Albert and Marvin Campbell never thought they’d make it out of prison.
The two brothers had gotten swept up in the federal indictments that ravaged Liberty City in the mid-1990s. They were looking at 35 years in a federal penitentiary. Each.
Two years into their sentence, under constant threat they say from violent inmates and draconian guards, Albert and Marvin made a pact: if they were going to die in prison, it would be while protecting one another — even though each of their four children would be robbed of a father.
“I probably cried almost every night in prison,” said Albert, now 57.
Despite the endless trauma, the Campbells persevered. Albert was released in 2016, Marvin in 2015 after more than two decades inside.
The brothers, as well as many other formerly incarcerated men, regard Father’s Day with a little extra level of sentimentality. Unwavering family support helped them survive their years in prison — and cushion their transition back into the outside world. Now released, the Campbells feel a distinct gratitude of regaining relationships that once were lost or threatened. To be able to spend a day surrounded by loved ones is unimaginable to those doing time in places that breed violence, says Marvin.
“You’re worried about whether you’re going to get killed or kill someone so it was very difficult to be a father,” Marvin, 55, explained.
The plush prisons that held Martha Stewart and Jordan Belfort from “Wolf of Wall Street” were far from Marvin and Albert what described. Sitting at the wrong lunch table could be a death sentence. Stabbings were a weekly occurrence. Gang affiliation was key to survival. Marvin himself was involved in several race riots, one in which even resulted in his family being improperly notified of his death.
“For about 14, 15 years of my prison sentence I was on edge, [couldn’t] sleep,” Marvin said.
In his view, “[Prison’s] main objective is to tear down families.”
“My woman was taken away from me. My children’s childhood was taken away from me,” Albert said. “A person don’t really know what they have until it’s been taken away from them.”
Missing family events — graduations, proms, funerals — can wear a man down. For many, the phone calls from friends and family become less frequent as time goes on.
McArthur Richard Sr., who spent a combined 10 years behind bars on two separate occasions, saw disillusionment set in again and again.
“A lot of people when they’re in prison, especially when you have long bids, they forget about you,” Richard, 59, said. His wife, Loretta, helped him deal with the loneliness. “I got Father’s Day cards. I got Christmas cards. During the holidays – New Years, birthdays and everything – they sent me money. But a lot of guys didn’t get that.”
The critical importance of family for inmates led Legend Tarver and his wife, Amanda Santiago Tarver, to found 300 Letters. Established in 2020, the nonprofit aims to heal households hampered by the justice system through subsidizing therapy sessions and child care services. “We have to start thinking about incarceration as a family affair and how we can uplift these people because we can’t do this alone,” said Legend. “The support system is vital for success.”
Tarver knows this firsthand. In 2015, he and Amanda were sentenced to 47 and 24 months in prison, respectively. The couple’s sentences would be reduced — but not before handing over their 6-year-old son Dorian, who was already suffering from the death of his biological father, to Legend’s mother. Then, two weeks after Amanda went inside, they found out that she was pregnant with another child, soon to be named Legend Jr.
“I was worried that he wouldn’t even know who I was,” Legend, 30, said. “Legend Jr. was one and a half years old when I came home.”
Amanda’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of Legend Jr. – a missed moment that the elder Legend recalled as “one of the toughest” times in prison – required the couple to stay in constant communication. Handwritten letters soon became the medium of choice. The experience provided the basis for 300 Letters and inspired the couple to try to ease other families’ forced separations.
“As far as keeping up the relationship through prison, it’s really hard,” Legend added. Inmates have a monthly phone time of 300 minutes — 15 per session — then “the rest is just emails that you have to write and you have 15 minutes to type up as much as you could. You were basically just trying to hold off on the phone until you get a visitation.”
‘Everyday like Father’s Day’
The memory of U.S. Marshalls storming into her home and taking away her father is still fresh in the mind of Katrevia Campbell-Bostic. She was 8 years old at the time.
“They bombarded our house and had no regard for me and my sister there at the time,” said Campbell-Bostic.
Visiting her father, Albert Campbell, in prison was also traumatic. The rules seemed to be constantly changing. The process to enter the prison was slow. The guards wouldn’t even let her hug her dad.
“I felt like they just harassed us,” Campbell-Bostic, 35, said. In one instance, a guard told her mother that the heels she was wearing – the same ones she had worn for years – were no longer allowed. “We waited for hours to just be turned around like ‘Go change your shoes and come back.’”
The visits, however uncomfortable they were, did wonders for Albert. One in particular, which occurred two weeks after he and Marvin first made that pact, helped keep him from spiraling out.
“‘Don’t make these people kill you. At least we can come see you and you can call us on the phone. We gone be here with you,’” Albert recalled his wife Corenthia Willis-Campbell telling him. “... That gave me some hope and something to fight for, because I realized that it wasn’t just about me.”
Prison pushed Keyona Campbell-Toles, Marvin’s only daughter, closer to her father. She was only 9-year-old when Marvin went inside. His incarceration triggered a “snowball effect” in her life, she says. School was no longer a priority for Campbell-Toles – until she and Marvin began having candid conversations about how his imprisonment made her feel. The conversation came just as she entered into high school.
“He really helped me get through it,” Campbell-Toles, now 35, said of her father, “because [he] was like ‘Look baby girl, I’m not coming home anytime soon but you have to live your life. You have to do what you have to do.’ The letters back-and-forth, the phone calls back-and-forth pretty much helped me” realize that wallowing in sadness wasn’t helpful.
Now, Marvin and Albert are experiencing fatherhood through a totally different lens — as grandfathers. With 13 grandchildren between them, the two decades of parenting missed during their time behind bars is being made up, day by day.
“I was more excited for my daughter” when her father was released because she “gets something that I will never have,” Campbell-Toles said. The moment when her daughter first met her grandfather, “made everything – all the other stuff I went through [as a kid] — worth it.”
That’s not to say everything is perfect; both Marvin and Albert have struggled to adjust to life on the outside. For Albert, he’s still getting used to life without Shakevia, one of his four daughters who passed away at the age of 23 in 2013.
“Whenever I think about her, I be thinking that she gone come up and hug me because that was the last thing I remember about her when I was free,” Albert said.
For Marvin, he’s still learning when and how to give advice to his children.
“When you gone out of somebody’s life for 20 years, you don’t know them and they don’t know you,” Marvin said. “It’s hard for you to express yourself because you don’t know how they’ll take it.”
That might be the toughest part about Marvin and Albert’s journey. As of 2021, they’ve spent more time in prison than with their children. Growing pains are bound to happen. Their family’s love, however, made them feel almost invincible.
“It still hurts me. But the fact that my children still love me, the fact that my grandchildren know ‘That’s my granddaddy,’ they jump on my neck when they see me, they love to be with me and all of that stuff – it’s a warm feeling,” Albert said. “Everyday for me is like Father’s Day.”