I’ve always considered myself to be highly empathetic. I mean I felt for people who were going through one painful situation or another; suffering loss through multiple ways. But I honestly can’t say that I empathized with those who were incarcerated for alleged criminal behavior until that shadow darkened my doorway.
Oftentimes we merely focus on the crime instead of the individual, unless of course, it’s in your face. Then, we often automatically assume guilt over innocence or at the very least, never consider guilt or innocence, choosing instead to look only at the crime and/or its severity. Without realizing it, we consume the sensation of the incident. And if people are hurt, victim or accused, we chalk it all off as someone else’s plight.
It stopped being “their” problem for me when in the middle of an October night I was alarmed by deputies who had come to take away my 16-year-old son. Often when this happens to a family, you have no clue the nightmare lurks. You have no clue you’re not relatively normal as a household. You have no conception that you could very well be one of “them” with their dark moments playing out on the evening news.
Still in utter shock you have to eventually close the door and attend to the security of your other children. But the door closing is a surreal action. Because the door never closes all that night. I mean, your heart and your horrified and sinking spirit are still following the taillights as they disappear into the darkened distance. There is that other you still just opening the door over and over again. What just happened?
That night I called the local sheriff, the jail, and various attorneys I had Googled in attempts to desperately grab some understanding of where my child might have been taken. Fighting unfamiliar panic about what he might be encountering. Trying to ignore my own internal struggle with a million emotions threatening my very sanity! It took strength I was unaware that I possessed to maintain composure, complete online searches, negotiate productive phone calls with comprehensive, cohesive conversations.
The hours after crawled by and as the sun greeted me, still huddled in one corner of my bedroom, laptop on thighs, phone in hand, eyes swollen to a sliver, frontal lobe throbbing, I was no closer to an answer or even emotional relief as I had been the moment I opened that door.
When I did learn where my son was, I understood that he had been taken to a juvenile facility an hour and a half away. He was held there for six months until his seventeenth birthday and was then transferred to a local jail (the closest he has been to home but the most distant point of his dark journey). At this local jail, I could not see my child face to face. I could only talk to him via telephone on a monitor for two years!
Finally being sentenced after those two long years, my child was then transferred to Jackson State Prison where he couldn’t call or receive visits for a period of sixty days. Following that stint, he was transferred to a different prison over four hours away from home! Bear in mind, at the time of incarceration my child was solely reliant upon me. During his incarceration, he remains solely reliant upon me – for financial support, emotional support, mental and spiritual grounding and whatever sense of self and growth and value my diminished spirit can impart! He had only been away from home on family vacations and school trips, always surrounded by friends or family – structured redeeming love! Now we fear him adjusting to becoming something hardened by survival and too far removed from love.
If I could only look a parent in the eye who happens to also be a policy maker, I would ask, “how do you want my son to return to society?” Or better even, “is it starting to make more sense to care how my son will return to society?”
My son has been serving a mandatory minimum sentence, charged as an adult, having no idea at the time and little idea still now, of what being an adult or thinking as an adult, entails. I never want my story to only be about what I feel about my son’s case. His case is layered with questions we continue to pursue. But, while guilt, innocence and the severity of crimes are all important factors, I suggest that an equally important factor for consideration is where and how (under what conditions) an incarcerated individual must serve their time. Unless placed on death row, or faced with life without the possibility of parole (neither of which are my child’s reality – thank God), they will be returning to a free society!
I don’t know what was intended many years ago when the patterns of incarceration and punishment were shaped into the current system. But I can say as a citizen, educated professional, and a parent, that today’s world is being made crazier by old short-sighted arrogance. Old arrogance ignores that families of both the incarcerated and the victims go on with life. They should be helped to go on with life restored as best as possible.
Why not, especially for children, keep incarceration focused on continuing youth development; civic and social responsibility, closing values gaps and uninterrupted family support? And why not move on these kinds of ideas in wholesale ways right now – given current technology and evolving popular conversation.? Why not learn from the thousands of stories like mine and “them” – who in turn learned empathy the hard way – when it hit their doorstep?