The trials of parenting from prison
Leon Perry was 22 when he shot a man outside a bar in Minneapolis.
Convicted of first-degree murder, Perry began serving a life sentence at the Stillwater prison in 1995. When he went in, his five children were all younger than 7 years old.
In prison, Perry has earned an associate degree, building metal chairs with vinyl cushions to help pay for his books. Now 40, the man who first became a father at 16 says he has changed.
While some inmates lose touch with their children on the outside, Perry has long tried to be a parent — no easy task for a man who can only talk to his children on the phone, or during an occasional visit.
"Your role doesn't stop when you come to prison," he said. "I just think it's important that we continue to reach out to them because they're doing this time with me. So, gotta know how they feel doing it with me."
For Perry and other prisoners, being a supportive parent isn’t easy. Every phone call to a child's home is announced by a recording saying an inmate is trying to make contact.
Something as simple as a hug requires a trip through a metal detector.
In 2010, there were 1,420 visits by minors to the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, where 1,616 men are behind bars. The visits were among the 8,842 made that year by children to Minnesota inmates statewide.
The visitors include Perry's son DeJuan, who was born a month before his father went to prison. For 16 years, his mother, Lawanda Gildon, has brought the boy to Stillwater.
Although DeJuan wishes Perry could see him outside of the prison walls and watch him play sports, he can feel his father's presence in his life.
"If I'm in a fight, (he wants me to) think wiser, like take the safer route," DeJuan said. "He doesn't want to see me in same situation as he is."
DeJuan lives with his mother and two sisters in a townhouse in Oakdale.
His sisters have different fathers. His sister Tiara Gildon, 20, was 3 when Perry came into her mother's life.
"He knows all of our birthdays by heart," she said. "My father doesn't even know my birthday, but I look at Leon as my dad because he loves me. He loves us all."
Little sister Sonya Beltran, 15, also looks to Perry as a father figure.
"He wants me to do good in school, go to college, you know, help my mom out," she said. "Don't stress her."
Gildon, who drives a school bus and is putting herself through night school to become a paralegal, shoulders most of the burden, but knows Perry is trying. He makes 25 cents an hour at his prison job as a "swamper" — a janitor — and sends money when he can.
"It's been hard raising my kids with talking to him over the phone, but he does an excellent job," she said. "I mean, he has sent me money. … Total in a year, probably $500, and some people don't get a check from their kids' fathers who are out here working or try to avoid child support by switching jobs."
Perry also is part of the Gildon household through daily phone calls. He often asks his son about school work.
During a phone call in December, DeJuan fills Perry in on his day, the tests he took, and how someone stole $30 out of his gym locker. As the conversation ends, the boy tells his dad he loves him.
DeJuan is not embarrassed that his father is behind bars.
"I don't have a problem telling people that my dad is incarcerated," he said. "People still look at me the same. I mean, it's different not having him here, but ... my dad gives more support to me than some whose fathers are out."
Whenever he is in trouble, school officials always ask if his mother can come to the school, perhaps because there are so many single mothers, DeJuan said.
"They never really ask, 'Can your father come up here?'" he said.
Those calls from the school don't come often.
DeJuan was invited to be part of a mentorship club at his high school called "Man Up." They wear suits and ties on Thursdays, and serve as role models for other students. DeJuan said he wants to be an attorney, but these days his heart keeps him on the basketball court.
In early March, when DeJuan visits his dad at Stillwater prison with his mother and Sonya, his father wants to talk to him about his progress in Spanish class.
When DeJuan told his father that he was earning a C-minus, Perry told him he didn’t sound motivated to get to class.
"I thought we was going to take that (class) to help with the scholarship," Perry said. "We can't keep changing our mind in the middle of the thing. You got one year left. You know?"
DeJuan became quiet and looked away from his parents. Gildon steered the conversation to lighter topics, like whether to adopt a Siberian Husky puppy. Near the end of the visit, she brings up a more serious topic: She could use more help from her teenagers around the house.
Perry said he supports her 100 percent, and tells the children they should make time for the things their mother wants done first.
The hour-long visit wraps up, and each family member is allowed a brief hug.
After Gildon and the children leave, Perry concedes that his son seemed a little subdued, perhaps because his mother put him on the spot about the Spanish class.
"When we come up here, this is her opportunity for her to get me face to face with my son so we can deal with things," he said. "And if he can see it in my face, that I'm serious, then maybe his attitude about it will change.
"All he knows is these prison visits," Perry adds. "I'm just blessed that she allows me to be a parent from where I'm at."
Although he has high expectations for all of his children and tries to keep up on their lives through phone calls and visits, Perry admits there is distance between him and his oldest son.
"This place creates holes in relationships," he said.
Perry acknowledges it's not easy for any of them to have a father who is in prison.
The next generation
Perry has three other sons and a daughter. He’s very proud of his daughter and two older sons, who are attending college.
He wants his children to develop the coping skills he wishes he'd had when he fired those shots at age 22, and he worries that they will in some way follow his path.
"Every man in my family has been to prison … and it's always for doing something to somebody," he said. "So, it does worry me, and they have struggled.
"They have anger issues because they don't have tact," he said. "They don't know how to deal with things because they haven't seen a man dealing with situations, so it bothers me."
The family history weighs on him, but Perry's hopeful his children stand a better chance than he did.
"I'm not worried about my kids going to prison because, for one, I'm not going to let them," he said. "Their mother definitely ain't going to let them. … There's too many people rooting for them."
Leon Perry will be eligible for parole in 2025 after three decades in prison. DeJuan will be 30 years old.