Friday, September 20, 2013

Breaking a Cycle

Shaquille Payne, 20, does homework in his new apartment

The casual onlooker would have thought we were discussing the weather. Or maybe I’d asked him how his third year of college was going. Instead, Shaquille Payne was detailing a childhood in which he’d been left to raise himself as his family served time behind bars.  

In 2001, when Payne was about 8 years old, he was one of approximately 1.5 million children missing a parent, due to incarceration.

As a single parent, Payne’s mother, Loretta Williams, struggled with a heavy financial burden. She was placed on disability after undergoing surgeries to rid her arms of cysts and boils.

But social security is not a fast process.

“SSI (Supplemental Security Income) can take up to 18 months to process,” said Payne. And so his mother began writing bad checks to provide for the family in the meantime.

Compounding this, Payne was still coping with the loss of his older brother, Shawn Williams, who had been convicted of second-degree murder. In 2000, just one year before his mother’s conviction, he was sentenced to 25 years to life.  

Payne said he’d been very close with his brother, who was 15 years his senior.  They’d spoken a few times on the phone, but the bond they’d shared was largely lost.

At the age of just eight, Payne had lost both his mother and brother to incarceration. And it seemed very likely that he would walk the same path due to incarceration’s cyclical pattern.

As he awaited his mother’s release, Payne lived with his aunt. He said the living situation caused immediate issues.

His aunt’s mistreatment of him was extremely problematic. Money sent to Payne from his mother’s Social Security and his father’s child support, which totaled about $1,500, was immediately squandered by her. She used the money to buy only her children name brand clothing and soon developed a gambling problem.

“It’ll be times where I’ll come home from school and the lights are off,” said Payne. “And the lights would be off for like a week. And it was so frequent that I’d come home, go to turn on the light, the light would be off, I’d go and get a candle, light the candle, and sit down and do homework.”

The next five years of his life were tough as he battled a household that didn’t seem to want him there.

Payne spent many nights crying until simply deciding he didn't want to anymore, he said. But the emotions didn’t dissipate just because his tears did. Instead it manifested in a uncontrollable and ever-present anger.

And this should have further shortened his path to jail.

Already, as a young, black and impoverished man, he was staring down factors that describe most of the prison demographic. And with a parent and brother in jail, the issue was compounded. Finally, he was contributing himself with an anger he couldn’t control, but which, he believed, was his only option due to a lack of resources in his environment.

Yet, Payne soon realized his anger wasn’t what he wanted either. A close call with his elementary school crush was his reality check, he said. He almost harmed her trying to attack another student. At just age 11, Payne realized that through his frequent black-outs, he couldn’t differentiate between those he wanted to hurt and those he cared about. He was simply harming everyone, including himself.

An example of Payne's poetry as a release

By middle school he’d begun to work harder at self-control. And by high school he’d completely mastered it. So much so, that as we spoke I couldn’t imagine the man sitting across from me living a childhood so difficult.  He exhibited such control: never jittery despite the long interview; never emotional despite the hard subject; and never breaking from his calm voice, which at times soothed me as I listened.

According to Payne, his success was two-fold: a desire to want to do better and the outlets he found to channel his emotions. He played football, turned to art, and eventually found his home in slam poetry.

Payne was one of 1.5 million children missing a parent in jail, but he is also one of many in that number to not continue the cycle.

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