Ashley C. Ford was just a baby when her father was sentenced to 30 years behind bars. Prison phone calls—a $1.4 billion industry in the United States—were often prohibitively expensive for her family, so Ford maintained a fragmentary relationship with him through handwritten letters and short visits, while her loved ones tried to shield her from her father’s past. With limited contact and unanswered questions, Ford filled in the blanks with fantasies of her father as the perfect man. This week on The Experiment, the Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith speaks with Ford about what children lose when a parent is in prison—and what happened when she discovered the truth of her father’s crime.
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This episode was produced by Gabrielle Berbey and Peter Bresnan, with reporting by Clint Smith. Editing by Katherine Wells, Jenny Lawton, and Julia Longoria. Fact-check by Michelle Ciarrocca. Sound design by David Herman, with additional engineering by Joe Plourde. Transcription by Caleb Codding.
Music by Nelson Bandela (“Auddi Sun 06 17952 5n4”), Ob (“Ere”), H Hunt (“C U Soon” and “11e”), Water Feature (“Double Blessing I”), Laundry (“Films”), and Keyboard (“My Atelier” and “More Shingles”), provided by Tasty Morsels and Nelson Nance. Additional audio from the Connecticut Network and the Connecticut General Assembly Judiciary Committee.
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(A door opens and closes. The clang of metal reverberates in what sounds like a concrete room. A phone rings, crystal clear. Several more chime in as flute and keyboard and percussion wash over. Then, suddenly, a phone slams down. All goes quiet.)
Connecticut official 1: Will the clerk please call Calendar 535?
Clerk: Uh-huh. Page 34, Calendar 535, Senate Bill No. 972 …
Julia Longoria: Just a few months ago, Connecticut’s legislature considered a bill.
Clerk: “An act concerning the cost of telecommunication services in correctional facilities.”
Longoria: Yeah. It sounds very wonky, but the bill is really simple. It’s about phone calls in prison. It would make calls by incarcerated people free of charge.
Testimonial 1: Good morning. I am here today in support of the act concerning cost … (Fades under.)
Longoria: And when they held public hearings on the bill …
Testimonial 1: When my son was 17 years old, he caught a case that landed him in adult prison for the first time.
Longoria: Much of the testimony came from families.
Testimonial 2: It’s no secret. I have a loved one who’s incarcerated. Let me just give you the numbers, what I pay: [With anger and emphasis.] $1,200 a year that I am paying to talk to my brother.
(A snare drum clicks and clacks over a slick electronic keyboard line.)
Longoria: In Connecticut, inmates are charged up to $5 for a 15-minute call. That’s one of the highest rates in the country. Nationally, the prison phone business is a $1.4 billion industry.
Testimonial 2: And there’s thousands of people like myself, and I’m fortunate enough to … (Fades out.)
Testimonial 1: ’Cause you’re asking low-income families to keep making sacrifices that they can’t afford. I work every day … (Fades out.)
Longoria: And then, after all the testimony …
Connecticut official 2: And the clerk will announce the tally.
Longoria: They voted …
Official 2: The bill is amended as passed, in concurrence with the Senate.
(A bright flourish punctuates the music as it opens up, breathes in.)
Longoria: And they passed the bill.
Clint Smith: This bill is the first of its kind. I mean, there is no other state in the United States of America where people can make phone calls from state prisons without being charged—or without their families being charged.
(The music fades out.)
Longoria: I first heard about this bill from Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith.
Smith: I’ve been working in prisons and jails, uh, as a teacher for the past several years. And this is something that I know was a big deal to people on the inside.
Longoria: Yeah, I—I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even know it cost prisoners money to make these phone calls.
Smith: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think that I would know, honestly—
Smith: —unless I’d been working in prisons for the past few years. I think I imagined that, like, Oh, you can visit a person in prison whenever you want!, when that couldn’t be further from the case. Many thousands of incarcerated people are held in places that are nowhere near their home. And so, if folks want to physically visit their loved ones, I mean, it’s a whole—you have to get on a train or a plane or a bus, and you talk about being cost-prohibitive. You know, a phone call is cost-prohibitive for so many of these people, much less buying a plane ticket.
Longoria: Yeah! So how did you learn the reality of what these relationships look like?
Smith: Yeah. So—so a good friend of mine, Ashley Ford …
Ashley Ford: Hi!
Ford: How are you?
Smith: I’m better now that I see your face.
Ford: It’s so good to see you.
(A sparse piano line plays for just a moment.)
Smith: She’s an incredible writer and thinker, and she’s the person who really opened my eyes to what the day-to-day of being a kid of an incarcerated parent is like. She wrote this really compelling book, called Somebody’s Daughter, that documents her relationship with her dad.
Smith: How old were you when your dad was incarcerated?
Ford: I was born in January of 1987, and my father was charged in July of 1987. So I would have been about six months old.
Smith: Her father was incarcerated for the vast majority of her life. Her father didn’t have any money, um, so he couldn’t afford to make the calls.
Ford: He would sometimes call collect, but my mom had to ask him to stop doing that, because we couldn’t afford those calls. [Laughs.] You know, it’s really hard to figure out how to make that work.
So you are trying to figure out what it means to love someone who is in prison. And you’re doing that without having any real idea who that person is, aside from the fact that they are one-half of your DNA.
(A hum of bass lines, almost-didgeridoos, and percussion swims in the sonic texture of a gramophone recording. It’s warm, almost like a lazy summer night alongside a river.)
Longoria: Seven percent of American kids have a parent who’s been incarcerated. This week, Atlantic writer Clint Smith talks to one of them—Ashley Ford—about what she lost growing up without being able to see or speak to her dad very often.
Smith: What does it do to a child when you take away one of the most important people in their lives and then prevent them from being able to maintain a relationship with that person in a meaningful way because of specific policies that make that difficult.
Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(The music is inflected—or infected—by electronica, becomes distant, echoes into nothing.)
Smith: What’s your first memory of your father?
Ford: My first memory of him is actually when I found a picture of him in my grandmother’s closet and didn’t recognize him and didn’t know who he was, but for some reason he seemed or felt familiar to me. He was in, like, a weight room, and his hands were crossed in front of him. It reminded me of the way my uncles posed in photos at the time. (Laughs.)
Ford: Like, they all pose the same way, with this sort of, like, lean back, one foot forward. And so I asked my grandmother who this was, and, at first, she was kind of like, “Girl, what’s wrong with you?” You know? [Laughs.] Because maybe even she thought that something about me should have inherently recognized him.
Smith: And without phone calls, she had to sort of imagine him. She had to sort of re-create a version of her father that she believed to be true, or—in many ways—that she wanted to be true.
(A piano composition plays. It’s slow, serious, and evocative of water. The melody gently shimmers over waves of its own bass counterpart.)
Ford: I always pictured my dad as this very strong and restrained man. And I pictured him as an artist because what is often the case in the pictures that he was able to send home was that those pictures included some of his art quite often. Because he knew we couldn’t read, you know? He knew! (Laughs.)
Ford: Me and my brother, you know—at this point, 3 and 4 years old—we couldn’t read, but he would draw things for us. So it’s like, “Yes, this strong, restrained Black man who would protect me and who would keep me safe is also the man who drew me a field of deer …”
(A sharp piano note sticks out.)
Ford: “… and just wrote my name in the corner, inside of a little heart.”
(The piano melody quivers as a synthesizer mimics its sounds, only shakier.)
Ford: And it—I guess it just made me think that my dad was this, uh … almost, like, perfect man. It just … It felt like a fantasy.
(The music fades out slowly.)
Ford: For many years, my dad wrote me letters. And I, to this day, could pick out my dad’s handwriting in a lineup. It’s just perfectly slanted, cursive writing. If he wrote a word but misspelled it, there would just be that perfect strikethrough line.
(A paper rustles.)
Ford: Like, look at this script! Okay? (Laughs.)
Smith: Oh, wow. That looks good!
Smith: It feels, like, royal. Like—
Ford: It does. It always has.
Um, I’m gonna … read this to you. I, uh—I wrote a story, um, that I sent my dad around 2011. And so he sent me this letter back.
“Ashley, I read that page you sent me from your writings. I still am in awe every time I read it. You are so talented, so intelligent, and I’m so proud of you. I know it hasn’t been easy for you growing up without a father. I promise I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to make up for it. I know I cannot do anything to change the past, but I can do a lot to make our future together bright. I love you so much. You’re my favorite girl. I love you, Dad.”
And you can see he’s got, like—he just did, like, a little heart in the corner that says “Smile, beautiful one.”
Smith: Hmm. [Exhales for a long moment.] What does it feel like to get a letter like that?
Ford: (After a beat.) Like a reminder that you’re a real person. You’re a real person, and somebody loves you. And, you know, the thing that I’ve always loved about my dad’s letters and about the way he communicates with me is that, um, his love never seemed to be wrapped up in fear for me as much as it was wrapped up in curiosity about who I was going to become.
(Scattered sounds—muted wind chimes, perhaps—plink and plunk in staticky loops.)
Smith: So you were—we said you said you were about six months old—
Smith: —when he was arrested and charged. And how much longer would it be until you saw him in person again?
Ford: I was around 7. And I can remember seeing him for the first time through the glass. And I remember him seeing us, and I remember being held by him and everybody else melting away.
(A soft moment of music builds up, then back down and out.)
Ford: Like, I remember looking up at him, and I remember him looking down at me, and I remember this smile growing on his face and this, like, wonder and awe in his eyes. And I kept catching him looking at me.
Ford: Literally sneaking glances at me. Like, he was just delighted—by me. Like I was the prize. I was the thing that he had been waiting on.
Ford: Nobody had ever looked at me like that before. And, um, that was something I just desperately wanted as a kid. I don’t know that I think I could have named it at the time. I knew that that was what I’d been wanting. That’s what I’d been looking for, was for somebody who loved me to look at me like they loved me.
(Birds chirp over a wash of sound, synthesizers playing in a wide space.)
Smith: Did anyone, when you were a child, say, “Ashley, you don’t actually know who your dad really is”? [Ford scoffs.] Or, “You don’t really know who this man is, or what he’s done”? Was—did that ever come up, or did—
Smith: —people largely try to shield you from that part of things?
(The music fades out.)
Ford: They tried to shield us as much as possible. You know, so many of my family members just stopped talking about my dad, because it upset my mother so much. And when I—when people would bring him up and they could see this hunger in me for more information. [Laughs.] Like, “Can you give me a funny story about him, or a sad story about him, or any story about him?” It didn’t strike me as strange until I was solidly a teenager that I was like, “Why did everybody just stop talking about him at all?”
Ford: Like, they just stopped.
And my mom used to tell me, “If you tell your teacher about this, she won’t think you’re a good student anymore. She will change her mind about you if she knows your dad is in prison.” And I believed her. All of the messaging from our society was telling my mother that she was already a failure because she had clearly made all the wrong decisions in order to end up in this place. And now the worst thing she could do would be to ask for help. You can’t let people get too close, because then they might find out the secrets.
Ford: And realizing how much of, like, our family culture is rooted in fear and is rooted in worrying about what other people will do—or might do. And I don’t think living like that helped us.
(A buzz plays up.)
Longoria: So, as Ashley grew up, she kept asking—kept pushing to learn who her father really was. Until, one day, when she was a teenager, she finally learned the truth. She had to reckon with the reality of what her dad had done. That’s after the break.
(The music hums for a moment more, then ends.)
(A deconstructed phone rings in slow motion, then fades out.)
Longoria: This is The Experiment. I’m Julia Longoria. And we’re back with a conversation between Atlantic writer Clint Smith and Ashley Ford, whose father was in prison for the majority of her life.
Smith: When did you know why he had been put in prison?
Ford: When I was 14, um, my grandmother and I went to the mall, and we took the bus, and it was something that we regularly did, but I was in sort of a funky mood because I had gotten into a big argument with my mom. And we got to the mall. My grandmother was actually advocating for my mom and saying, “Hey, you’ve got to figure out how to be nicer to her, because you don’t know what she’s been through.” And my grandma eventually, in my mom’s defense, said, you know, “I’m gonna, like, tell you why your dad is in prison so that you understand, uh, the gravity and the stakes for what she’s been through.” And so she told me that he was in prison for rape. And that he had raped two women.
And I [A long pause.] had to—very quickly—pretend not to be feeling anything about that information. Because [Sighing lightly.] I knew if I emoted in a way that my grandma didn’t like, or if it made her uncomfortable—the way I emoted—then she would stop talking about it. Or, when I finally did have follow-up questions, she wouldn’t answer them, because she would be like, “No, last time I told you something, you acted a fool. You cried and hollered and carried on and everything. And I ain’t telling you nothing.”
Ford: And I was like, I—I don’t want that, so I got to, like, keep my face straight. And I tried really, really hard, and I did a [Chuckling ruefully.] phenomenally good job of not emoting. But when I got home, I cried for hours and hours and hours.
(A gentle hum begins.)
Ford: I was sexually assaulted when I was 13. And finding out that my father—who I adored, in theory—was in prison for rape, with the logic of a child, solidified for me that this was something that was always going to happen to me, that I was paying for the sins of my father, that that was my burden. That was the cost of being me. How do I blame myself for this?
Like, I knew the facts of what it meant that my dad was in prison for raping someone. I knew the horror of that feeling. [Chuckles lightly, sadly.] I knew that. But I—I didn’t know what it meant about me. Like, what does it say about me, that this is my dad?
I remember the first time he called after I found out about this. And—and I think he just figured it was time for me to know, and to hear it from him. And once I realized what he was trying to tell me, I told him, “I know. I know. You don’t have to say it. I know. I already know.” And he said, “You do?”
And I said, “I do.” And he said, “Do you have any questions for me? Is there anything you want to ask me? Is there anything you want to know?”
And I said, “No.” I said, “No.”
And it wasn’t until I was 19 that I wrote him a letter saying, “Actually, I have to know. I have to know.”
Ford: “Why did you do this? What happened? Why?” I was able to feel strong and bold enough to say, “You know what? I—I can handle the truth. And I want to know the truth.”
And I wrote him a letter asking him those questions. He wrote me back very quickly, um, with those answers. And … I found that to be, um, very useful to me.
(The hum is louder now, solid and solemn.)
Smith: He told her that when he was a young man, he was deeply insecure and afraid. And the way he sort of dealt with those feelings was to turn his fear into aggression—and then he turned that aggression onto his two victims. He told her he became a monster so that he didn’t have to become a man.
Smith: Did you ever tell your dad about your own sexual assault?
Ford: I did. [A long pause.] When my dad got out of prison, we sat down and I just said, you know, “It’s really important to me that you know. And I want you to know that I’m okay. But this has had a really big impact on my life.”
And he put his head down, and he was quiet for a really long time. And then he said, “You know, I thought about you every day. And I prayed for you every day. And this is the only one of my prayers for you that did not come true, that this didn’t happen to you. Everything else,” he was like, “You’re so smart and beautiful. And you have this amazing personality.” You know, it was all these wonderful things about me, right? And then he said, “But this is something that I prayed every day you would never know. And I’m so sorry that you did. I’m so sorry that that’s something you live with. And I hope that, um, maybe, over time, our relationship can be part of what helps you in that place.”
And then I slept in the basement of the house, um—which was very nice, not like a basement basement [Laughs.], like a finished, very lovely basement—I slept down there, and my dad slept upstairs in his room, and it was the first time we’d slept in the same house together that I could remember.
(An organ of wind chimes plays an enchanting cacophony of light and direction.)
Ford: And, yeah. We just—we just kept talking, you know? Next day into today! We just keep talking to each other.
Smith: You know, the thing about your story that has been so moving and illuminating for me is that your story is one of millions of children across this country who are dealing with what it means to have an incarcerated parent. What would you say about, like, what is lost when a parent is sent away from their child and is kept in prison?
Ford: We believe that punishing the family through the incarcerated loved one is part of the punishment for the incarcerated loved one. And we, as a society, pretend that that is a humane consequence of incarceration.
So what we do to children of the incarcerated in general is take away one potential earner, potential protector, potential source of love and comfort from the home. We take away half of that. And then we also leave these children with the shame of their connection to that person.
(A piano warms up, then launches into a sparse but gentle melody that wraps around Ford’s words as she speaks.)
Ford: I suffered through no choice of my own. These were not my consequences for my actions. And yet, I suffered. But I think if I’d been able to have those regular calls with my dad, there would have been a lot less suffering for me.
And, right now, there are a lot of people who feel like my suffering as a child is a reasonable cost. And I disagree. And I—I don’t think any child deserves to suffer the loss of communication with an incarcerated parent. I don’t think any child deserves to suffer in that way.
And, um, honestly, anybody who believes differently can, uh—can meet me outside. [Both laugh.] Let’s—let’s have a chat. It makes me that angry and that upset. No child deserves it.
Tracie Hunte: This episode was produced by Gabrielle Berbey and Peter Bresnan, with reporting by Clint Smith. Editing by Katherine Wells, Jenny Lawton, and Julia Longoria.
Fact-check by Michelle Ciarrocca. Sound design by David Herman, with additional engineering by Joe Plourde.
Music by Tasty Morsels and Nelson Nance.
Our team also includes Emily Botein, Natalia Ramirez, Alina Kulman, and me, Tracie Hunte.
You can read more about the real cost of prison phone calls in Clint Smith’s article “The Lines of Connection” on our website, www.theatlantic.com/experiment.
And if you’re enjoying this podcast, please take the time to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.
(The piano comes to rest after a long moment, as softly as it began.)