Commentary

We all have a stake in making a difference

(This is an updated commentary from my podcast, “One Mother’s Voice: In the Name of Justice.” Nonetheless, the message is still relevant and underlies my criminal justice advocacy.)

I thought that dealing with the stress of having an incarcerated loved one would end with the death of my son in prison, so many years ago.

It did not.

Three of my grandsons have served time in prison: one of them, who struggles with mental illness, is in and out of jail/treatment programs, often out of touch with family and a source of constant concern.

Another grandson is back in jail for parole violations. Two months ago, he collapsed with mild convulsions, yet doctors could find no apparent cause. I believe, however, that the causes are rooted in his undiagnosed depression and anxiety as well as untreated psychological and emotional issues.

My third grandson died suddenly on March 29, 2018 at the age of 30, leaving behind a grieving family, who had looked on helplessly as he struggled to turn his life around despite numerous obstacles.

In addition, we believe that he suffered from trauma, the result of beating (he told us) at the hands of prison correctional officers.

These young men are the reason that I have dedicated my life to educating others, especially mothers with sons in prison, about the far-reaching, negative consequences  of incarceration on criminal justice-involved persons, their families, and communities 

July 2017

When my son was incarcerated during eighties and nineties, I knew very little about the criminal justice system. I hated the arduous trips to visit him in jail or in prison. They were demoralizing and demeaning. Most New York State prisons are located in upstate counties, so travel would entail six or eight hours (one-way) on crowded, uncomfortable charter buses operated by private individuals or Greyhound.

Once at a prison, we waited in dirty, cheerless rooms to be summoned by correctional officers to show identification and to get searched.

There was little effort to make the surroundings even minimally appealing for visitors. Bathrooms were dirty, smelly and often without toilet paper. These conditions told me a lot about how correctional administrators viewed the families—mostly black and Hispanic—who came for the visits. We were not deserving of better.

I could only imagine (or rather, I couldn’t imagine) what conditions were like behind the iron doors for inmates. In fact, I think the visits offered them a chance to get off the cell-blocks and feel “free” for a few hours.

As much as I dreaded the oppressive atmosphere of the prisons, I understood that it was important for me to see my son and for him to see me. I wanted him to remember that he was more than a number; he was part of a family that loved and missed him.

Some days, however, the visits were painful because they reminded him of how much he missed the familiar comforts of family, friends, and community.

I saw the effects of prison life in his sad eyes and his ragged nails chewed down to the skin. I never spoke on this because he wanted me to believe that he could handle prison. On the other hand, I never told him how the visits depressed me and drained my positive energy.

Thoughts of him in prison hung like dark clouds over my day-to-day life.

During the most commonplace of activities—family get-togethers, holiday celebrations, or vacation trips–I would envision him alone in his cell.

The day that I learned that he had died (after being found unconscious in his cell) I was devastated. My worst fear–that he would die in prison–had come to pass.

My initial reaction, ironically, was relief; for this, I was deeply ashamed.

Eventually, I came to understand my reaction: I could let go of the fear, sadness, and anxiety that had haunted my days and nights for nearly two decades.

I don’t blame “the system” for my son’s choices.

However, he did not commit his crimes in a vacuum. His behavior (as for all of us) was the result of complex, inter-related factors, including racial disparities, punitive criminal justice policies, economic inequality, flawed family dynamics, societal expectations, and personal history.

There is much work to be done to keep other sons (and increasingly daughters) out of prison or to provide resources, support, and opportunities for those who return to our communities from prison.

As a nation, we all have a stake in affecting positive outcomes.

Donate to advocacy groups, write letters to your representatives, tell your story, push for legislation, organize in your community, join or create a support group.

I chose to turn my loss into something bigger—a mission to support other mothers with sons in prison.

Wherever or however you choose to make a difference–locally, nationally, privately or publicly–is not important. Just do something.

 

 

 

 

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Guest Commentary

“We have to do better!”

Horrific stories of violence against black and brown persons are a staple of daily news. Yet none so outraged Americans as the brutal killing of 15-year old Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz captured on video. On Wednesday, June 20, the teenager was dragged out of a Bronx, New York bodega and repeatedly hacked with a machete by several”gangbangers.” Guzman-Feliz bled to death at the scene. 

This short commentary is by Evelyn Pollard, wife and mother of three sons. 

I keep thinking about the 15-year old stabbed to death in the Bronx. Imagine if this attack had occurred 20 years ago. Back then, “the community” was protector, provider, even parent (if yours weren’t around), and disciplinarian. The store owners never would have  kicked (Lesandro) out of the store. The young men who stabbed him never would have made it off the block without being chased down.The teenager would have been carried or driven to the damn hospital! I won’t say what would have been done to the assholes who stabbed him. They deserve to be put underneath the jail.

That said, we have to do better: fewer cell phones, more community.

 

 

 

 

Podcast

Podcasting Pains…

Over the past two years, I created 51 podcasts for “One Mother’s Voice: in the Name of Justice.” Topics included bail reform, private prisons, prison labor issues, the public defender system, video visitations, and women and prisons. My target audience: mothers with sons in prison.

As the mother of a son who spent 16 years in and out of New York State correctional facilities before his untimely death in an upstate prison, I believe that I have much to say about criminal justice on both the personal and political levels.

Each week, I  also reported on three or four relevant news stories and closed with my commentary about a variety of subjects, including the O.J.Simpsons parole hearing, “We Are Not Monsters” Independent Lens documentary,  media’s use of the word “thug,” and President Trump’s agenda (or lack, thereof) for criminal justice reform.

In April, I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to cover a 2-day “Peace and Justice Summit” sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative, which opened two museums–The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The Memorial commemorates the lynchings of more than “4400 African American men, women, and children hung, burned alive, shot, drowned or beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.” I recorded the reactions of several attendees to the weekends’ events.

I meticulously researched, wrote, and produced on a regular basis. My producer and I constantly discussed various strategies to improve content, to market OMV, and to reach a wider audience.

(A colleague of mine recently launched “Black Girls Talk Sports” and within a very short period had 10,000 listeners and won 2018 “Best Online Talk Show,” Sports. I wondered how she had accomplished this.)

With no budget, I was not able to purchase equipment to do telephone interviews. (I am convinced that having this capability would have attracted more listeners)

We posted episodes to Spreaker, SoundCloud, and my website.

I love every aspect of developing the podcasts, and hope in time to attract more followers/listeners.

Eventually, my producer urged me to take a summer break to re-group and re-think ways to market OMV.

Reluctantly, I agreed.

Hence, for the next three months, I will focus on developing my book proposal, seducing an agent, and contemplating self-publishing.

Come October, OMV will return better and bolder. Stay tuned.