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How One Man is Reshaping Fatherhood After Incarceration

Activist, researcher, scholar, leader, podcast host, father. If you ask anyone to describe William Freeman III, these are the words you’ll hear. As Manager of the Justice Policy Fellowship at the Education Trust, William works to ensure equity in higher education prison programs and leads the Justice Policy Fellowship. His work stems from his lived experience as a formerly incarcerated Black man, where he earned credits through the Goucher Prison Education Partnership that he later transferred toward a bachelor’s degree in Sociology/Anthropology upon his release. William’s activism carries into his work as a long-time member of Out For Justice and through the podcast he co-hosts, USaySO, which features reentry conversations with justice-impacted men.

Of all these titles, the one William cherishes most is “father.” He fathers two sons. His journey of fatherhood began in his early twenties when his son, William (IV), known as Junior was born. Unfortunately, days after the birth of his first son, William went to prison for the next 21 years.

Learning to Let Go

William admits he struggled trying to navigate his role as a father from behind the walls. He was unable to be the father he wanted to be and felt like he barely knew his own son. Communicating with people outside the walls was difficult, and most of the time he learned about what was happening in Junior’s life long after it had already happened. William remembers, “It was difficult for us to connect in the moments when he needed me most. By the time I talked to him about whatever he was confronted with, he had already faced it,with someone other than me…I couldn’t protect him. That hurt.”

William III (bottom left) in the pool with his son, Tru, as his oldest son, William IV (top) looks on as he holds his daughter.

When William was released, he was stubbornly determined to be the father he thought Junior needed. He wanted to ensure that his son would never have to face the adversity he had personally experienced. William’s assertive parenting approach towards his son proved to be counterproductive and drove a wedge between the two. Thinking he was protecting his son, he firmly pushed Junior towards the life he thought was best for him, which was obtaining a college degree and becoming an engineer. However, his son wasn’t interested in college. Brushing off his father’s cautionary tales that were intended to scare him into conforming, Junior chose to pursue a career as a car mechanic. When William confronted Junior about various situations regarding his personal life, Junior felt that his father was being too pushy and didn’t understand what he was going through. They frequently ended up arguing, deepening the gap between them.

Eventually, William’s perspective on how to support his son evolved as he engaged in what he does best: researching, learning, and growing. He studied the works of Black men whose experiences he could relate to such as Shaka Senghor, who wrote in his book Writing My Wrongs:

“Thousands of youth are making the same mistakes every day. But we weren't born that way. None of our children are born that way. And when they get that way, they aren't lost for good…in an era of record incarcerations, in a culture of violence, we can learn to love those who no longer love themselves.”

Reading these powerful words made William feel like Shaka was peering into his soul. If Shaka could survive the cruel, inhumane conditions inherent to the carceral system and learn how to heal himself and his community, so could William. Simultaneously, he was becoming more accepting of advice from his loved ones who supported him. As he listened and learned, his views on love and masculinity transformed to a place that opened his heart to a different way of supporting his son.

Upon reflection, William realized that the advice he was giving Junior wasn’t relevant to him. It was advice that he may have wanted to give to his younger self, advice that was relevant to his own personal experiences. William elaborates, “I was trying to give him a shock in the hopes that he wouldn’t go through what I had been through, but I was missing that he wasn’t on the path to go through that.” He realized that Junior had to go his own way and learn important life lessons for himself. Perhaps more importantly, William’s fiancee helped him see the importance of taking time to establish his own life and start reaching for his hopes and dreams, so he could lead by example.

Nurturing, Loving, and Growing

The birth of William’s second son, Tru, in 2021 gave him the opportunity to put these new-found lessons into practice. The world is a boundless treasure trove of opportunity for a toddler, and William hopes his son will always see it that way. He pays close attention to Tru’s interests and gives him latitude to further explore them. Rather than getting upset at his toddler’s tendency to kick things on the floor, William redirected that energy by signing him up for soccer. Watching Tru joyously sing and dance prompted William to enroll him in a music program. Although our culture tends to place caretaking roles on women, leaders such as Shaka Senghor have helped William understand the importance of fathers nurturing their children, especially their sons.

Just as William observes Tru, he knows his son is paying attention to everything he does. That’s why he strives to walk the walk, not just talk the talk like he used to do. Their strong bond is fueled by William’s commitment to being a good role model and making the most of every moment together, whether it’s bath time or enjoying a meal. These moments establish deep father-son connections that will carry both of them through good times and bad.

There have been times when William has felt challenged to maintain his new lifestyle. He’s been tempted to go back to his old ways, to revisit past hangouts, to hang out with people that might take him down a road he didn’t want to take. In some cases, he gave in to the temptation. But one look at Tru always reminds him of what he had to lose. In fact, Tru’s name is an ongoing reminder for William to live a life of integrity, so he doesn’t feel compelled to lie to his son about his actions. He explains, “No matter what I’m dealing with, I’ll know that the energy is true, the intent is true, and the love for him is true.”

As the days fly by, William sees Tru getting more and more independent. But he’s confident he’s preparing Tru to handle the challenges that come his way, and he will always be there to support his son. William explains, “I can send him into the world with a shield, and at the end of the day I can check where the dings and cuts are in the shield, help repair them, and prepare him for the next day.” He is also continuing to rebuild his relationship with Junior, with whom he acknowledges he has made a lot of mistakes. Although he sometimes wishes Junior would make different choices, he knows Junior has to learn on his own. He remembers what it was like to be Junior’s age and resist advice. But whenever Junior needs his dad, William will be there for him.

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