Lexie’s Story: A Beautiful Father-Daughter Relationship

My college professor asked me who was my Biggest Inspiration, and I responded, My dad. My dad’s name is Gasi Pitter. He was incarcerated when he was 18, and I was three years old. He’s now been in prison for 21 years, and still has about 19 more years to go. My 25th birthday was this past March.

A family

My mom was a single parent when my father went to prison, and she didn’t feel like she would be able to finish school and be able to take care of me by herself, so I went to Jamaica to live with my grandparents for three years until she got her bachelor’s degree. When I came back to Chicago, my mom was determined that I would have a relationship with my dad, even though her family disagreed. They were worried that he would be a bad influence. So ultimately my mom was alone.

Starting at age six, my mom would bring me to visit my dad maybe once a month. It was very normal in my head as a child. It was just like, “I’m going to go visit my dad at his home.” It didn’t really hit me what prison was until I was 15. I remember looking through the window and seeing my father cuffed to several other prisoners. And I remember just wanting to cry because for the first time it hit me: Wow. This is his home. This is how it is when I’m not here. It was hard to see my father in chains like that. He had no rights, no free will, and at that moment, my father, a person who seemed so big to me, seemed so small.

I was afraid knowing about his crime would change my perception of him. Because, as a child, you’re told if someone does a crime, if they’re in jail, they must be bad.

But amazingly, each and every time I visited him, he was able to have this huge smile and talk about all the things going on in my life. I admired him because even through all this, he never allowed his pain to overshadow my struggles or accomplishments. Every birthday, I always had a present. He would send me art, like a portrait of us as a family, or draw his own cards, or sing “Happy Birthday” to me on the phone. Although to others he was just an inmate, to me he was my dad.

We would also have phone calls, but it got very expensive. At that time, it was ten dollars per call for every 30 minutes. It actually got to a point where our house phone line got cut because we couldn’t pay the bill. Even going to see him was very expensive. My mom had to worry about making sure that I never felt the financial burden of a father who was not physically present. I saw how much of a toll it was on her to see my dad, both the cost and the emotions it brought up.

My dad has a lot of regrets that we talk about to this day. Looking back I think what hurts him the most is the feeling that he left his family behind and because of that he missed essential moments in my life. On the other hand, I can’t imagine what it was like for my mother to have to be so strong and vulnerable while taking care of a child by herself at such a young age. After all, we are all victims of the prison system, and maybe that was the unspoken feeling that we all felt, yet were reluctant to express during visits with my dad.

My whole life, my father has always said, “If you want to know why I’m in prison, just ask me.” For many years, I avoided the subject, because I wanted to hold onto the relationship that my mom worked so hard for us to create. (She still jokes that I’m closer to my dad than to her.) And so, I was afraid knowing about his crime would change my perception of him. Because, as a child, you’re told if someone does a crime, if they’re in jail, they must be bad.

A few years ago, I decided to actually Google him to find out why he was incarcerated, and I learned that he was in for attempted murder. That was a huge pill to swallow, but after I found out, I was finally comfortable asking the questions I had been avoiding my whole life.

My dad was a young Jamaican immigrant. He had a daughter at 18, no job because of his status at the time, and there was no support from his family. He was taught it was his responsibility as a man to provide for his family. Unfortunately, the streets that he looked to for help to provide for his family became the same streets that took over his life. He was very much on his own. He did not have the best representation in court, he was held for 48 hours without any opportunity to call his family before his court hearing. Before we knew it, he’d received a 40-year sentence.

I’ve talked with my dad about all this, and it’s given me the space to empathize, to understand that everyone deserves a second chance, that what someone does at 18 shouldn’t define them for life, or take away the possibility of a better future. These conversations allowed us both to heal, be transparent, and be vulnerable with each other. We spend days journaling, fasting, reflecting, and having really difficult conversations.

The big thing he’s taught me is that it’s not about what you go through, but where you go from there and how you give back. Each time we’re on the phone, there’s always a history or life lesson. I probably learned more from him than I have from my teachers.

This is why my dad has become one of my big inspirations. He pushes me to ask difficult questions and to analyze and reflect on the most challenging and meaningful moments in my life. My dad has taken 21 years to process and acknowledge where he went wrong. He is the most community-oriented person I know. In fact, he is the reason that I have become so passionate about contributing back to my own community. He mentors other prisoners to help them deal with their circumstances, and he challenges them to sort through their trauma and life experiences that have affected them. He’s always thinking of ways to give back, and his hope is to open up a barbershop that not only gives out free food and supplies to the community but also is a safe space for those who grew up like him. He recently received his GED and is now taking up entrepreneurship courses.

Part of the reason we’re so close is that we’re both very creative. On phone calls, sometimes we just read each other poems that we wrote that week or journal entries that we’ve used to reflect. He’s also very funny, very sarcastic. We’re always laughing on the phone. I consider him a scholar, in the sense of each and every time, he’s always reading, he’s always learning, he’s always asking questions. And he’s definitely my biggest supporter. If I’m going to an interview and I want to figure out what to say, he’ll pretend he’s the interviewer, and we’ll spend those 20 minutes having a conversation.

One of the hundreds of cards Alexia’s father has sent her over the years