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.