At sunrise on a cold Saturday, while most families were still enjoying their extra time to snooze, Nekia Pressley and her children gathered in her Dodge minivan for their regular trip to Graterford prison.
Pressley, 38, lives with three of her children in the Hunting Park section of the city – Yani, 17; Dimeen, 13; and Darwish, 10. Yani is the youngest of three daughters from a previous partner, and the two boys are brothers from a long-term relationship that ended in 2012.
After that split five years ago, Pressley was raising her children alone. But when her cousin introduced her to Demetris McDuffy, an inmate at Graterford prison, things began to change.
Pressley and McDuffy, who are both devout Muslims, developed a friendship that evolved into a marriage in 2015. Since then, through regular phone calls and visits, McDuffy has played the role of husband and father from inside the thick stone walls of Graterford prison.
“He basically does everything that a husband would do, but he is just not hands-on,” said Pressley. “The most hands-on that I would say he is is through the phone and through the visits, letters. He tries to structure this house through the telephone, and it’s so amazing how it works.”
More than 81,000 children in Pennsylvania have an incarcerated parent; about 75,700 of them have incarcerated fathers. Research has indicated that a parent’s incarceration can have effects on children such as an increased risk of poor performance in school, behavioral and mental health issues, and trauma.
But what if a family gains a father who happens to be incarcerated?
Inside the household
McDuffy, 44, is in his 25th year of the life sentence he received as a juvenile for second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
He has been in Graterford for the duration of his sentence, but he doesn’t let that stop him from being a loving and attentive patriarch.
“I call all day, as much as I can,” said McDuffy over the phone. “I’m pretty much sitting inside the household with you right now.”
In Pressley’s home, McDuffy’s paintings hang from the walls in the spacious living room. Each has its own meaning rooted in the Islamic faith, which McDuffy said gave him “a foundation to work from” in being humble and in teaching his family to do the same.
Together, McDuffy and Pressley cover the cost of the phone calls – about one dollar for each 15-minute call. They purchase 26 calls at a time, which Pressley said has to be renewed every two days, at least.
“He calls all day, every day, 24/7,” said Darwish, a 4th-grade student at Edward Steel Elementary. He is a typical video-gaming, candy-eating kid who annoys his older siblings and gets into the occasional mishap at school.
To help keep him on the right path, McDuffy stresses the importance of good behavior and grades. On some nights, at bedtime, he calls to speak with Darwish and asks him: “Who are you taking with you to school tomorrow, smart Darwish or follower Darwish?”
Usually, Pressley takes the children to visit McDuffy on the weekends, but one incident required a special trip. After Darwish got into trouble in school, Pressley drove him to the prison in the middle of the week for a “lecture about how not to be a statistic and how important education is,” she said.
“He tells us a lot of stuff about our religion and to be good in school,” said Darwish, in a shy tone. “And respect our mom and stuff, and we don’t want to be where he’s at right now.”
Dimeen, distant in his adolescence, didn’t wish to be interviewed, but Pressley said McDuffy talks to him as well about the importance of education and staying out of trouble. All in all, McDuffy hopes to steer the boys away from the path that led to his own incarceration.
As for Yani, a junior at Mastery-Simon Gratz High School, she said that she and McDuffy had an “automatic connection” from the moment they met.
“I love him,” she said. “He’s cool. He’s awesome. He acts just like me. He can scoot down to my level of maturity. He just acts like he is my age sometimes, and then when I am in trouble, he becomes a grown man. I just love him. He’s awesome.”
In addition to the three children who live with her, Pressley has two older daughters, one of whom lives nearby and visits often. Yasmeen, 20, spoke fondly of her relationship with McDuffy.
She said that when she was experiencing “a bout with depression,” he “let me know I am worth something,” helping her get through the rough time.
“He’s really been a good father figure to all of us,” she said. “He’s real supportive. He calls us, and we have that one-on-one conversation, and he gives wonderful advice.”
Everyone deserves to be loved
Kareem Johnson, associate professor of social and cognitive psychology at Temple University, said that although providing for children financially and environmentally is important, “what kids really want from parents is love and guidance.”
“As long as he is reliable and it’s a lasting relationship,” Johnson said, talking about incarcerated fathers in general, “then I think he can have as positive of an impact as any other father could.”
McDuffy also has a renewed sense of purpose, because as he motivates them to be better, he said, “they inspire me to try hard at what I do here.”
“I wasn’t doing the things I was supposed to do a while back,” said McDuffy. “But talking to the family, telling them to do this and do that, I made sure I was doing it also.”
Maj. Gina Clark, unit manager, said that Graterford prison “can be a dark place” sometimes for inmates and that keeping in touch with their families helps them to stay positive.
“Having that lifeline to home is what keeps a lot of the men going, and if you take that lifeline away, sometimes people lose hope,” she said in a phone interview. “And the biggest thing that the men and the staff here agree on is you have to have hope no matter what your sentence is.”
While McDuffy fills a void for his new family, his incarceration left a void in the lives of his own children. When he was arrested at the age of 17, he left behind two daughters, Taraya Shaw, now 27, and Stacy Stafford, now 26. Both now have children of their own.
McDuffy said that “they’re angry with me” and that they feel that he left them.
Shaw says that McDuffy tried to reach her as he does with Pressley’s children, but that it wasn’t enough to fill the void of his absence.
“I went through a lot of things in life not having my dad,” she said in a phone interview. “I feel like I needed him there. I didn’t have a father figure, for real, at all. I just appreciate him so much. He tried to teach me and reach me from jail. He tried.”
Growing up, she said, she got into a “lot of trouble” and spent time in placements and even went to jail “just trying to protect myself and all of that.” Being a female in a rough neighborhood and wanting to protect herself, she said, she “became a boy, my own protector, my own dad, my own big brother.”
To make matters worse, Shaw had a strained relationship with her mother for reasons she doesn’t understand.
“I didn’t really have my mom like that,” she said. “So, if you don’t have your mom, who else do you lean on? Your dad. So, damn! Neither one of them is there. But when I got to know him and meet him for real, I was like, damn, he is so thorough. He so decent. Why couldn’t he be out here with me? I would’ve been so much of a better person.”
Despite the turbulence of her upbringing, Shaw says she harbors no resentment toward McDuffy.
The two of them even participated in Fathers and Children Together (FACT), a program started by Graterford inmates that works to keep imprisoned fathers connected with their children. One of their exercises involves giving children a chance to air their grievances with their imprisoned fathers.
“Now, growing up, I don’t even be mad that he’s in there,” said Shaw. “Because knowing his history and his background, I feel like God really saved him. I’d rather him be in there than dead.”
The two talk every day, she said, but she doesn’t like going to visit him. Sometimes, her children join Pressley, with whom she has a good relationship, to visit their grandfather.
”I don’t like going up there,” she said. “I don’t like leaving. I don’t like having a time limit with my dad.”