We often talk about the impacts of mass incarceration, particularly on society, but rarely as it relates to how the epidemic is affecting individual families and personal relationships. We don’t talk about how it’s mostly women in families who carry the weight of their loved ones being locked away. It is usually women who have to maintain the home alone, find a way to visit the incarcerated loved one, explain to their children why that particular loved one is gone, and at the same time go without—in the case of being a wife—physical intimacy. And I don’t just mean sex.
But what happens when that loved one returns home? Is the relationship that was cultivated in prison healthy enough to survive on the outside?
Ebony Roberts thought so.
An advocate for criminal justice reform and prison abolition who fell in love with a prisoner, Roberts opens up in her memoir The Love Prison Made and Unmade about her relationship with criminal justice reform advocate Shaka Senghor, author of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison.
Roberts, who I’ve known for many years, recently spoke with me about her book. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Jeffries Warfield: I love the storytelling of your childhood in the beginning. It really pulled me in, so many familiar stories. You write that your dad was the catalyst for the types of guys you chose: That you gravitated toward “bad boys” because you wanted to save them because you couldn’t save your dad. In those same chapters you talk a lot about safety—things and places not being safe or feeling safe. Was the gravitation toward these “bad boys” less of your wanting to save them than it was your looking for someone to save or provide safety for you?
Roberts: It’s a bit of both. In my younger years, I think the safety was less of the draw for me, as much as it was me wanting to be validated by them, wanting their attention and affection. And because they were bad boys, wanting to help them.
It wasn’t until Shaka that I really started to see this need to be saved. And feeling like he was my savior, in a sense. Despite the fact that he was in prison and we weren’t physically together, I felt safe. It was the safety I felt emotionally. …I never felt that type of safety or felt safe like that before him.
Most of the guys I dated weren’t emotionally invested, so they weren’t trying to be saved. They weren’t invested in me in a way where I felt like my help was needed or that they cared, really. He was my first opportunity to put in to action the things that I wanted to do with the other guys.
Jeffries Warfield: With Shaka being somewhat of a public figure, did you have any reservations about sharing your story?
He was not happy with me [for writing about the cheating, at first], and we fell out.
This is two years later, and the fact that he can [now] be supportive says a lot about our growth, as well as his maturity.
I never backed away, and I feel really proud of myself, because I had been protecting him. I spent all those years trying to protect him, almost coddled him in a way, trying to protect his ego as a man, trying to make sure that his transition home was as perfect as it could be. I was basically mothering him. But I wasn’t being true to myself in the process.
I was willing to change his name. I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to still tell the story because I just didn’t think it was going to be as authentic as it needed to be and real about what happens.
[T]here have been several other books [about prisoner’s wives or mates], and almost all the ones I know of focus on the love story. None of them talk about what happens once he comes home. And so I wanted to be real about that perfect fairy tale, or whatever we have in our minds about what that looks like. Once they come home, that typically is not the case, and no one had been honest about that part of it.
Jeffries Warfield: You mention one of his letters, where he writes, “to know that my queen is willing to wait until I come home means a great deal to me. It says to me that our connection is deeper than casual sex and that you have the strength to endure hardship. It is our responsibility to put forth an effort to meet each other’s needs as best we can under the circumstances.” To be honest, I was twisting my lips. In retrospect, did you feel used?
Roberts: No. Not even once. I was mad. When I was reading those letters, I was vacillating between this sort of mushy nostalgia, and just straight-up pissed-ocity—I’m like, it was a lie. But I honestly believe that he felt that way at the time. I think that for guys in that environment, hope is a drug for them and they have to live almost in this fantasy world to get by from day to day. And so I think that because of the history books he had read, all of the Black literature he had read, he had this idea in his mind of what life is going to be like. But he had never lived it and didn’t know anybody who had ever lived it.
Because I’m a hopeless romantic, I bought into this idea that we were creating together, and it made sense to me. I just wanted to be loved, and I wanted us to live happily ever after.
As soon as someone goes to prison, it’s almost like an umbilical cord has been cut.
Jeffries Warfield: I want to turn to some of the socio-political issues you weave through the book. You were a prison reform advocate before you met Shaka. In fact, it was doing that work that led to you all’s introduction. You talk about what it’s like to celebrate special days…or rather, not celebrate certain days, writing, “Celebrating birthdays or love in a place that tries to kill whatever Joy one might find is an act of resistance, however small.” Then you also include bigger picture issues, like how families of those incarcerated are impacted. Can you talk about that?
Roberts: When I met Shaka, he told me that he had never celebrated a birthday before, not even as a child. His parents did not give him a birthday party, and my heart went out to him. When I thought about all of the hurdles that families have to go through, and as you mentioned, I had been doing work with HOPE [Helping Our Prisoners Elevate], and so I knew what some of the families had gone through before I was even connected to Shaka. So I knew the cost of phone calls and visits and the fact that you have to go through so much just to stay connected.
Things have changed now, I believe. But then, you couldn’t send a care package. You couldn’t send gifts. You [could] send the money basically, and then once they get your money order, they can then buy whatever they want from the approved catalogs and [now] vendors like Amazon that they can order from.
But just those simple ways of being able to celebrate somebody. They tried to squash every effort or every avenue that a family might have to connect with and show love.
The system also creates all these barriers to allow families to be able to connect and celebrate. …[As] soon as someone goes to prison, it’s almost literally like an umbilical cord has been cut. They’re no longer connected to their family, no longer connected to their community. And when you separate them by miles, when you basically tax people for trying to stay in contact, then you’re making it more difficult. Most of the people that are incarcerated come from oppressed communities where their families are poor. They can’t afford phone calls. They can’t afford to send them money every month. They can’t afford these things and so they’re literally alone on an island when they’re in prison.
That kind of isolation breeds a lot of things—depression, violence. And it’s just a vicious cycle.
That kind of isolation breeds a lot of things—depression, violence. And it’s just a vicious cycle. … So the family component is so important. That is a connection to their humanity. Officers see them as criminals, as inmates, as a prison number. The administration sees them that way, society sees them that way. Their families are often the only people who see them as humans, who are able to connect with them on an intimate level and whatever limited ways they can, but that’s their only connection.
Jeffries Warfield: Are you still doing prison abolition work?
Roberts: I had to make a conscious choice for my healing to step away. Once Shaka and I started working together in the criminal-justice space, we were working so intimately that that became basically the bulk of the work I was doing. Once I started going through therapy and realized what I needed to get this space, I had to stop working with him, which also meant that I took a step away from that work.
So now with the release of my book, what I want to focus on is the families. I think that there’re a lot of people now working in the criminal justice space, there’s a lot more conversation around prison reform, a lot of laws have been changing. … And there’s been a lot of people coming home and I love to see that. But there isn’t enough talk about the families and supporting the mostly women—not just women that are intimate partners, but even mothers—who are supporting these men in prison.
The mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters—whatever their relationship may be—are the ones who are really paying the cost of the prison industrial complex. They’re the ones taking those phone calls. They’re the ones paying a bondsman, they are the ones who’re putting their houses up, they’re the ones who are losing work, losing income to the family because now their boyfriend or husband is in prison.
They are the ones that are experiencing the collateral consequences. And they are not spoken about enough. And so that’s the work I want to do and I want to try to work with women specifically, but [also] the families who are impacted by incarceration.
I wanted people to see the reality of life after prison, what relationships look like after prison.
Jeffries Warfield: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in your experience with Shaka?
Roberts: Yeah, the one thing—and I try not to live in regret, but the one thing I wish we had done was go to therapy. I really wish we had had the foresight to do that in the beginning. I think the cheating could have been overcome. I think that if we had worked on other issues that we were having, that we may have had a different outcome. So I definitely would have done therapy, together and then individually.
Jeffries Warfield: Why was it important for you to write this book?
Roberts: Even though it didn’t work out [with me and Shaka], I felt like people needed to see a level of compassion and deep love for someone in that circumstance because we throw away people that are incarcerated. They commit a crime—especially something like murder—and we write them off [as if] they don’t deserve love.
I wanted to be able to show, “look what love can do.” People who know him or can Google him will see that this is the love that created that. Like, if you pour into people, if you can look past the worst things that a person has done, and see the humanity, see them first as human and pour into them, then look what you could possibly produce.
And that goes for our youth. We throw them away. Some of them may not end up going to prison, but still we throw them away so quickly, and are potentially throwing away so much greatness when we write people off because of something they may have done.
And even though it didn’t work out, I wanted people to see that.
Also, because I decided to write about the uglier side of our relationship once he came home, I wanted people to see the reality of life after prison, what relationships look like after prison.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield is the former executive editor at YES!, where she directed editorial coverage for YES! Magazine, YES! Media’s editorial partnerships, and served as chair of the YES! Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. A Detroit native, Zenobia is an award-winning journalist who joined YES! in 2016 to build and grow YES!’s racial justice beat, and continues to write columns on racial justice. In addition to writing and editing, she has produced, directed, and edited a variety of short documentaries spotlighting community movements to international democracy. Zenobia earned a BA in Mass Communication from Rochester College in Rochester, Michigan, and an MA in Communication with an emphasis in media studies from Wayne State University in Detroit. Zenobia has also taught the college course “The Effects of Media on Social Justice,” as an adjunct professor in Detroit. Zenobia is a member of NABJ, SABJ, SPJ, and the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English and AAVE.