Commentary

Why do mothers support incarcerated sons?

Years ago, when my 20-year old son was locked up at New York’s infamous Rikers Island, I would visit regularly despite the long commute from Brooklyn to Queens, two or three hour waits in the crowded, noisy reception area, and short, but bumpy, rides on dilapidated buses to various “houses” on the island; most times, I had just completed an 8-hour workday.

My landlord at the time–an obnoxious, nosy man–once questioned why I bothered to visit my son. “If he did the crime, I’d let him do the time.”

At the time, his words irritated me; however, in retrospect, I think his comment reflected the opinion of the public, and even, some family and friends.

Nonetheless, I had promised myself, I would not–could not–abandon my son to the custody and control of the city’s notorious jail system.

Like my former landlord, others might wonder mothers continue to support sons involved in the criminal justice system, often in the face of societal disapproval.

The answers are as varied as the mothers themselves.

One mother might have a son with a mental illness–often a factor in the commission of a crime–who worries about how he will fare in jail or prison if appropriate treatment/medication is not available.

Another mother might have a juvenile son tried as an as an adult and sentenced to time in a dangerous adult correctional facility, probably hours away from her community.

A mother could have a son who did not commit the criminal act for which he was arrested but was at the scene. She wonders why he received the same 10-year sentence as the perpetrators.

Our rationale for standing by them is simple. Our sons need advocates.

In spite of their wrong choices or bad acts, we nurture the hope that our sons’ lives can be salvaged.

For much of the public, the term, “inmate,” evokes images of violent, (mostly) black young men with gang affiliations, drug histories, broken families, or low morals.

Hence, many politicians see no need for sentencing or bail reform, increased drug rehabilitation funding, in-prison job training or educational programs. No need for comprehensive post-release assistance or services.

As mothers of incarcerated sons, we do not see our sons as state-issued ID “numbers,” but as “Junior” or “Davey,” or “Little Man.”

We remember our sons’ 6th Grade Math Award or love for animals or dream of playing for the NBA.

We are not apologists for them, but know that when wives, girlfriends, buddies, or relatives, stop visiting or communicating, we are left to bolster fragile egos.

Criminal justice research shows that when inmates lack contact with family, they are more likely to create discipline problems for prison administrators or suffer depression.

Often I was afraid to upset my son by denying him some request or by not providing everything he wanted; I had not learned that I could not save him from the hardships of prison by acceding to all his demands.

The most I could do was reassure him that he was loved and that better days were possible.

Unfortunately, in 1999, my son died prematurely in prison, so I can only imagine what his future might have held.

I take comfort in the knowledge that he knew that I was always there for him.

Having a son in prison can be all-consuming emotionally, psychologically, even physically, yet mothers muster the strength to carry on.

That’s just what we do.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

Commentary

We are not welcome…

In 2018, there are no signs that say, “Whites Only;” nonetheless, it is becoming more and more apparent that African-Americans are not welcome in public venues that civil rights activists fought hard to integrate.

Recent news reports about white persons calling police to remove a black man or woman from a coffee-house, department store, gym, university, public park or restaurant suggest that our mere presence is offensive to some.

At Yale University, Lolade Siyonbola, a Nigerian graduate student, fell asleep in her dorm’s common area after a night of studying; a white grad student, Sarah Braasch, told her that she should be not sleeping there and called police.  When they arrived, Siyonbola explained to officers that she was a student. Nonetheless, after presenting her student ID, they called it in.

Really. No crime had been committed.

In an earlier incident at Yale, Reneson Jean-Louis, black male grad student, who had been visiting Siyonbola, reported that Braasch said, “you do not belong here.”

Was she questioning his right to be in the dorm or at Yale, or both?

Actually, black and brown Americans deal with “uncomfortableness” daily in encounters with police officers, white homeowners, store clerks, or anyone else who deems us less than worthy of civil treatment.

While some incidents receive widespread attention, I venture to guess that there are countless less publicized encounters like these in cities across America.

Age is no guarantee that you won’t be targeted for verbal abuse or manhandling.

Earlier this month in Atlanta, Rose Campbell, a 65-year old black motorist with diabetes, was surrounded by several officers after a traffic stop and forcibly removed from her car, handcuffed, and arrested.

Black teens, black men, black women, black grandmothers, black persons with mental illness, even black professionals, are often considered suspect, even suspects, by whites.

Unfortunately, I don’t hear many black political leaders speaking up or speaking out.

Consequently, ordinary citizens need to take action—boycott, protest, make noise about those who abuse their authority, who injure or kill without cause, or who disrespect and demean fellow Americans.

To quote Sojourner Truth: “I will not let my life’s light be determined by the darkness around me.”