This revised commentary was part of OneMothersVoice podcast for the week of July 17, 2017.
When my son was incarcerated during the 1980s and 1990s, I knew very little about the criminal justice system. I just knew that I hated the arduous visits to see him in jail or prisons. They were demoralizing and demeaning.
The prisons were located in the upstate counties of New York State, so my visits entailed up to 8-hour trips (one-way) on crowded, uncomfortable private charter buses or on Greyhound.
I hated sitting in dirty, cheerless rooms waiting for correctional officers to inspect my identification and to get searched.
There was very little effort to make the surroundings even minimally attractive for visitors. Bathrooms were small and smelly, often with dirty stalls and no toilet paper.
These conditions told me a lot about how prison administrators viewed the families of inmates–most black and Latino–who had traveled many hours to see their loved ones. I could only imagine what conditions were like behind the iron gates for prisoners. In fact, for my son, these visits were a chance to get out of his cell and taste “freedom” for three or more hours.
As much as I dreaded the oppressive atmosphere of prisons, I knew that the visits were important for me to see my son and for him to see me. I wanted the visits to remind him that he was more than a number, but part of a family that loved and missed him.
On the other hand, the visits reminded me of how distant he was from the familiar comforts of family and community.
Some days I could see the effects of prison in my son’s sad eyes and nails chewed down to the skin.
I could not speak to him about what I observed because he needed me to believe that he could handle prison. I also never spoke to anyone else about these visits which left me depressed and drained of energy.
Thoughts of him in prison hung like dark clouds over my head. They took the joy out of commonplace activities–family get-togethers, holiday celebrations, birthday parties and vacations. I thought of him alone and isolated far from the pleasures of daily life.
The day that I learned that my son had been found unconscious in his cell and died, I was devastated, yet a part of me was relieved that I would no longer have to endure the visits. I was ashamed of this initial reaction, but I have since come to understand and accept that my reaction was the result of finally letting go of years of anxiety, worry, and fear over my son’s incarceration.
Those years are the soil out of which grew something bigger–One Mother’s Voice podcast–a platform to support and inform other mothers with sons in prison.