I take off my earrings one at a time, cup them in my hand, and place them in the cup holder of my car. I stretch out my hands like starfish and examine my fingers, unsure what jewelry I put on today. Clear that I have to remove all jewelry. Two rings and a string of bracelets fall off with one swoop of my fingers around my wrist. They clink as I drop them into the cup holder where my earrings lie waiting. I look down at my feet resting upon the worn car mat with a hole underneath the right heel, checking my shoes, being sure they are modest and flat, no open toes or heels. My eyes glance up to my thighs resting on the seat. I note the color of my slacks–black. And I am satisfied as I recall selecting them earlier this morning, sure they were not form-fitting. I shut off my phone and tuck it under my seat, half mused because no one is going to break into my car here. I grab my license from the passenger seat where I had left it, to avoid a return trip to the car. And, of course, a quarter for the locker inside.
I’ve done this many times. But this time is different.
I am stripping myself of identifiers not to meet a cooperating witness or a defendant who wants to provide information in hopes of securing a lighter sentence. This time I am going to prison to visit a young man who has been part of my family, a young man whom I love. And as I depersonalize with my insider knowledge of how to avoid a return trip to the car for wearing prohibited clothing or jewelry, I feel the difference in emotion. It is right in the center of my heart, like a black hole that keeps getting deeper and wider, that rapidly climbs to my throat with a lump that turns to tears. I’ve gone into the jail hundreds of times before, usually flanked by law enforcement officers at my side. I’ve brought budding criminal justice students as a university teacher who were eager to see what it is like “inside.” I’ve felt powerful and masterly. Now I linger in my car filled with shame, shame of failure, deep regret, second-guessing, and self-admonishment. Who was I to think I could a break a seemingly recursive cycle with my white love and privilege?
I walk the long walk from parking lot to building with shoulders slumped, no longer confidently striding with my phalanx of state police officers, no longer armored with my bar card as an attorney which, when flashed, was a green light to avoid scrutiny and the peeling off of jewelry. No. This time I would go through what thousands of family members of the defendants I incarcerated endure weekly visiting their loved one. The irony is not lost on me. I try to pay attention and not miss any of this lesson in humility.
As I walk, I try to figure out and rehearse what to say to him that could be supportive, given the details of what I know about where he now calls home. My heart feels like it’s going break. And my thoughts keep returning to questioning myself. Why didn’t I do more? Why did I tire? Why did I let up on pressing him for details? Why did I push him so hard to find a job? Why didn’t I force him to go to college even it meant forcibly delivering him?
The questioning leads to the same pain that keeps welling up in my heart. I try to swallow and ignore. But I can’t. In the end I failed him just like all the systems of support that we used to speak about together, trying to patchwork the harm.
Walking on, I continue listing all the things I did wrong: I chose to prioritize my kids’ needs. I chose to turn away. I chose to stop worrying. I chose to get angry with him for not working. I recall the fight we had last fall when he came to the house. As I follow this train of thought, I try to be honest with myself. This visit is about absolving my guilt as much as it is about supporting him.
I shake my head from side to side, trying to knock the loop of thoughts out of my mind and stay focused on the one thing that I know I can accomplish. Giving him hope.
I note how yet again I feel uniquely qualified to help him, but this time the set of skills coming to the fore were ones I had never imagined useful. I am imbued with certainty that this time my knowledge of prison can help him navigate this new territory for which he is equally unprepared.
The home we created as a family was chaotic. And caring. And disorienting. And compassionate.
While we were inadequate as parents in many ways, we always hoped to impress on our four children values of social justice. While that sounds high-minded, it more often looked like we were running an open house for wayward wanderers. Over the years we had taken in and helped raise six young men of color with their siblings. It was never a question. When asked by them for help, it was only a matter of how do we make this work.
The upside is we created a home for our children and their friends that was a safety net. It was a place where open conversation could be had about everything from unprotected sex to heroin use. And a place where anyone in trouble could come for help, no questions asked. The integration of that extension into our family life has been a moving target. To welcome someone into our hearts was easy as adults. To be sure our children’s developmental needs were being met was another. Meeting the mental, emotional and developmental needs of a person who has been lifelong underserved was entirely another.
Some will say we were naive. Some will say it obfuscated our own parenting. Some will say it was futile. Some will even suggest the failed outcome was destined, and we were reenacting oppression trying to be white saviors. I don’t know the truth yet. I am left with more questions than answers. I know we had no illusions about a movie-like ending. It likely involves bits of all of the above. But I do know one thing. I am glad we had the courage to move the needle of caring.
We met him through AAU basketball. Though I’m a self-described non-athlete with little to no interest in sports, through my sons I grew to understand, appreciate and respect athleticism as a powerful tool for lessons to navigate life. Hard work, discipline, achievement and, most importantly, belonging.
Like most of the story, it was not linear. He landed in DYS custody first, which is coincidentally across the street from us. Later he would tell me he would see us from the windows, driving by on the way to work.
I never bothered to learn why he landed in juvenile detention, which is remarkable for a former prosecutor. But it didn’t matter. I knew him not by that one action, but by the way he played ball – with all with his emotions on his sleeve. I knew him by his swagger as he swayed right and left, alternately dipping his shoulders trying to fit in with the team. I knew him by his quick emotional trigger and how easily he could be baited on the court by the opposing team. And I knew him by the way he gulped in attention and praise, starving to be seen.
I knew him by his kindness. I knew him by thirst to learn about the world. I knew him by his desire to connect with adult men for male friendship and attention. I knew him by actions and expressions of love towards his mother, who never called. Never visited. Who had divested from her creation. Over eight years, I never met her, not even when he lived with us. Those bonds strained for many complicated reasons I cannot judge, but the result was a gaping hole in his psycho-social development, affecting his ability to securely attach and self-regulate. That’s what landed him with us.
When his juvenile incarceration was ending he reached out and asked for mentoring. We readily agreed, having a soft spot for his desire to better himself.
What I now know is that mentoring is so much more than love. It requires a deep understanding of oppression, the accretion of micro-agressions, the impact of generational poverty, systemic discrimination, failed systems, and privilege.
We had a belief that with the same support we gave our advantaged children he too could thrive. But it was more complicated than that. Graduating from high school and a trip to Hawaii could not heal the problem. There were lessons for me about what it is to be a black male in a culture that suspects you at every turn even as you try to dispel the myth. There would be well-intentioned conversations about speech, dress or behavior to lessen police attention or even the menacing suspicious gaze of neighbors–conversations that left me grasping to justify my words, worried I was doing more harm as I sought to protect him. I wondered whether there was any worthy justification for assuring his safety when it simultaneously invalidated his self-image and the richness of his cultural values and preferences and taught him to yield to the racism that left him defensively postured.
I fill out the form that the correctional officer hands me. Hand over my license and am efficiently schooled in the procedures that follow. Go to the next window. Hand over license. Take a lanyard. From this moment forward connection will be thwarted by plexiglass. I think of him curled on my couch like a little boy, head resting on my spouse, often chewing the strings of his hoodie. I want to cry. He needs touch. He needs affection.
I walk the same hallways I have walked many times before but I now see and experience it through his eyes. Barren. Isolated. Deprived.
I know him well enough to know what he must be thinking and feeling and it tears me up.
I am certain that this environment is solely detrimental.
The walls of my work begin to crumble as I begin to think of all the people I convicted. Knowing I was a part of this.
I sit down.
Here is where my social capital asserts. I am an attorney. I am placed in a room rather than the separated visitation area. I have never been so happy for my bar card. No plexiglass. No talking over phones. I will be able to truly see him.
He is led in. He does not know who has come to visit him. They don’t tell him.
He sees me and shrinks. Ashamed.
His orange jumpsuit is so baggy. He is gaunt and thin. He wraps his prison issued insulated denim coat around himself like a blanket trying to hide. His eyes refuse to meet mine.
I ask him to look at me. He looks up and then away.
I ask again.
“Please look me in the eye.”
He raises his eyes fleetingly.
I look him square in the eye and with every ounce of strength and determination in me I say, “I love you and there is nothing you can do to stop that.”
“I know who you are. And it is not this.” And we begin. Again.
On this Fourth of July, a day of celebrating freedom and independence, my place, my heart, and my thoughts are with one who doesn’t have freedom.
Mary Beth Ogulewicz is an attorney and social worker, seeking to meld the perspective of social work with the power of an advocate’s voice, often finding the two worlds at odds.