December 1, 2019 12:37:56 AM
Thanksgiving is a bittersweet holiday for my family. While we find joy in gathering together to give thanks, the day is also a painful reminder that we may never have the opportunity to share a meal with my father again.
When my dad was 44-years-old, he was sentenced to 60 years in prison without the possibility of parole. He is serving what basically amounts to a life sentence for a drug crime because of Mississippi's habitual penalties. These laws allow prosecutors to add years, decades, or even life imprisonment to a person's sentence if they have been convicted of crimes in the past.
My dad, like many others across Mississippi and the nation, has battled drug addiction his entire adult life. When my dad was arrested for a drug crime in 2007, the local prosecutor used his two prior convictions to send him to prison for the rest of his life. No consideration was given to the fact that his first offense happened decades ago, when he was just a teenager. No one cared that his convictions were all drug-related and driven by his own struggle with substance abuse.
But my dad is more than his convictions, more than his addiction. Growing up, he was my superhero. He taught me to hunt and to fish. In fact, my best memory of him is from one of those fishing trips. After about an hour on the river, our boat tipped over, dumping both my dad and me into the cold water. I was about 5 years old at the time, too scared to wait on the dark, muddy riverbank for him to swim upriver to the truck and come get me. So he put me on top of the capsized boat and swam us several miles up the river to safety. At the end of the night, he apologized for our failed fishing expedition, and I responded with the truth: I didn't care if we caught any fish -- I was just happy being with him.
Because of Mississippi's habitual laws, my son will never get to experience an afternoon fishing on the river with my dad. He won't be able to join our family hunting trips. He won't be at this Christmas Eve church service, or the next. He missed his mom's funeral and isn't able to help care for his own dad as he ages.
And while this has been devastating for me, my mom, and my grandparents, it's been hardest of all for my dad. Once a hard working and fun loving man, my dad is now a shell of his former self. Because there is no way out for him, he finds it hard to find reasons for hope. And because he is incarcerated at Parchman, hours away from his closest family members, we aren't able to see him and help lift his spirits nearly as much as we'd like to.
This is the reality of having a close family member in prison. And as Mississippi's prison population continues to grow, more families will experience what it's like. Each and every one of the thousands of people in Mississippi prisons serving sentences with habitual penalties is a person whose absence leaves a permanent mark on their families, just like my dad.
Taxpayers in Mississippi spend $360 million on the prison system each year despite research showing that long prison sentences do not make us safer and can be shortened without impacting public safety. It's past time our representatives act to change these laws.
Until Mississippi addresses habitual penalties, every impacted family will spend every holiday for years to come with an empty chair at their table, just like ours. I wish I could give my dad something to look forward to. Hopefully one day I can.
Dusty Houser is a resident of Caledonia.
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