Takia “Judah” Parham Part 3: Family, Reconnecting and Moving Past Shame
On her family
“They were affected a lot. We we all were affected. When I went into service, we were happy. I have a sister, an older sister. I have five older siblings, one of whom I grew up with. She’s 43 years old, and she has two children. My oldest niece, Jasmine, is 22. She just turned 22. I was released the day before she turned 22. My youngest niece, Ariana, I left when she was three. I actually…the last time I would see anyone in my family before coming out would be the year that I said goodbye to my grandmother. She passed away when I went to Iraq in 2008. And while I was at my first duty station in Fort Drum, N.Y., I had lost my aunt in basic training first, in S.C. Two days after I went off to basic training, my aunt passed away. But she had cancer, and we had been preparing. It didn’t go into remission, but she was very supportive of me going into the service. My uncle ended up passing away from cancer, as well, lung cancer.
I was already in a grieving state before going to Iraq. But what compounded it—I had enough time between those two deaths to slow down and really contemplate what that means and what’s next for me and the fact that as soon as I left, everyone started passing away. But when my grandmother passed away, I was in Iraq. I had already been late the week before we were about to go off to war. I had been late coming back, so I was facing an Article 15 right before coming into the country, because I had missed the training a day before.
So I experienced those deaths and then while I was over there, of course I had to come back and bury my grandmother. At that time, that impacted my family so much that everyone lost a piece of theirselves and began leaving Baltimore City, which is where I am originally from.
I was facing military sexual harassment. I was going to two different schools while overseas. And all of this blurs together when I actually end up going to prison right thereafter. And it had been a continuous stretch. And even when I look back now, it was a continuous stretch. And I say that my family was impacted because I was gone so long—I had been a support system for my immediate family, my nieces and my sister. And when my mother passed away, I had ended up getting sentenced the day before her birthday. I ended up going to Bedford Hills a day after her birthday. Her birthday’s May 15. I went May 16 to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. That’s when I arrived, and she still hadn’t told me then that she had cancer. Now, my family, they had been going through this with her for four months. We had just lost my grandmother three years ago, so it was still kind of fresh for everyone. It was like a year of grief and then another year to get themselves together.
And then another year they hear I’m arrested. Okay, I was already at war. They’re hoping; everyone’s praying; fingers crossed. You know, we just lost another loved one. Coupled with all of that, now I’m sitting in jail for 14, almost 15 months. They didn’t know when they were going to see me again. There were a lot of tears, and they were in disbelief. ‘Takia’s in prison? She’s going to prison? She’s in jail? What? This is not…when is she getting out? This is not her lifestyle. This is little Takia. This is grown…’
Now I’m, by the time I left Iraq, when I got back from overseas, I was 26, just about to turn 27 when this happened. It was a shock to everyone. It was a loss for my sister. We had been each other’s support systems. I didn’t have to see my mother go from a 230-pound woman to an 80-pound woman. My sister had to bear that and my oldest niece. My youngest niece didn’t quite know what was going on, but she felt the impact of losing a grandmother. She once was here, and now she’s not. This is while I’m in Iraq. This is the transition that’s happening while I’m in Iraq. These transitions were happening with my family. By the time I got to prison, mind you, there were 90 days in between…by the time I got to jail and got to prison, my mother passes away now that I’ve been in prison for a year. I went through a whole year with her, of her struggling and me only being able to call her, her getting phone calls and hearing my voice. The time just before she passed away, my birthday is March 15, they tried and tried to get her up there. But by that time, she was very sick. And so the burden of having to take care of someone who is losing their life with stage 4 cancer affected them. And then me being away. The question was: What’s happening to the family unit now? We’re losing people in different ways. They were affected, and I was affected.”
On whether her family had experienced the effects of incarceration before
“I can’t really speak for my father’s side of the family. I was raised primarily by my mother. By the time I was six years old, my father had been incarcerated. For about six years. When he came out, I’m 12 or 13 years old. And, of course, we formed a good relationship. And after that, he hadn’t been incarcerated any more to my knowledge. So my family hadn’t experienced anything quite like this, especially all at once. They didn’t really know my story and the other side.
Which was: I’m going to two schools. I just got a degree when I came back. That month. That next month, I had my degree. I’m having an issue where I’m locked in a relationship that I do not want. And this is a superior officer, and I can’t tell anybody, because it’s a woman, and we were under ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Who do I tell that this superior officer is not only abusing me, but is pretty much forcing me in a relationship? No one; there’s no one I can tell. Coupled with the abuse and having to call the police, and I’m upset because I’m being hit and there’s nothing I can do. Coupled with not knowing this person and this person not knowing me and the strangeness of it all, I am emotionally bearing a lot of weight that I’m keeping from my family, because we are facing our own little troubles, and I can take care of my own stuff.”
On keeping in touch with her family while incarcerated and reconnecting with them in December
“I lost contact with my family for a little while when I was incarcerated. It was touch-and-go. One, it’s very expensive to call out of state. They come up every month now that I’ve been out. This is like a vacation spot. Which is a good excuse, because I’m here. Now this is a good place to vacation, in the Big Apple. We went right back into our relationship as if no one was missing. There was a lot of tears and not a recognition of where I just came from. But to finally tell my 10-year-old niece, who just turned 11, where I’d been. She had not known. She thought I was still in the military.
For her to first find out…I did a documentary that [my sister and nieces] were part of in April last year. And the filmmakers went to interview them. They took a part of that, and that’s when my 10-year-old niece, that’s when she actually learned where I was. And she cried immediately. And then she went on the internet to see if it was true. And the internet, I hadn’t been aware, made me a monster. And it made both of my nieces cry and my sister cry. Everybody’s crying, and they’re watching me give an interview on this big screen at a school.
They’re filled with emotion, because this is my auntie, and she’s been missing out on my life, and I thought she was at work. It’s all coming together, because my sister prepared her for what she was about to hear, but she let her have her own emotions. My oldest niece, of course, knew where I was.
And by that time, she had a child, who was now a year old. And when I met him, it was amazing. I had to meet him. It wasn’t like, he’s born and I’m there. I had been there for both of their births, so now this new addition has never seen my face. He’s looking at me, and he’s adamant because he doesn’t know this stranger. But he sees our interaction and the love that we have for each other, and he loosens up. This must be someone important. This must be someone someone loves, because they’re crying and they’re hugging. And now he’s used to seeing my face, whether he comes up or we’re Facetiming, which is a new feature in my life. There’s a lot of stuff I had to relearn after six-and-a-half years of being away, which was almost overstimulating.”
On moving past shame
“One thing that I’ve learned is that a prison sentence is supposedly the punishment for whatever you’ve been convicted of. But I’ve also learned that the time in between is sometimes manipulated to further that affliction. Daily, it’s a punishment. And it’s not supposed to be that way. It’s supposed to be correctional, meaning correcting of behavior or thinking, being. It never really talks about what you’re going to build in place of what is being destroyed. But it’s constantly being destroyed—the self. What is being rehabilitated or corrected is not really addressed. It never can really be individualized, because one: it’s a system. But it’s also, it’s not doing its job at all. I don’t know if the chicken or the egg came first. It’s a blurry line. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Stanford Experiment, where sometimes as an incarcerated individual, people are looking at me saying: I don’t know who the true criminal is at this point, because the people who are over us are committing a lot of crimes…humanitarian crimes and also other illegal things of that nature. Correctional officers, the administration sometimes. And how do you weigh that out without making it even harder for them to come in and do their jobs or those particular individuals who are performing in a criminal manner…It furthers the damage that was already done to the person to begin with.
To link that back together, I can be fierce in my desire to be a better person, and I felt like this was the ultimate judgment. And it felt like a constant judgment. It wasn’t just ‘Do your time.’ It was the in-between part of me trying to do my time that made more difficult. I [had] an issue coming in with trusting authorities, because authority figures in a government organization led me down a path that I could nothing about, so I was already powerless in that situation, which led me to a dread of living.
And so, who will build me up when I’m broken down? Of course I’m ashamed, because I was under international law, and now I have the national law…I wasn’t welcomed back with open arms. And that’s a little way that the military failed me. It failed me in a lot of ways, because I came back already sick and unaware. But the first day that I was given the suggestion to go to an outside therapist, because they were seeing things that I couldn’t see in my own behavior…I was completely depressed, and I didn’t know it. And it was awful. That is the time where instead of giving me that advice, which I took, I should have been taken out of the military altogether on medical discharge, because nobody really dug into what was happening to me, nor was I able to fend for myself. And for 14 months I spent in jail with not one visit from the military, not JAG, not anyone from my battalion, not a sergeant major, no one. I didn’t hear from the military at all. I can’t tell you why. I can tell you that I had no say over anything that had to do with myself, and that took me to prison, where again, I’m helpless, and I’m still not getting the therapy I need…not for the personal loss, not to deal with this transition. I’m speaking as if I’m there now, because it’s still very emotional. And now, I feel a bit of bitterness, but I also feel triumph. There’s an arc of triumph at the end of all this, because it’s still a learning opportunity. And it was very shameful to be there. And I was ashamed of my country, not just myself. But I was what the country created. If I was representation of a failed system, let’s talk about the places in which each system failed.”