Honoring a father behind bars

Posted: June 13, 2014

LARRY STEPHENSON was 6 and his brother Darren was 5 when the father who was always present in their lives suddenly wasn't.

They wondered about the steel bars when they traveled to visit him in a place their mother called "college." But their young minds rationalized that there were signs for Cheyney University on the way, and their father did always greet them with math and reading tests.

"It felt like an after-school program," Larry recalled, laughing. Only later did the brothers realize those tests were from a course for fellow inmates at Broadmeadows Prison.

Over the years, the elder Larry Stephenson shared increasingly more with his boys about why he was behind bars, until they had the whole story.

Despite being a family man who'd never been in trouble before, the then 24-year-old father started drinking and partying. In 1973, the warehouse clerk participated in an attempted armed robbery of a Chester bar. His gun went off and a bullet ricocheted from the bar stool and into an older patron's hip. The man later died, and Stephenson was convicted of robbery and murder and sentenced to life without parole.

"One mistake can cost you a lifetime of misery," he'd tell his sons during regular visits and in stacks and stacks of letters that now span 40 years.

In a memoir he's writing with his younger son, Stephenson recalled seeing a change in his sons after just a few months of being away. Despite the limitations of his own doing, he committed to doing all he could to father them from prison.

It wasn't easy. Even with their strong bond, there weren't the typical father-son moments. It was their mother, Betty, whom Larry teased knows very little about sports, who cheered her athletic, standout sons from the stands. A cousin taught Larry to drive after lessons with his mother got too nerve-wracking, for both of them. Larry in turn taught his little brother.

"It was tough," admitted Larry. "Who wants to see their dad locked up like an animal in a cage? There were times I was angry, where I thought, 'You're not there, man.' But my parents always listened to us and allowed us to express our opinions. And we, in turn, respected them and never wanted to do anything to shame them."

They were also lucky to have the support of family and mentors. But their touchstone, the brothers said, was always the man behind bars.

On Wednesday, his sons accepted an award on his behalf from the Father's Day Rally Committee. Bilal Qayyum, president of the organization that promotes positive images of black men, first met the elder Larry about a decade ago. But it wasn't until recently that Qayyum learned of Larry's relationship with his sons.

In a state where more than 33,000 inmates in state prison are parents, according to the latest data from the state's Department of Corrections, Qayyum called Stephenson an example.

"Here's a guy who is in jail for life," he said. "He's never getting out. Some guys use incarceration as an excuse. But in his mind, there was no excuse. He's an example for the men in and out of prison that there is never a reason not to father the children you bring into this life."

It was during those visits and in letters - "Four a week for 40 years," said Darren - that the Stephenson boys said they learned how to be men, and how to keep from repeating their father's mistakes. He sent them money from prison jobs that sometimes paid less than 50 cents an hour. He stressed education above all. "Academics are key," their father often told them. He got his college degree behind bars.

Both sons are now guidance counselors, a fitting vocation, they said, considering the guidance they, and so many others, received from their father. Ironically, the younger Larry said, some of his former teammates were mentored by his father when they ended up in prison.

Larry, a 47-year-old grandfather who lives in Delaware, still makes the trek to visit his father in Graterford as often as he can. So does Darren, 45, who several times a month makes the three-hour ride from his home in Maryland. He often takes the trip with his own son, who attends Morehouse College in Atlanta.

"I love my father, he's a good man," said Darren. "I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for him."

It's not lost on either of the sons, or their father, that because of their father's actions long ago, a man is dead. They know that it is possible that out there somewhere is someone who grew up without a father while they still had access to theirs, however limited.

"He was very honest about what happened and he is certainly remorseful," said the younger Larry, "He's done his time. He will always be paying for his past."

In the memoir, the elder Larry wrote: "I will never stop atoning and being remorseful for the bad decision I made in my youth. If I can continue to try and save some lives, and help raise my grandchildren and great grandchildren like I did my sons, I will feel I've been vindicated for my mistakes in life."

Around the time his sons were accepting the award on their father's behalf, Stephenson was in his cell for nightly headcount. Knowing that their father would anxiously be awaiting every detail of the night, his sons took lots of pictures and planned to visit the first chance they got.

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