The first was Statesville, a place so bad that Byron got himself assigned to segregation, where he'd be better protected from predators; my father remembers it as "a human garbage heap, where the system just throws people away." The other inmates assumed my father was a fed and Byron a snitch; how else to explain an older white guy visiting an inner-city punk?

And through it all, they wrote letters —which today are testament to an amazing, evolving relationship.

"You're telling me what you feel/think and I am responding in friendship and honesty," my father wrote in 1996, soon after his first, eye-opening trip to Statesville. "Wouldn't it be good if everyone did so? I guess you already answered that one when you said, 'My so-called friends claim to care but I know they don't.' And you're quite right. I still recall very clearly at your sentencing the judge asked, 'Where are all your gang friends today? I don't see any of them in the courtroom.' And that's how it goes, Byron. Stay away from people who pretend to be friends just to use you. Lord, I hope you don't have to re-learn that lesson. It's cost you dearly already."

Byron had learned that lesson. Somehow, he managed to walk the line in prison, tutoring other inmates and avoiding taking sides as he moved up through the system to better facilities, ones where he could take classes and learn skills. My father visited him at all of them, sometimes taking Byron's young son along.

"You ask what we think of you," my father wrote in 2000. "Our first emotion is sadness. Sadness that people make children and then take little or no interest in raising them with all that it entails. Sadness that you did the same thing to your son that was done to you. How do we break this chain?

"We see you as an essentially good and intelligent person who made two very dumb decisions when I, for one, know you knew better. Why? The Bible tells us that false prophets have been around for at least 4,000 years. That should be long enough for us to not follow them. I knew you to be inherently a gentle person and how you could ever take another's life perplexes me to this day."

It perplexed my father, but still he stood by his mentee. "Do I love you as a son?" he wrote in 2002, in response to a query from Byron. "Here again, you'll have to deal with reality and not your needs. I'm not your father and you're not my son, so that doesn't happen. But we were brought together by God (the Link program) and so I have always considered you a God-son, and have loved you accordingly.... This is the basis of our do, insofar as possible, what real parent(s) might or ought to have done, and to do it lovingly and with true caring."

"You have given me more than you know and I feel like it's impossible for me to pay you back," Byron wrote my father this past March. "I just pray for you and hope someone looks at me the way I do you. Yes, yes, yes, I have much to learn about being a father. It's almost like I'm returning to be the father I was supposed to be at first.... I continue to be an example in here to those looking for guidance. I try to be the best at whatever I do, especially work. I understand you and hear you loud and clear: 'no more mess ups.' You have more than the right to say it. You would have been right to say it the first time."

In September, his sentence served, Byron was finally released from the prison in Dixon, and my mother and father were there to greet him. They took him to the room where he'd be living on the south side of Chicago (his mother had passed away while he was locked up); they gave him the old family minivan so that he could look for work. Far more important than the car, though, was the counsel my father provided as Byron re-entered a world that was now all cell phones and text-messaging, advising him on how to find a job in this tough economy, helping him get a bank account that required two forms of ID when Byron had just one — a driver's license that my father took him to get, just as he had twenty years before, and after they dealt with a non-moving violation ticket still on the books from the early '90s. After three months, Byron finally found work, at a laundry exactly 47 minutes from his home, a job that barely paid minimum wage, but more if he was willing to handle hospital waste. Byron had no problem with that; he'd volunteered at the prison hospice, watching over those departing this life who had no one else, collecting certificates of thanks from his jailers.

One night early this month, home from the late shift at the laundry, Byron was sitting in the minivan, waiting for a friend, when two cops pulled up behind him. They asked what he was doing, checked his ID and found a failure-to-appear warrant from a traffic violation back in 1994, one that had not shown up when Byron went for his driver's license. Then they hauled him off to jail, where there were two non-working phones for 76 men in the holding cell.

On January 14, as I edited Joel Warner's cover story about a black kid who claimed to have been beaten by Denver cops, I got a call: Byron had disappeared into the hands of Chicago cops, and now could not be found in any database. The next morning, my father set out to find him, moving from the criminal court building to Cook County Jail, telling everyone he could find over the six-hour search that he was looking for his godson. It could have been the novelty of an 85-year-old white man looking for a 37-year-old black godson that convinced people to finally locate Byron in the computer; after almost two days, Byron was bonded out. Last Wednesday, he and my father went to see the judge, who returned the $300 bond and dismissed the charges. Byron had a good excuse for failing to appear: He'd been in prison.

My parents had wondered how someone like Byron could survive the horrors of jail. Now they wonder how someone who survived jail can make it on the outside. Untangling bureaucratic red tape is tough enough; how does Byron handle being the wrong color at the wrong time with a very wrong record? But still they press on, the mentors and the mentee.

Ten years ago, my father wrote this to Byron: "While it's true you'll be around forty years old when you get out, I can tell you I've had 35 great years since I turned prepare for it carefully and thoroughly. Use your time constructively and help others all you can, for that is one of the rules for a happy and good life."

A good life, for a very good man.