(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
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.