The Singular Sorrow of Grieving Behind Bars
Illustration by Dola Sun
This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
I’ve been in prison since I was 22 years old. Now I’m 50. During all those years of incarceration, I’ve lost so many members of my family that it’s hard to keep track.
This is the story of one of those lost loved ones and how they made me think about the life I’ve led—and the one I want to lead.
On the early morning of September 26, 2000, when I woke up in my 11 x 10 foot cell on C block at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility, also known as Comstock, in Washington County, New York, I could just feel that something was off.
Reluctantly, I planted my feet on the floor and prepared for another long day behind bars. I’d been in prison about ten years already, but I didn’t have any family photos hanging in my cell because I didn’t want to turn that cage into my home. Instead, I just stared at the bare orange walls, waiting for breakfast.
When my cell opened, I joined the other inmates forming two-person lines toward an open gate at the end of the 90-foot corridor. Two officers looking bored and holding nightsticks trailed behind all 44 of us as we headed to the mess hall. Among the prisoners, I could hear whispers about the fight that took place in the yard the night before. Two gangs had battled; tear gas was dispersed.
Suddenly, as we walked down a flight of stairs, I was stopped by a guard who directed me from the line toward another group of officers. In prison, when officers single out a prisoner from a group, the other inmates often stop to make sure nothing evil is about to happen to him. So when I was taken out of the line, the others in my company stopped and refused to move, even when they were threatened to keep moving or else. I was grateful for this, but also nervous, wondering if what was happening was connected to the dread I’d felt when I got up that morning.
Then a chaplain stepped forward and began speaking to me in a low voice. It was full of emotion, which is rare in prison, so he immediately had my attention. He told me I had to call home. Confused, I nodded to the prisoners who waited around me, giving them permission to leave, before walking away myself.
In a sergeant’s office, I sat stoically before a metal desk, waiting to make my call. But I was also anxious: I had to know what was so important that I needed to call home first thing in the morning.
After what felt like an excruciating amount of time, the chaplain, an elderly white man with gray hair, dialed an unfamiliar number before handing me the phone. It rang for nearly a minute, and then I heard my Aunt Vicky’s voice on the other end. When I asked her what was going on, she just broke down.
Sobbing, she said that my grandfather, her father, had died. He was 82 years old. His wife, my grandmother, had passed three years earlier, at 85, also while I was in prison. They were married for over five decades.
My grandmother’s death had been deeply painful, and I instantly felt that pain all over again. I’d cared about my grandfather deeply too, though we were not terribly close. He was my father’s father, and I’d spent more time with my mother’s side of the family. But still, he was part of my identity, which had already been so whittled away in prison.
His name was Noah Towns, same as that of my late father. When I was young, I used to visit him and my grandmother and learn about our family. He always seemed pleased to recount his life to me, and I enjoyed those visits.
Born on January 1, 1918, in Dermott, Arkansas, to Robert and Fannie Towns, he’d always taken pride in his history. Through him, I’d learned that my family was originally from South Africa, and that my great-grandfather snuck into America through Canada because this country wouldn’t
accept blacks from certain places. My great-grandfather told customs he was West Indian.
Once in, Robert Towns purchased land in Arkansas and had three sons. My grandfather, for his part, worked in a bank as a security guard for 25 years, and before that as an elevator conductor in a hotel, where he received his first suit from the owner’s wife. He was very proud of that.
As I sat in the prison, in a chair, listening to my aunt cry, I remembered the black-and-white photo my grandfather had showed me when I was ten. The image showed him, at around six years old, as well as his two brothers, my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother. It was taken in the early 1920s, on the land they had purchased.
What I can remember so clearly from that photo was my great-grandfather’s hard black face, as he stood beside his wife and children with a long rifle in his hand. “Don’t you think about messing with me and mine,” it seemed to say.
Suddenly, I felt tired—a weariness inside my soul. Then the tears came.
For a moment I lost myself. Then, realizing where I was, I hung up the phone without saying goodbye. I rose to my feet and asked to leave, wiping angrily at my tears. I was ashamed for having revealed softness in the presence of my oppressor.
Back in my cell, I sat on the floor, with my back against the cold, blank metal wall. I was oblivious to the sounds around me as I wondered just how much smaller my world would become before I hit my minimum sentence in January 2020. At that time, I was 32 years old, and had no idea even then how much pain I would be forced to carry alone.
I’d already mourned my favorite aunt, who died of AIDS in Tennessee after contracting it when she was using crack cocaine. I would later lose my Uncle Joe to diabetes, then my cousin Stanley and Aunt Irene to old age. I lost my cousin Lionel to incarceration, and my two sisters and brother I lost simply to my own long prison term—my distance.
I sat on the floor all morning, mourning not just my grandfather but all of them—and myself, too. That night I slept curled in a ball with tears again on my cheeks, feeling utterly ruined as a man. My dreams were filled with memories of the dead.
The hardest thing about being in prison is not the time the judge gives you, but the time you lose with your family. My grandfather’s death only reminded me of the cost. So I mourned, because it was all I could do.
Dwayne Hurd, 50, is incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York, where he is serving 32 and a half years to life for second-degree murder and criminal possession of a weapon.