26 Years on the Outside of the Steel Cage – A Daughter’s Story
Today I’m here with La’Jordawn, daughter of Obadyah Ben-Yisrayl, who is serving life in prison. La’Jordawn has never known her father outside of prison. She was born when her father was facing the death penalty which was later commuted to a life sentence. He spent 19 years on death row and has been in prison for 26 years at the time of this interview. This is a daughter’s story about the love and trust for her father who has raised her from behind the prison bars.
I did know that he was on death row and I didn’t care. That was my father. I actually had some friends whose mom’s knew who I was and they did not allow me to hang out with their children. I grew up like that, some people didn’t want me to hang out their children.
Before we talk to La’Jordawn I’d like you to hear what her father said when I interviewed him.
I’m holding my daughter in my hands for the first time and she represents life, she represents the perpetuation of me, and I’m seeing my flesh and blood and at the same time I know that I have a death sentence hanging over my head, so here’s life in my arms, but death is hanging over my head and so it was definitely a life changing, life altering moment and I don’t think from that moment on I have ever been the same individual I was before I was incarcerated.
La’Jordawn you had a relationship with your father your whole life, what’s your earliest memory of your father and what was it like growing up with a father behind bars?
I actually don’t remember, I couldn’t tell you exactly when we first met; I couldn’t tell you how that experience was, but as I grew older it was normal for me to go see him behind bars and it was normal for me, like a normal relationship. It was like I was just going to my dad’s house. We did everything. I knew my favorite candy was lifesaver gummies, and I’d always bring some to the back. You know, you always talk normally, like it wasn’t uncomfortable. I think I understood what was going on, and I just didn’t care because that was my dad.
One day he said that I told him that I loved him more than cheese, and cheese just happens to be one of my favorite things and I guess that really touched him. He was my favorite person.
I would like for people to be able to hear my story and see what they can do to get through it. Honestly, the only thing that I’ve done is just decided, you know, to accept it, that that’s my dad. There was nothing else that I could do
When you went to see him who did you go with? Did you go with different people?
The majority of the time it was my grandma. I remember a couple of times where we went with my aunt, a couple of cousins which are my aunt’s children and my dad’s brother’s daughter. But the majority of the time the adult was my grandmother. And sometimes it was my uncle, but actually there wasn’t anyone else.
It seems like you have a close family and you’ve gotten a lot of support from the family through your life.
Oh yes, definitely on that side of the family we were close. I’d stay with my grandma the majority of the time. You know as far as living I stayed back and form with my grandma, so I saw my dad a lot.
So you always lived pretty close to where he was?
It was always at least a 45 minute to an hour drive so it wasn’t so far. I think the farthest he’s been away was two hours, but it besides that he’s always been fairly close.
So going back to when you were younger, when you’d go visit him, what are some of the things that you would do?
We would play cards. Of course we’d talk about thing going on outside of jail with my life. We’d talk about thing that were going on with him and his wife. I’d always go to his wife’s house; I’d go out with his wife and things like that. We would talk about the programs he was in. You know, we would just talk about normal things. It was like me literally going to my dad’s house and just catching up on what’s going on.
I know sometimes when you visited him it would just be through a screen, but then other times you could be face-to-face. He also told me that when he was on death row that he was allowed to have in person visits. Did you know that he was on death row?
I did know that he was on death row and I didn’t care. That was my father. I actually had some friends whose mom’s knew who I was and they did not allow me to hang out with their children. I grew up like that, some people didn’t want me to hang out their children. I had encountered some police officers who told me they knew who I was and that I looked just like him. Then I remember some times I had to visit him through, I guess it was a screen, or maybe glass, I wasn’t always able to visit him physically.
So when you did go to visit him whether it was through the glass, on the phone, or in person and I know you guys shared a lot, did you talk to him about personal things and ask for advice from him and how did he guide you?
He always gave me good advice. I honestly couldn’t say that my dad was not a good day because he was behind the bar. My dad was always someone that I was able to look up to. He was always someone that I was able to wait for his call and just tell him everything that’s going on and he would always be able to know what to say. Sometimes even calm me down immediately. Nowadays is different with me being older and some things going on. But, he’s always been there when I was younger and I was always able to talk to him and get a better understanding or calm down.
I can understand that. And how were you treated when you went to visit him, was there any difference when you were younger and as you got older? How you were treated by the guards?
When I was younger my dad treated me like a princess, as I’m older he still does the same.
When you went to visit you had to go through getting checked out to make sure you didn’t have anything, going through metal detectors and going through the doors, and how to the officers treat you? Did you find that they treated you the same when you younger or older, or because of your father’s crime, did they treat you differently?
When I was younger it was unnoticeable. I didn’t really get it. I just knew that I couldn’t take my little purse back there. I knew I couldn’t take the little things that my grandma had bought me back to the back. I just knew that. As I got older though I started to see things that I was annoyed by like how I dressed. Of course, me being older I wanted my dad to see how I dressed as an adult. No, my breast wasn’t out, or no my waistline wasn’t showing, or things like that, but they are really strict on how you dress when you go to the prison. It was very frustrating having to always change clothes or having to watch how short my shirt sleeve was, my shirt almost had to be a turtle neck. Things like that. It couldn’t be a turtle neck because that was against the rules, so it had to almost be a turtle neck. Pants couldn’t be too tight for them, boots could only come up so far. It was just a lot and it made me uncomfortable.
Did you bring us to close with you or did you ever get turned away because of what you were wearing?
One time. And I’m going to be honest, I don’t visit him a lot as I’m older. The one time that I did go to visit him in Pendleton they made completely change. I so happened to have some sweat pants in my car. I didn’t do it on purpose.
I think we’ve all been through that. What are some of the good times you spent with your dad there? Does anything stand out?
It’s always a good time. It’s always a good time. There have been some bad times; there are some things that I’ve done as a teenager that he didn’t quite agree with and we had issues with that growing up. I felt like, as a teenager, he hadn’t been there all my life so I didn’t want him to tell me what to do. So that caused a problem between us. That’s how I looked at it, and I noticed at some point, you know, I’m wrong. There were some things that he did that I didn’t agree with as far as setting some limits, or there were certain things he would say to me, like just recently, he heard that I was sick and having some health issues which I mentioned to him prior and the way that he addressed me about it I did not like, and that upset me about him as well. So we’ve had some run ins as daddy daughter, it’s not always been peachy with us, which is every daddy daughter relationship, but it’s never been so bad. Well actually it has, it’s been to the point where I’m like, I’m not talking to him, but it never lasts that long because my dad has literally not been the type of dad where you don’t want to talk to him. I couldn’t make it too much of a problem.
Has he ever given you rules or disciplined you from where he’s at?
Not really. He would say, for instance: I would say, “Dad, I’m moving”. He would say, “Did you look up the area? Did you check the people?”. He would do stuff like that. He’s never really been, like, you can’t do this, or you won’t do that. He’s never really been like that. I believe the worst issue that we had is because I failed to graduate high school and we had been looking for prom stuff and he was just really excited and I told him at the last minute. That was the worst issue that we’ve ever had, that I wasn’t graduating. And of course, it was on me.
It sounds like you both have developed a good father daughter relationship even though he’s on the inside; that you still got together and created a great relationship.
Yes, definitely. I would tell anybody today that’s one of my favorite person in the world. And people always ask me, “Did he do it?” I’ve never asked my dad did you do it, because I don’t care. That’s my dad. It’s not that I don’t care about those families. Those people that are hurting because of whatever happened back in the day. But, that’s my dad I don’t want to know if he did it and I don’t care.
That’s unconditional love.
Yeah, I’ve heard that before.
How has it affected you with your friends and school? Have you been able to establish good friendships and has that come in between any of your friendships?
My friends know how I feel about my dad, so I’ve never had an issue with my friend saying anything that could possibly jeopardize our friendship because of my dad. But, like I’ve said I had issues with people that I was close with whose mom said that they can’t hang out with me because I’m his daughter and because they perceive him as crazy, because of the things that he did there, I am automatically perceived as crazy. I’ve had relationships where I tell people my dad isn’t with us, he’s in prison, and he’s been in prison all my life and they’ll ask why. I give them a bit of detail, because I don’t even know the whole story. I couldn’t give anybody the full story. And they would say, “Oh, you’re crazy. You’re crazy like your dad.” That’s the type of things that I encounter.
How did it make you feel and how did you deal with it?
I don’t like it. Of course I feel like I’m my own person. I do feel like I’ve had times where I may step out of my control box, sometimes where I become angry and I feel like there is absolutely nothing that I could do the control myself, but I don’t relate that to my dad. I don’t relate that to us having the same blood. I may relate it to not have my dad around. I do relate that to me not having a stable household because I was back and forth between my mom and grandma. So I didn’t have a stable life. So it wasn’t like I was with my mom all my life. I was with my grandma for some years and then I was with my mom for some years and it just was like a revolving door. I never felt like I knew where I belonged. So I had some issues growing up trying to figure that out. And now that I’m 26 I’m finally seeing a therapist, trying to get my life together and figure that part of my life out. However, the things that I’ve been going through have absolutely nothing to do with my father and what he did, and people don’t understand that.
So there’s other people in the same situation as you. You know, young people whose parents are incarcerated and something if you could share, what would’ve helped you get through it that might be able to help other people that will be listening to this.
I would like for people to be able to hear my story and see what they can do to get through it. Honestly, the only thing that I’ve done is just decided, you know, to accept it, that that’s my dad. There was nothing else that I could do. My family did not make me or did not keep me away from my dad because of what they were saying he did. I was always in my dad’s life.
Some people tell their children when they are younger, “Daddy went away” or “Daddy’s at work”, but your family from the very beginning has shared it with you, and was open, and it seems to me too that you’re open with other people. Has there ever been situations where you didn’t tell people or didn’t want to talk about it or bring it up?
No, I feel like if you did not want to know the truth then you shouldn’t have asked. That’s just my take on it. And honestly I’m not ashamed of where my dad is. I’m not ashamed of how my life went. I have some really good people in my life. My mom wasn’t the best, but where she is now and how she’s grown from back in the day, I’m proud of her. My grandma was always there. I could never say she was never there. She’s always been there. My dad did everything that he could, from the time that I’ve known him. I can never say that my dad wasn’t there. So even if something happened on Monday and I never got to talk to my dad till Friday, I still feel like he was there for me. A lot of people don’t get that privilege. A lot of people’s fathers go to jail and they just don’t have their dad. I’ve always had my dad.
What do you think is different with your relationship and other people that don’t have that relationship? How did you guys make it work?
I feel like it was definitely his motivation; it was his ambition to make it work. Without my family when I was younger and without my dad wanting them to bring me to see him, I probably wouldn’t have this relationship with my dad until I got older. But at that point I would’ve been even more so messed up as far as by the issues that I have today because he wasn’t there for me physically and I have an issue with choosing the type of people that I choose to date. You know just not having your dad there to guide you through things like that. He couldn’t do everything behind bars, but the stuff that he did do, I am forever grateful for. My dad has his issues like that he’s not hip to as far as the outside world ways. You know the stuff that he could do, he did. Like it was no limit to what he could do. I feel like the difference is for the guys that are in jail or out here with children, that they don’t want to be in their child’s life because my dad has never missed a beat. He’s never not been there for when I wanted him to be there and for when he wanted to be there. He never not been there. I used to get birthday cards every year that he drew out himself and when I stopped getting them I was upset, but I realized I was old enough. I probably was like 18 when I stopped getting them. I realized like hey, you’re an adult, but I always wanted those cards. He always drew nice characters or his imagination, he always drew character that he made up and I loved those cards. When I was 18 I didn’t get one and I was over it. But that’s what our arguments consist of, it wasn’t really an argument, but that’s what our issues consisted of because I didn’t get a card this year. But he’d never not say a happy birthday, and he never not made me feel like he forgot. I never felt like he forgot that it was my birthday. I never felt like he forgot anything as far as the important stuff. He’s been a great dad behind bars and I feel like there’s no excuse for the men that’s not being a great dad from behind bars.
So do you think that when a parent goes to prison that the family should be up front with them and let them know? Do you have an opinion on that?
Yeah, definitely, I feel like they should let the child know. I mean my dad went to prison before I was born and he was sentenced when I was three months. But I knew everything, but from what I can remember I knew what was going on. I might was well said that I was going to dad’s house, and I feel like the fathers as well as the mothers have a hand in keeping in touch: that they have to work together. I never felt like I didn’t have a dad. The only time I felt that way about not having a dad is when I went through the type of relationship that I went through and I didn’t have as far as what I’m supposed to feel or what I’m supposed to allow. Those type of things. When I went through like emotional, mental, physical abuse, he wasn’t there for that. I do sometimes blame him for that, but it’s not like he can just leave the cell and come help. You know, but I do blame him for not being there because of whatever he did or whatever he didn’t do, and he was part of that crowd or whatever.
I’m sure he felt that he would’ve liked to have been there, too.
Yeah. Yeah. I know, but besides that my dad’s always been there.
There’s some people in prison that I’ve spoken to and they don’t want their family to visit or they don’t want their children to visit because they don’t want their family or children to see them in that situation. What would you say to that?
I would just honestly say it’s just another excuse. I don’t have dreams about behind bars. I don’t have dreams about the noises of the handcuffs. I don’t have dreams about him being in the orange suit. I don’t care about it. That stuff doesn’t bother me, seeing my dad like that. A regular conversation, us sharing candy, us being able to talk face-to-face, me being able to hug my dad, me being able to joke, get tickled, things like that that you’d be able to do at home with your dad are the things that you remember. Not the fact that I had to go through security or that I have to go through this door to get through this door to actually see my dad. That stuff doesn’t bother me.
I think that’s so revealing, too, that a lot of people worry about how it’s going to affect their loved one or their children and just hearing what you’re saying and what’s important. If people just look at what’s important that keeping the family together is what’s important and your family did that and they continue to do it. It’s s different perspective and it’s good to hear how you were able to keep that relationship with you and your dad and the rest of your family to keep you all together.
Yes, that is what I’d say to them. I think it’s an excuse. I think they don’t want to put in the effort to take their child to where the child needs to go to be able to know their dad. Like I said I feel like it’s on both ends at this point.
In a way you were fortunate that he was pretty close because in some places the prisons are pretty far away and it’s harder for people to go see them as much. That has something to do with it too, that you were able to. How old were you when you could go to see him by yourself?
When I turned 18 I was able to see him by myself, but I still go with my grandma. I’ll still go with her. It’s not like I’ll go every time by myself. I’ll still go with my grandma or my best friend who has a brother who’s in the same prison as my dad. The first visit with himself by myself was weird, kind of awkward, because I hadn’t seen him in a while, but besides that it was no different.
He said that because he doesn’t see you every day that he could really see you grow as a woman and he’s really proud of you and he could notice the little differences every time he did get to see you.
Yes, he’s really excited about pictures he can get, especially through JPay and stuff like that. I’m glad that they have that feature.
Can you email? Do they have that feature there?
Yes, I can email him through JPay.
I know you don’t see him as much, you’re older and have your life. Do you still correspond with him and talk to him on the phone?
Yes, I always talk to him and if I don’t I get an earful. I try to talk to him as much as I can and keep him updated on what’s going on in my life and he knows quite a bit. I try to keep them updated on everything so he won’t feel left out. Of course he’s voiced that he feels like I tell my mom more and I put my mom first, which could very well be because I have more access to her. But, I don’t want him to feel like that.
Well him helping you is actually helping you help her.
So how are you doing now? Is there anything you want to share about your life, how it’s going, and looking back on how you grew up having a dad incarcerated? How’s your life going? How did it turn out at 26?
At first I didn’t understand but now going through therapy to figure out myself. There were some bumps in the road as far as me trying to figure out why I chose the people that I chose to be in a relationship with, why I was so angry about certain things, why I’m so anxious. It was just a lot of stuff that I need to figure out with myself so I’m just piecing my life back together. I can’t tell you that there’s a difference now because I’m just now starting with the therapy thing and trying to figure my life out.
Pretty normal in your 20s because I mean that is a time when you are looking at your life and where you’ve been and what you want to do. I don’t like to use the word normal because there’s no such thing as normal. It’s a time of discovery so it seems like you’re heading in the right direction and taking care of yourself. It seems to me that the support you had growing up from your dad and your family has been helpful.
Right. I agree.
Is there anything else that you want to share with our listeners for what you’ve been through or to help other young people that are in the same situation that might not be as accepting as you and not have this unconditional love with their parents, maybe they have some anger or shame. What are some things they can do to get through it?.
You have to forgive them. For the parents that knew they had kids in the world before they did whatever they did, to commit the crime, all you have to do is make them understand and believe that you want to be a part of their life. For the child, they just have to learn to forgive them because there’s nothing that we can do at this point. I forgave my dad just recently. Of course, we had a great relationship, but I still had some anger towards him because he wasn’t there for the times that I felt like I should’ve had him there. So, I would just say forgive them. Learn how to forgive and work through it because that will always be your dad or your mom, if you have a mom that’s in jail.
Dealing with bullying is so prevalent now in the media and everything so any words of advice for how somebody could address somebody that might not be so nice to them and say mean things about their parents or tell them that they’re like their parent in a bad way?
There’s nothing that I feel you can do about that besides move on from that person and that relationship or that friendship because to me that’s ignorant. I’m my own person, and I have my own personality and my own mind. Yeah, of course my dad had a part in making me, but at the same time I don’t have whatever it is that they’re trying to say that he has or what he did is a part of me. To me it’s
Ignorance and I just feel like you should move on from that friendship, that relationship, period. Delete that person out of your life and if it’s just somebody that came along, like for instance a police officer, there’s really nothing that you can say to them. I feel like you should choose your battles wisely. They know what they’re doing. Just let it go and just believe in the person that you love. Believe that that person, that they love you, whatever they did in the past or if they didn’t do it, whatever, that they’re in no hurry and they’re doing what their supposed to do to overcome that. Like I always say, that’s my dad and nobody can tell me anything about my dad, if he did it or not, I don’t care.
It’s also self-esteem. It seems like you have a lot of self-esteem and believe in yourself. Just from talking to you I think that, it seems to me that is a big help also. Believe what you believe and don’t let anybody deter you from that.
Right, definitely you can’t let anybody take you down from those comments. When I was younger, yeah maybe, but now that I’m older I still have people say that to me. Like, “Oh, you’re Christopher Dwayne Peterson’s daughter”, or “Oh, your Obadyah Ben-Yisrayl’s daughter”. They say, “You look just like him… I’ve seen you in the newspaper… I’ve seen you on the website”. I’m just like, OK, whatever. I don’t care. I don’t care. That’s just that.
You just live your live the way you think you should and it seems to me like you’re making progress and I just want to thank you for your time and appreciate you sharing. I think it’s interesting to hear both sides. You and your dad are really in synch and you both believe in each other. I just think that’s great.
You can listen to Obadyah’s interview at: https://theffip.org/site/featured/26-years-in-a-steel-cage/