December 1, 2023

The space between grief and hope

What the holidays mean for people with incarcerated loved ones.

Many of us will pack our bags to travel this holiday season or stay put prepping our homes for upcoming festivities. But the Dukes family will continue a decades long tradition of setting a place at the dinner table for someone who won't be there. 

Instead, their family member Daryl Dukes will spend the holidays the same way he has for the past two decades: behind walls of concrete and steel. Dukes, 55, was condemned to die in prison for an armed robbery during which he stole less than $400. 

Daryl’s life sentence was the result of Illinois’ insidious three strikes law, which disappears people forever after three felony convictions. Even worse — a recent change to state law means he wouldn’t be eligible for a life sentence if tried today. But the law isn’t retroactive, meaning without clemency, Daryl might never spend the holidays with loved ones again.

For families with incarcerated loved ones, the holidays surface mixed emotions. Grief is often associated with death. But for people with loved ones serving excessive prison sentences, grief is a palpable and visceral reality. The families of our clients live in the space between grief and hope.

“I went through all the stages of grief: denial, anger, righteous-indignation, bargaining, depression, acceptance. 

- Terene Dukes, Daryl Dukes’ eldest sister

The Illinois Prison Project represents hundreds of people serving unjust and excessive prison sentences in Illinois. Of the 30,000 people imprisoned in Illinois, around 4,300 people have been sentenced to death by incarceration, or life without the possibility of parole. These draconian sentences disappear people from their families with no regard for who they are or who they might become.   IPP’s legal representation, often in the form of a petition for executive clemency, comes as one final shot at freedom. 

IPP client Dennis Ligon is a 58-year-old man who has served 20 years of a natural life sentence for stealing a car while armed with a BB gun. No one was injured during the incident and, at sentencing, the trial judge strongly suggested he’d have imposed a lesser sentence if one were permitted. Similar to Daryl, Dennis would no longer be eligible for a life sentence under Illinois law.

“Me and my daddy, we are really close; that’s my best friend. Just having somebody to talk to when I can’t go to my mom. [His incarceration] hurts me, and I try to play like it don’t because I don’t want him to feel like he has failed me as a father, because he hasn’t… When my daddy tells me, “Keyana I love you,” I feel it. I feel it because I know it’s so sincere.”

– Keyana Compton, Daughter of Dennis Ligon

From the courtroom to prison, the legal system disappears people by defining their personhood as a single act. Imprisoned people are identified as a letter followed by five numbers. This is a measure to erase people’s identities, further distance them from the contexts that affirm their humanity, and perhaps convince us they never existed in the first place. But people in prison, just as those who are not, do have rich and robust contexts, decorated and defined by deep and meaningful relationships. 

“I want my brother here… and we all can’t wait for his feet to hit on the other side of that prison. But I do know one thing, I'm gonna be right there to get him out of there.”

– Sheila Ligon, Sister of Dennis Ligon

Grief for families impacted by long-term incarceration exists in the margins between the undoubtedly powerful state agents who disappear people and their humanity and the undeniable truth that our contexts cannot be disappeared, that people exist beyond themselves.

“Daryl’s incarceration has impacted me so much," says Dewan J. Stevenson, Daryl's cousin. "He’s the missing puzzle piece to the family”

Although grief seems to be a foregone conclusion, it’s also a loving form of resistance, a catalyst for hope. 

“I know it’s [a] life [sentence]. And I got so brain-clogged when they said life, but I have never in my heart once given up hope, says Berdina Ligon, Dennis Ligon’s wife.

Spanning decades and even during the most challenging times, the Dukes and Ligon families have maintained unwavering hope that their loved ones will return home. One day, the empty setting at the holiday table will once again be filled. 

“One of my favorite bible verses is: God has plans to prosper  you and not harm you, plans to give you a future and hope. The Illinois Prison Project has helped reinforce that.”

– Terene Dukes, Daryl Dukes’ sister

This holiday season, the families of IPP clients and families across the country with incarcerated loved ones will live in the space between grief and hope, recounting stories of holidays past when their loved ones, now imprisoned, were still physically with them. 

“I remember one Christmas, I was 9. I'm opening all my gifts and I look up and say 'Daddy what’d you get me?'. He had on this green cargo sweater. So he went in the bathroom and he took the sweater off that he had on and he wrapped it in some paper and he brought it out to me. That gift meant more to me than anything I had opened.” 

– Keyana Compton, Dennis Ligon Daughter

“[My memory of Daryl during the holidays is that] he’s gonna eat everything — everything! Eats, eats, eats, eats! And he’s a neat freak – after that we have to do the dishes. After that, we drink Pepsi colas or eat a Snickers bar. That’s the enjoyment”

– Dewan J. Stevenson, cousin of Daryl Dukes

Our hearts and minds will always be with our clients and their families who have freedom at the top of their wish lists this time of year.