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Those Most in Need Of Mercy: Why Melissa Tanis Works to Get Elders Out of Prison

For 25 years, Shakespeare Behind Bars, an organization whose charter states, “All human beings are born inherently good,” has entered prisons and cast people convicted of serious crimes in Shakespeare’s plays. The most notable effort so far has been at the Luther Luckette Correctional Facility in Kentucky, where a production of The Tempest became the subject of a 2005 documentary, Shakespeare Behind Bars. It was because of this film that Melissa Tanis, who grew up in Kentucky, rediscovered her father, Leonard, when she was in her 20s. Sentenced to 50 years for child sexual abuse, her father had disappeared into prison when Melissa was a child herself. A few weeks ago, I talked with Melissa, via FaceTime, about her father, about forgiveness, and the reasons that Melisa works now with Release Aging People in Prison, in New York City.

I.

My dad went to prison when I was five. I think we visited him a couple times while he was in jail, before he was sentenced. After that, I didn’t have contact with him since I was six or seven years old.

When I was older, like 22 and in college, I had a random thought: “I know so little about him. I don’t know where he is or what’s happening to him.” I didn’t even know if he was still alive.

I started to Google, and Shakespeare Behind Bars kept popping up. I was, “Wait–what? After almost 15 years, there’s a way for me to see my dad.” So I read some reviews and comments to get a sense of what I was getting myself into. I listened to a recording of him, saying what he was incarcerated for.

One of the things my dad says is, “The people who need mercy the most are the ones who deserve it the least.” I said, “OK, I have to watch this documentary.” So I’m sitting in my college dorm room by myself, watching. It was the first time I had this fork-in-the-road decision, a kind of epiphany.

The whole film, he was crying out for forgiveness: “Let me express my remorse and make amends for my crime.” He hadn’t been given a chance, because the justice system does not give people that chance.

In reviews I read, people were thrown off by the fact that he was so intelligent and eloquent; they loved the things he had to say. People were probably shocked when he confessed his crime. He was charged with molesting seven little girls.

They probably felt an internal wrestling: “But I liked him!” Well, obviously, people are more than the crime they committed. You have to wrestle with the fact that you feel a connection with someone you would normally demonize.

I was like, “I can either continue to pretend that I don’t know who he is, or I can choose to reach out to him.” I kept realizing that he could die in prison and I’d never have talked to him. I decided to write him.

I’d been told throughout my life that my dad wasn’t remorseful. So I was trying to weigh all the risks. Like, what if he doesn’t want to talk to me? What if he’s still angry? Or what if my family blows up, you know? It was a huge decision, so it took me a couple years. But when I moved to New York I felt more independent. I wrote him a letter. I think he got it on Valentine’s Day, 2014.

He responded within a week. That was a shock to me; it opened that door for me to wonder, “What else have I been told all my whole life that may not be true?”

Melissa’s father, Leonard, with Red, another cast member of The Tempest. Photo: Shakespeare Behind Bars.

II.

I knew what crimes my dad committed. I knew who it was against. They were my and my sisters’ childhood best friends.

After that, I wasn’t allowed to be around them. I didn’t understand why we weren’t going over to each other’s houses anymore. I would still see them because we all went to the same church, but it was very tense. My mom was scared; she carried a lot of guilt, a lot of shame.

Having to start over as a five-year-old, finding different friends and feeling a little like you did something wrong, that you’re a reminder of something that happened to somebody and you don’t even know what – it was a lot to process as a kid. And for me as an adult, when I reconnected with my dad. So not only was I was trying to start this new relationship with someone I hadn’t known for years, I was also wrestling with stuff that I’d never dealt with.

Our church community had said he was stubborn and not remorseful about his crimes. But when I reconnected with my dad, I heard his side of the story. The church that we’d gone to had been sending people to visit him in prison, saying, “Turn back to God or we won’t help you.” They were the ones saying he was not remorseful, because he wouldn’t convert back to Christianity – that was their standard for remorse. And my dad had renounced religion.

When I started reconnecting with him, I didn’t have much recollection of who he was before he went to prison. But when it came to him talking about his crimes, he was like, “If you have questions or things you want to talk about, I’m OK with that.” He expressed over and over and over the remorse he felt – the deep depression he would feel because of what he did. Not a day went by he didn’t think about it; the impact it had; the fact that it separated him from his children. Him saying that was a big deal.

III.

He also had good insights. He sent me papers he’d written for his writing class – like, they had to pick a specific song to process their crimes, what led them to do it and why. My dad chose “Criminal” by Fiona Apple. He said the line, “I need to be redeemed to the one I’ve sinned against because he’s all I ever knew of love” is how he felt about his family. All that was helpful for me because I’ve been interested in – and in the future would love to research – how you prevent such crimes from happening, and how, when they do happen, you respond in a way that’s healing for all involved. Because we have such limited research and such strong opinions. That’s held us back from accepting that people can change.

Not everyone fits a certain category. Even within the definition of sex crimes against children, there are ways people are classified. Many times, abuse is about power and control more than sexual attraction. For him, that’s what it was about. I mean, he grew up dating women his age; he married my mom. But there were these moments he could pinpoint in his life, when this took place, when he felt powerless and acted upon that. And him articulating that showed me that when you can identify the source, then you can say, “All right, this is how I combat that and protect myself against doing that again.”

I developed an ongoing relationship with him where I visited him a lot, we talked on the phone. I would go to the prison for these six-hour visits and we would talk about his crimes but also lots of stuff, like politics and our opinions and his childhood and stuff I didn’t know about myself growing up. A lot of this is written out in letters, which to me is one of the best gifts I’ve received from him. I have these extensive letters of his thoughts and ideas that I can always refer to.

Reconnecting with my dad changed my whole career trajectory. I was working at a church, and I decided I had to quit. That’s when I started to get involved with criminal justice organizations, like the Osborne Association [in NY], where I was able to do advocacy for kids with incarcerated parents and share my story.

IV.

My aunt always says he stayed alive for me; that somehow the universe knew I was thinking of writing him. Around the time I watched the documentary, my dad had gotten cancer the first time. About a year into me writing and seeing him, his cancer came back, much more aggressively. He was immediately told he had six months to two years to live.

I hadn’t been trying to get him out because his next parole hearing wasn’t until 2017. But when he got sick, we started looking into medical parole, compassionate release.

But people convicted of sex crimes in Kentucky are excluded from compassionate release. He applied for clemency but was denied. So there was no way to get him home. We had to come to terms with the fact that he was going to die behind bars.

When my dad went to prison, my older sister was 8, my next sister 7, I was 5, and my brother was 2½. We all have various memories, like my brother doesn’t remember anything, and my older sister remembers more than anybody. My siblings had a very touch-and-go relationship with him; they’d receive a letter from him but not really write back. But before he passed, they all decided they did want to see him. They knew his time was limited.

I went to visit with my older sister. The first thing she said when we left was, “I’ve been told all my life that he’s a monster. And that’s not who I just saw.” That was huge for me to hear, because I’d been trying to tell them that this whole time.

I was at work when I got the call that my dad had passed away. My dad died at 56, after 22 years in prison. My dad so sick, convicted of what is considered the worst crime – the one everyone wants to exclude from policy. My advocacy changed then, because it was harder for me to share my story, harder to feel any hope.

Sure, I could connect with people who’ve lost a parent to cancer, but people who’ve lost a parent in prison – that comes with its own struggles. I wrote this paper for grad school about disenfranchised grief, how grieving someone you’ve lost in prison is not accepted. People don’t give you a cake or a funeral; you feel isolated and like you shouldn’t be grieving someone who was convicted of a crime. Even though you totally should.

V.

My dad should have come home. No one should be separated from a family member who’s too sick to talk to them on the phone; they can’t write; they can’t come to a visiting room. It’s not fair for anybody to have to experience that. My dad was so sick – who was he going to hurt? Even if he hadn’t been rehabilitated.

And he had been rehabilitated. If he’d had a chance to get before a parole board, my hope is that they’d see that: “Holy crap, this guy is a month away from dying. Of course he should be home with his family.” Everyone should have a chance to make that argument.

My work with Release Aging People in Prison is incredibly triggering. I’ve had to learn to balance it and create my own boundaries, because the work RAPP does is often very sad. Everything feels urgent. Prison has always been a public health crisis and now COVID-19 has amplified that. It’s exposed so much brokenness in so many systems. It’s a matter of life and death, to free people who are aging.

So if I can prevent other people from dying inside, it’s worth it. Because I need to put this anger and grief to use.

© Susie Day, 2020

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