Stacked Against, Part Three: The heavy toll of long prison terms on families | Eastern North Carolina Now

This is the third in a 3-part series focusing on the tremendous human cost of long prison sentences. 

When he was younger, Jalen Burnette thought his father worked in construction. His mother would take him to see his father and Burnette thought they were at a job site. That’s what his parents had told him. In reality, his father was in a state prison in North Carolina.

Burnette is now 17 years old, a rising senior in a high school in Winston-Salem. He is the same age as when his father was arrested.

Burnette was born three months after his father, Sherrod Nichols, was arrested for his role in a string of armed robberies in Forsyth and Guilford counties. Nichols, who was 17 at the time, pleaded guilty the following year and was sentenced to a minimum 18 to more than 24 years in prison. His sentence would represent a significant period of time that would be marked by loss, isolation, sadness and immense hardship for his family, who he believed needed his support and protection. He shielded Burnette from his incarceration as long as he could, but knew someday his son would need to know the truth.

Families with incarcerated family members frequently share in the burdens that accompany a loved one’s sentence, like financial hardship; a decrease in the family’s quality of life; and mental health issues resulting from the trauma of separation. Many legal scholars believe mass incarceration is a result of the increased use of plea deals and the practice of charge stacking. Mass incarceration has only worsened those negative effects.

Today, having an incarcerated family member has become common, according to researchers from Washington University in St. Louis and Duke University. They found that almost half of all adults in the United States under the age of 50 have a parent, co-parent, child, sibling or partner who has been incarcerated. For Black adults in that age group, more than 60% have a family member who is incarcerated. For many family members incarceration continually tests their relationships. Expensive phone calls, limited visits and physical separation threaten these already fragile bonds.

When police arrested Nichols in 2006, he already had a daughter and had two more children on the way — Burnette and another son who were born while he was in the county jail. He realized his 18-year sentence would be close to their entire childhood and he would miss out on many milestones like first steps and first words. His sentence would also overlap with his grandmother’s remaining years.

“I had already calculated with the 18 years, for my grandmother to be alive when I come home, she would be 90 years old,” Nichols told Carolina Public Press in a phone interview from Davidson Correctional Center, a minimum security prison in Lexington. For her to survive that long was unlikely, given her health issues, he added.  

Both his mother and father dealt with issues related to substance abuse, so Nichols lived with his grandparents for much of his life.  After his grandfather died, Nichols helped take care of his grandmother. He understood his sentence would keep them apart, likely forever. 

In a letter to the court ahead of Nichols’ sentencing, Nichols’ grandmother wrote, “Sherrod (Nichols) would make sure that I took my medicine on time, make sure that I ate something, and although he had to attend school, he would sometimes stay up sometimes to 2 and 3 A.M. to make sure that I was all right.” Often, he would just lie beside her in bed, so he wouldn’t have to get up to check on her. “Now that Sherrod is gone I see how much I need him,” she wrote. In 2019, his grandmother died at the age of 85. 

Life with an incarcerated parent

In 2007, when Nichols was sentenced, more than 11,000 other people incarcerated in North Carolina’s prisons were parents, according to a N.C. Department of Correction presentation from the same year titled, “Family… What Does It Mean?” Like Nichols, more than 9,000 incarcerated people were fathers. That year, nearly 13,000 children 18 or younger had a parent in state prison.

More recent data in North Carolina suggest nearly 10,000 people incarcerated in state prisons, or 32% of the state prison population as of January, have a child younger than 18, according to reporting by NC Newsline, a nonprofit news outlet. Today, almost 19,000 children in North Carolina have a parent who is incarcerated in a state prison, NC Newsline reported.

A parent’s incarceration has a measurable effect on these children, according to researchers. One study found that incarceration negatively affected a child’s wellbeing more so than divorce or death of a parent. Other studies have shown that children of incarcerated parents are vulnerable to a host of physical and mental health problems, ranging from developmental delays to obesity. 

“Parental incarceration is associated with harmful effects on childhood cognitive, mental, and behavioral health,” Elizabeth J. Gifford, an associate research professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy wrote in a 2019 issue of the North Carolina Medical Journal. “For instance, residential parental incarceration was associated with learning disabilities, attention problems, behavioral or conduct problems, developmental delays, and speech or language problems. Also, the incarceration of a father has been associated with aggressive and problematic behaviors in childhood and with internalizing and externalizing problems during the teenage years.” Isolation, withdrawal from friends and family, and engaging in risky behavior, including crime, are more common among children with a parent in prison. 

In elementary school, Burnette finally found out that his father was in prison. He turned inward, isolating himself in response, Sharifah Perry, his mother, told CPP. She shared this during an interview with CPP at the home she shares with Burnette in Winston-Salem. The neighborhood they live in is plagued with gun violence, Perry said. As Burnette has grown older he has become increasingly protective of his younger siblings, who are 6 and 2, and limited his interactions with the outside world. Burnette doesn’t want them to go outside or walk anywhere, Perry said.

“Since knowing that his dad’s been incarcerated this whole time, as he got older, the more man-of-the-house-type role that he has tried to put on,” Perry said. “It’s like he has to be that strong person, so he hides things and keeps it bottled up, whatever he’s feeling. It’s hard to get behind that barrier that he has.” Burnette was bullied in elementary school and chose not to fight back, Perry said, because he didn’t want to go to prison.  

The summer before sixth grade was a turning point for Burnette, he said. He spent the entire summer inside his home thinking about the direction he would take in life. 

“After that whole process, I kind of realized it could have went two different ways,” Burnette told CPP in an interview outside his home in May, a few days before his 17th birthday. He wore athletic pants with a camouflage pattern and a black hoodie pulled over his head. “There’s this way, where I know a lot of things (about life) other people my age, and some people older than me, don’t know; but on the other hand, I could have ended up thinking completely wrong.” He could have gone down a different, more unhealthy path, but didn’t.

Throughout his father’s incarceration, Burnette and Nichols have remained close. They speak regularly on the phone and Burnette visits frequently. Burnette’s mother prioritized the relationship, taking her son, as a baby to the county jail, to visit Nichols and later to the state prisons, where Nichols has been incarcerated ever since. The two are very similar — both are deep thinkers and very reflective, but Burnette is quieter. “They both really share the same brain,” Perry said.

Today, Burnette often visits his father at Davidson Correctional Center, where they see who can eat the most slices of pizza or share a meal with one another. They both look forward to next February, when Nichols is projected to be released, after serving his 18-year prison term. They have plans to build a relationship with one another not bound by the restrictions of prison, like expensive phone calls and limited in-person visits that make it difficult to connect. 

Burnette plans to leave his neighborhood and go to college to become an engineer or start a business and someday live in Florida or California. Nichols and his wife, Andrea — the two were married in 2021 at Columbus Correctional Institution — may have a child together, Nichols said, though he’s worried it could strain his relationship with his children. He fears they may grow jealous of a little brother or sister. Even outside prison, Nichols understands parenting will still have its challenges.  

A parent’s struggle: supporting a child in prison

While navigating life as a parent in prison is difficult, the hardship parents face when their child is incarcerated is equally challenging. A similar struggle is often experienced by siblings and extended family members with an incarcerated brother, sister, niece, nephew or other close relative.

Terence Smith, who is currently incarcerated at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City, is the subject of part one of CPP’s “Stacked Against” series. In 2001, he was sentenced to 51-66 years in prison, after turning down a 10-year plea deal for his involvement in a drug-related crime and shooting that occurred when Smith was 17.

His mother, Deborah Smith, lives alone on a wide, quiet street in Winston-Salem, 5 miles from where Burnette lives with Perry. In April, the sound of children yelling next door carried through her home’s windows. Inside, photographs of her two sons were displayed on the walls. A self-portrait of Smith, her youngest, is printed on a pillow on the couch. 

In a hallway off the living room, a bulletin board hanging on the wall displayed more photographs of Smith from his childhood, alongside his brother Dedrick. A flyer requesting information regarding Dedrick’s 2006 disappearance, when he was 26, was also taped on the board. The flyer features a photo of Dedrick with a wide grin. Last spring, Dedrick’s body was found inside his car, submerged in a Winston-Salem lake. 

Following his incarceration, Smith noticed a change in his brother, Dedrick. During visits, Dedrick would sit with a blank stare, disengaged from the conversation, Smith recalled in a recent phone interview. While Smith was able to process the trauma of his own incarceration, he doesn’t believe Dedrick could deal with the pain of losing his younger brother to prison. In a way, Smith’s incarceration put what was previously a strong relationship between two siblings on pause. It negatively affected Dedrick’s mental health, according to Smith — and to some degree, Smith’s mental well-being, too. 

“Yet in dealing with his disappearance, a part of me has felt literally snatched away in the process also,” Smith wrote in a journal entry not long before Dedrick’s body was discovered. “I would start to become withdrawn verbally and isolated. As my heart closed up becoming somewhat cold, so did my ability to speak. Spending so much time to myself that even my vocal cords grew weak from barely speaking.” Thinking about the pain his mother and grandmother must have been experiencing, caused Smith’s “heart to hurt all the more,” he wrote.

In April, Deborah, her sister, Belinda, and her brother-in-law Frank — Smith’s aunt and uncle — spoke with CPP about the pain Dedrick’s disappearance and Smith’s long prison term have caused. They had pushed Smith to take the 10-year plea deal he was offered but understood his reluctance. They knew he wouldn’t admit to something he didn’t do. Frank was the one who drove Smith to the police station to turn himself in. Smith feared he would be shot by police, so Frank invited a well-known local pastor to come with them. “This was our way of protecting him from being shot on sight,” Frank said. “He was afraid.”

The fear has continued for the family. They fear for one another’s health and physical safety. They fear they won’t be reunited outside prison again in their lifetime. They also fear one another’s grief and heartbreak. 

“We know our levels of travail — we know our own midnight cry out unto the Lord,” Belinda said, referring to the unspoken pain each member of the family experiences. “But we don’t know, in his 23 years of incarceration, his midnight cry.”  

The reality of what her youngest child is going through is difficult for Terence’s mother, Deborah, to comprehend. She worries about what her youngest son, now 40, is enduring and whether he’s being mistreated. But to protect him, she tries to hide her sadness from Terence, just as he does with her.

After each visit, before the prison door closes behind her, she holds back her tears, because she doesn’t want to see a tear come out of her son’s eye. “The hardest part is to leave your child there and you can’t bring them home to hug and kiss him and hold him,” she said. “When that door slams, it’s a feeling no words can describe.”

‘We’re just throwing them away’

Both Smith and Nichols were children when the crimes they were involved with occurred. Both are Black and had co-defendants who were, in some cases, much older than they were or had greater culpability. They have both expressed great remorse for their actions and empathy for the victims, even though Smith and Nichols believe their sentences to be too long. 

Both were sentenced consecutively, which Johanna Jennings, founder and executive director of the Decarceration Project, a Durham nonprofit dedicated to addressing inequities resulting from mass incarceration, believes was too harsh given, at the very least, their age. Jennings is Smith’s attorney and helped both Smith and Nichols submit clemency petitions to the state’s Juvenile Sentence Review Board and Gov. Roy Cooper.

“When we stack consecutive sentences in this way, we’re treating young people, children, as disposable,” Jennings told CPP. “And we know from a scientific standpoint, that children are going to change, and we don’t have the capacity to forecast what that will look like.”

In a letter accompanying his petition to the JSRB, Nichols wrote, “I’ve never contacted my victims because I didn’t want to open up old wounds for them. But so badly I want to tell them all that I’m sincerely sorry. I’m not sorry because I got caught. I’m sorry because I’ve matured and I realize the pain, the fear, the trauma, and the damage that I’ve caused other people.”

Jennings believes that unwillingness to consider a child’s potential for growth and rehabilitation is likely the most problematic aspect of consecutive sentencing of young people like Smith and Nichols. “We’re just throwing them away,” Jennings said. “And I think that’s a massive moral injustice.”

There’s also a racial component possibly at play, Jennings said. Anecdotally, she sees consecutive sentencing and charge stacking disproportionately affecting young Black men. “I think Sherrod and Terence both fall into this category of cases where race and youth and excessive sentencing or excessive charging have all come together to create the perfect storm, where the things that should be mitigating and should be taken into account, are overlooked in favor of locking them up for as long as possible,” she said.

Other things that go unconsidered are the negative effects of incarceration on the incarcerated person’s family members, like Deborah, Burnette and numerous others close to them. 

A final goodbye

Smith described himself as a “spitting image” of his mother. He’s a “mama’s boy,” he said, and he and his mother have a tight bond. While the pain they both endure may go unspoken at times, it doesn’t go unheard. They learn a lot in each other’s silence.  

Nichols is a loving and supportive father, sending birthday cards, checking in with his children’s teachers and speaking with his children as often as he can, offering advice as they confront the challenges of being teenagers. “Besides just being a father, he’s also a very intelligent person,” Burnette said. “The things that he’s been able to tell me — anything that I need, like guidance on in my life — I know he’s somebody I can turn to.” Like most parents, Nichols worries about his children, especially now as they have reached the age he was when he was arrested and went to prison.  

Nichols is projected to be released next year, but his sentence could have been much longer. With nine felony charges stacked against him, Nichols faced upward of 139 years in prison for his role in the armed robberies. The state offered Nichols a plea deal of 25 years for the charges he faced in Forsyth County, according to Nichols. But at the advice of his attorney, Nichols said, he took an open plea — pleading guilty with no negotiated deal in place — in hopes the judge would be lenient, given Nichols’ age, family background and his prospects as an athlete. His attorney told Nichols he would likely get 10 years, Nichols said.

The judge consolidated the nine charges into four separate judgments. But instead of running them concurrently, she ran them consecutively, or back to back, for the minimum 18 years. In Guilford County, he also pleaded guilty, but the judge consolidated the charges and ran Nichols’ sentence concurrently, meaning Nichols wouldn’t have to serve any extra time.

After his sentencing in the spring of 2007, Nichols sat inside a courthouse holding cell waiting to be transported back to the Forsyth County jail, where he had been held since his arrest 14 months earlier. Nichols was trying to make sense of his sentence, he recalled, which had been relayed to him, not in years, but in months: 216. 

As he sat in the holding cell, he started grouping the months in his head by the dozen — 12, 24, 36, 48 — only to stop short, overwhelmed by the growing tally. The other people in the holding cell that day were also questioning Nichols about the duration of his sentence, calling him “young buck,” given his youth. They were guessing three years all the way up to eight years, Nichols said — a length to which he finally relented, even though he knew it wasn’t true. 

“I didn’t want anybody to say, ‘That’s a long time,’ so I just agreed,” Nichols, now 34, said. “But at the time, I was still adding the months up in my mind.” 

The other people in the holding cell told him he could handle eight years, Nichols remembered. But as Nichols continued to calculate the true length of his sentence, he began to die inside, he said, giving up so he could focus on holding back his tears. “I didn’t want no sympathy,” Nichols said. “Partly, because I knew I had done wrong.” 

Back at the county detention center, Nichols allowed himself to cry only after he found his older brother, Travis Nichols, who was being held at the jail on unrelated charges. Travis did the math for his younger brother, calculating that Nichols’ sentence amounted to a minimum of 18 years. Nichols couldn’t believe it. He cried even more. 

When Nichols was set to be transported from the county jail to the state prison in Morganton a few months later, his brother asked an officer if he could hug Nichols before he left, Nichols said. Before hugging him Travis offered some advice to his younger brother for surviving prison — be respectful, he said, crying, Nichols recalled. They hugged, and Nichols was taken away. 

It was the last time they saw one another in person. 

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“Stacked Against” is made possible in part with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, a national foundation that supports the investigative reporting efforts of independent journalists and news organizations, and through the support of readers like you. You can support nonpartisan in-depth and investigative journalism in North Carolina from our nonprofit newsroom by becoming a member today.


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