Our Voices > Walk in Our Shoes

A Love Story in Black and White

Jul 1, 2024

The perspective of

Askia Afrika-Ber

Incarcerated at

USP McCreary
in Kentucky

Year incarcerated


Home State


“The most revolutionary act Black men can make is to deal psychoanalytically with their childhoods.” Scholar/writer, Bell Hooks

I have this recurring fantasy in which I am happily married to my teenage love, a brilliant, funny and gorgeous African American woman who happens to be a prominent criminal justice attorney, in the DMV* metropolitan area.

In my imagination, I am fast becoming a pillar of my community: a journalist, people’s historian and public intellectual, the founder and director of a nonprofit cultural center and studio. I teach African American history, spoken-word poetry and alternatives to violence to at-risk youth.  Students from various universities, including Howard and Georgetown sign up for my classes; some of them work with me to mentor youth in STEM.

This, of course, is pure fiction and my ugly reality is that I am a college dropout, a former hoodlum, who is now a prisoner of the District of Columbia, separated but still legally married to Shawna, now a dear friend. 

My teenage lover, the Black beauty Shana, dropped out of law school during her first year due to pregnancy, got married, had a second child,  is now in the middle of a divorce, and has joined the Prince Georges County (MD) police force. Our friendship ended, although amicably (she was trying to focus on her police academy training and all I wanted to do was to fulfill my sexual desires as much as possible; she was way too mature and on the ball for my bullshit) months prior to my instant incarceration. This is one relationship I regretted terminating.

The prisoner’s wife

I later married a white woman, Shawna, whom I was with when I caught the charge that sent me to prison this time. When The Washington Post published a two-paragraph news brief on my conviction and projected sentence length, my now ex-wife decided, without consulting with me, that it was in “the best interest of our small family” to sever ties between us, leaving me alone to deal with the crisis in my life and the resulting emotional and psychological scars..

I’ll be the first to admit there is absolutely nothing attractive about being in a relationship with an incarcerated spouse. It’s a classic horror story, a struggle from start to finish. I didn’t need to read the classic prison memoirs of Asha Bandela (“The Prisoner’s Wife”) and Winnie Mandela (“Part of My Soul Went With Him”) to understand that uncomfortable truth.

Initially, when my marriage and friendship with my ex-wife imploded, I was like many immature and heartbroken male prisoners: Without critical thought or an ounce of empathy, I blamed her for a litany of ills, including why our union didn’t withstand the ruin of my incarceration. Why was she not strong enough to stand by me (her man) beneath the colossal weight of a fresh, 53-year sentence? Why didn’t she bring the children to visit? And when she was unable to communicate over the phone, I accused her of being unfaithful, etc.

Not once did I attribute my plight to my doggish, adulterous ways in the streets. Nor did I consider that just maybe my kind, beautiful and street-smart wife – the 26-year-old mother of our three biracial children (two who were preteens at the time of my incarceration and one newborn)  – was overwhelmed with the responsibility of being a working-class, single mother and white woman in a predominately African American, drug-infested hood/community, Although reverse racism isn’t the same as the systemic racism faced by Blacks, it is equally as harmful from an emotional and psychological standpoint. Without question, my baby mom was a victim of subtle, reverse racism: including a Black brother wanting to fuck her because she was a novelty in the hood, and a sister disliking her because she was sleeping with the brothers. She has been called all sorts of racial epithets: cracker, white girl, honkey and blue-eyed devil.

What’s love got to do with it?

Over the 19 years of my incarceration in the federal BOP, I’ve come to the sobering realization that it is unrealistic and downright selfish for incarcerated husbands or life partners to expect a free person to put their life on pause and abstain from sex and romance throughout a decades-long sentence.

That’s a helluva burden to ask anyone to take on, female or male. That’s why I take my hat off to the NYC lyrical juggernaut Papoose, who held down his wife, the equally gifted and Grammy-award-winning MC Remy Ma, during her six-year incarceration. Papoose set a high bar for other brothers, showing that Black men can be honorable and supportive of Black women when they are down. Although loving and supporting an incarcerated spouse or life partner is certainly tough, it’s not impossible. Real love is capable of transcending space, time and any man made hardships. (I was saddened to learn, however, that although their relationship survived prison, it recently broke down outside – when Remy Ma was reportedly unfaithful!)

Nevertheless, in this era of mass incarceration, when it comes to women holding men down during their bids, I view it the same as a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion. It’s solely her choice; she isn’t obligated to do anything her heart and mind is not into.

Once I was finally able to move past my own, multi-layered hurt, frustration and disappointment. I begin to empathize with and think compassionately about my ex-wife. I recognized the emotional and financial impact my incarceration was having on my family, especially my children. The sharp edges of my criminal value system and the resulting poor decisions began to cut like razor wire into my soul.

The iconic songstress Tina Turner made a valid point when she sang “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” Love may motivate you to stay loyal to an incarcerated lover at first, but let’s face it, being alone – with no sexual outlet (unless the imprisoned partner happens to be in a New York state prison, where conjugal visits are allowed) – for 20 years or more tests even the strongest love. And love certainly can’t pay your rent or put food on the table. It’s not surprising, then, that over time, love can turn bitter. And that’s exactly what happens with many incarcerated couples.

I feel unadulterated disgust when I reflect on how financially vulnerable I left my ex-wife and children. I didn’t leave them with a solid financial foundation or in possession of any legit assets (like a family-owned business) that could keep them afloat in my absence. I had to accept the fact that my arrest had put a huge financial responsibility in my ex-wife’s lap that she wasn’t equipped to take on by herself.

The fraying of family ties

The policy of the federal BOP is to help its “adults in custody” maintain healthy family ties. The agency has the audacity to calculate a score twice a year for each of us as part of our “custody classification” (which determines how much supervision we supposedly need), adding or deducting points depending on how well and often we communicate with our relatives and free-world associates. This is, however, a farce; the BOP couldn’t care less if we maintained communication with our loved ones. I haven’t had a visit in decades and they still say I have good, solid family ties. Meanwhile, the agency doesn’t even bother contacting our relatives if a medical emergency occurs. For example, I remember one young prisoner who fell out on the basketball court. His motor skills shut  down; he was unable to feel his legs or move his arms, and he was taken to an outside hospital. The administration never notified his relatives; his fellow prisoners had to call his family. (NPR has reported in depth about the BOP’s failure to notify prisoners’ families regarding the cause of death, etc.)

I learned fast that the only way I could provide for my wife and children from behind these federal walls is dealing in contraband: selling dope, robbing and extorting my weaker fellow prisoners – the same criminal actions that landed me in prison in the first place.

Doing prison time is said to expose exactly who your (non-incarcerated) friends truly are. It also provides the free spouse/lover plenty of time to mull over every facet of their relationship – the good, the bad and the promise. And that old maxim that absence makes the heart grow fonder has a flip side. Spending so much time apart from your significant other can lead to obsessions over past hurts and infidelities, instead of focusing on how to use the time to heal and work on making your union more passionate, loving and airtight, so that nothing or nobody can come between the empire of love and trust you’ve built together. We weaken the already battered relationship with insults, accusations of cheating, avoidance and all sorts of pettiness.

Every single day of the week, Monday to Sunday, from the time the cell doors are unlocked at 6 a.m. to the 4 p.m. count, I have had the displeasure of observing young and middle-aged prisoners stampede to the bank of six telephones available for a total of 120 men in one unit. They call their female companions at all hours of the day – a lot more now than they did prior to their arrest. I fully (and personally) understand that female conversation for a male prisoner is therapeutic. Nevertheless, sometimes brothers become downright selfish and possessive, calling home in an attempt to keep tabs on what she’s doing and who she’s doing.

When younger brothers or my peers come to me to vent about relationship problems with their women, I am quick to tell them to put themselves in her position: Think about how she must be feeling, the psychological and economic pressure she is certain to be under without them home to pull your weight. I tell them to be open-minded, patient and kind,  because she is already dealing with an extremely traumatic experience: the incarceration of someone she loves. People in the neighborhood may know her baby father/spouse is locked up and judge her or gossip about her situation. Her family may be telling her that she needs to move on with her life and find a stable suitor who will help look after the kids. Her girlfriends could very well be trying to get her to go out and party to forget about her problems and her jail-bird baby daddy for a minute, if not for good. Incarcerated men must be mindful of this and try to be emotionally and psychologically (and, if possible, financially) supportive, in any legal way we can. (It’s easy to resort to illegal means, like smuggling in and selling drugs, but getting caught and staying in prison longer is not what our loved ones need.)

It’s closing in on two decades since I’ve last shared an exclusive, interpersonal relationship with a woman who I can honestly call my paramour or lay claim to as my woman in name and definition. I am open and ready to be a woman’s soulmate. However, I have to accept the fact that not many women are down to commit to a relationship with a man who is serving a 53-year sentence. Still, I haven’t given up faith in one day finding my very own Elaine Brown, Angela Davis or Marilyn Buck. My heart remains full of revolutionary love, even if I am forced to serve the remainder of this sentence alone.

* DC, Maryland, Virginia

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