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How John McDaniel Built a Family and Rebuilt Himself in Prison

Seventeen years into a ludicrous 35-year sentence, one California felon has made peace in the most literal way possible.

For the last seventeen years, John McDaniel has been inmate K98517 in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. As a 20-year-old, McDaniel held up a McDonald’s, a crime for which he received a 35-year sentence.  But McDaniel, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, is much more than a number, of course. He is also a wonderful father and, since 2009, the co-director of The Place4Grace. The organization, which he founded with his wife Karen McDaniel, develops programs that help incarcerated fathers to be fathers. The Place4Grace runs a number of programs within the criminal justice system from Camp Grace, a five-day music and art program that allows incarcerated fathers to spend an extended period of time with their children, to Family2Child, a literacy project where fathers read and record books for their kids.

Much of this stems from McDaniel’s own experience as an incarcerated father, which is the only condition in which he has been a father. “When I was going from prison-to-prison,” he says, “my kids were the part of me I looked to in terms evaluating any negative or positive influences. Thinking about my kids would always soften me up and get a more clear view of how I would impact them.” McDaniel figured if it worked for him, he could also help his fellow incarcerated fathers, of which there are many. According to The Sentencing Project, there are 744,200 fathers in prison and 1.7 million children with an incarcerated parent. So the work the McDaniels do is felt by millions, in this and future generations. We spoke to John in fifteen-minute increments on a crackly line over the phone from Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California.

What is your name?
John Levon McDaniel

Occupation:
Co-director, A Place4Grace

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Age:
38 years old.

How old are your child/children?
My son is 13. My daughter is 10.

What are their names?
My son is James Patrick McDaniel. My daughter is named Maya Grace McDaniel.

Are they named after anyone in particular?
My wife was inspired by Maya Angelou. This is where our daughter inherited her name from. James is named after my grandfather whose name was Jimmy James.

Do you have any cute nicknames for your child?
James thinks he cool. I call him J.P. With Maya, for some weird reason, I call her Poofiekins.

What do they call you?
They both call me Dad.

How often do you see them?
Up until recently, we religiously maintained a visiting program. Over the past few years, I’ve undergone a couple of transfers based on positive behavioral programming and I was able to reduce my security level from maximum to minimum. But the downside of this is that there’s now a huge distance between me and my family. Within the last four months, I’ve seen my children twice. I meet with them in visiting centers, where there are tables and chairs set up. In a sense you get your own privacy, but there’s always supervision. Every 45 to 60 days, we have conjugal visits which are overnight. The facilities are a duplex apartment with a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a stove, things of that nature. It’s almost like being free. But at the end of that,  I go back to being incarcerated. It’s bittersweet.

Describe yourself as a father in three words.
Attentive. Protective. Loving.

 

Describe your father in three words.
Distant. Selfish. Stubborn.

What are your strengths as a father?
I thought about that long and hard. I’m receptive to my children’s preferences. As long as their choices are not problematic, I am receptive and open to my children being able to explore what they like to do.

What are your weaknesses as a father?
I struggle with following up and disciplining. When I have to exert discipline, I get sad and a little depressed so I tend to shy away when opportunities present themselves.

Relatedly, what is your biggest regret as a father?
My biggest regret is, of course, my situation. Being incarcerated prevents me from being there for my children in every way possible. I’m fully aware that my situation is fully based on my choices. But as it relates to schooling, organized sports, even how to ride a bike, when it comes to being present during my children’s most vulnerable experiences, I can’t be there. That’s when I deeply regret not being present in their lives.

What is your favorite activity to do with your children? That is, your special father-kid thing?
We’ve always had this thing, even when they were infants and toddlers, where I would morph into a tiger and be wild. I’d attack them, bite them, tear them apart. I’m getting older now so I can’t be the tiger as much as they like me to. We also make our version of pies, with cookies, peanut butter, syrup, waffles, M&Ms.

What has been your proudest moment as a parent? Why?
When my wife told me that my children had made it clear to their family members that I was their favorite parental figure I was elated and surprised. It taught me that the emotional connection I have with my children is greater to them. It made me feel more secure as an incarcerated father. For many years, I struggled with feelings of inadequacy but when I heard that it changed my mindset.

What heirloom did your father give to you, if any?
My father hasn’t handed down anything to me yet. We’ve talked about it but I have to put the situation of my incarceration behind me.

What heirloom do you want to leave for your children, if anything?
I want to give my kids the world. I want to wrap it up and hand it over to them. Practically, though, I’m determined to give my kids their own personal businesses, their own property, and the attitude to hold onto that.

Describe the “Dad Special” for dinner?
Ten years ago, they used to let us order from local markets in the community. Since then they’ve restricted it to packaged material, the same package vendors I use for my quarterly orders.  But one thing I always make is stir fry with beef summer sausage, eggs, and broccoli. My kids love it. They eat a whole pot of it.

Are you religious and are you raising your children in that tradition?
Yes, absolutely. Islam is the religion I adhere to. We want our children to carry out the traditional beliefs but also to really understand that, in the most basic sense, Islam is peace and, as Muslims, we are peaceful people.

What’s is a mistake you made growing up that you want to ensure your children do not repeat?
The biggest mistake I made is dropping out of school. That decision allowed me to adopt a culture prominent in my community, which was gangs. So I don’t want my children to limit themselves after high school but to continue their education on the collegiate level.

Aside from saying it, how do you make sure you kid knows you love him or her?
We have a great bond. I always have maintained a strong line of communication, through phone calls, visits, letter writing, things of that nature. We talk about their friends and their friends’ characteristics and the types of activities they engage in. My kids have a basic — and I mean basic — understanding of all the problems I face in prison and, because of that, they also have the ability to understand my concern about them. This they compute that as my love. They know they are my biggest inspiration and the factors of my rehabilitative successes.