(Author’s Note: The identities of prisoners and their family members are confidential in order to protect their safety and privacy. Each source is identified by a randomly chosen letter.)
(Part 1) Introduction
Over the past eight months, prisoners and their families discuss how mass incarceration impacts them and their loved ones, both in general and in the newly dangerous context of the coronavirus pandemic. The stories in this series arose from several such discussions.
In late March and early April 2020 interviews, a Ventress prisoner, identified as “Z” to protect his safety and privacy, raises the topic of family and other relationships while discussing Ventress’s chronic broken phones problem, and new implications of that problem during the pandemic.
(During our March interviews, three out of four phones on the side of the dorm in which Z lives were broken. They were repaired weeks before the writing of this article, but prisoners say the one that previously worked no longer did after the other three were fixed, and many other phones in dorms throughout the prison were allegedly left still needing repair.)
Z feels that the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and the prison’s phone company, Securus Technologies, must “know [that] people need to call their families.”
In late March, Z and others noted that, due to restrictions on prisoner visitations and other coronavirus-related measures, the more prisoners have more calls to make the more unsanitary it becomes to share the only working phones because of the pandemic. At that time, prisoners were still making their own masks. Then and now, prisoners say there are no cleaning products nearby with which to clean or sanitize the phones before or after each call.
Z is incarcerated on nonviolent drug charges, of which he maintains his innocence. His original court date for his release was delayed late in 2019 for bureaucratic reasons, then again in April 2020 because of the coronavirus. He did not expect to be imprisoned longer than a year.
His birthday, as well as his son’s, occurred soon after the writing of this article. On his birthday, he tells HTR over the phone, he’s been sleeping all day.
He is increasingly eager to be released, concerned for his safety, and more eager to see his children with every passing day that Governor Kay Ivey does not “come up with a release plan for nonviolent felons, and people who got short time [and were supposed to] go home anyway,” Z says.
“As far as my understanding, they ain’t trying to let nobody go home,” he concluded in late March, and the situation remains unchanged as of this writing in July.
In late March and early April, another Ventress prisoner (identified as “C” throughout the Ventress series) also comments on the phone problems in the context of the pandemic, noting its impact on families. He says restrictions on prisoners’ visits, questions left open about whether nonviolent prisoners will be released, and other issues exacerbating the phone problems during the pandemic, all “causes a lot of stress.”
C explains, “I mean, visitation means a lot. I want every single visit. I know it is taking a toll on my family, my relationships with my family. And…what’ll happen if – if [a family member] gets coronavirus? We can’t see each other in our last – our last minute?”
While C is afraid that if “one of us gets sick, there won’t be one of us left” in the prison, the fears preoccupying him most regarding the pandemic are generally about his family, being away from them.
His primary fears are “not about myself,” he says. “I’m more worried about my mom and my sister…I’ve got a good family and we stay in contact. They’re doing good.”
Gregory Anderson, Jr. was released from Ventress on March 25, 2020, just one week after the ADOC announced its coronavirus response measures. His years in Ventress were highly traumatic. Like C, Anderson has a good relationship with his family.
In an interview a couple of weeks after leaving Ventress, Anderson describes the day of his release, spent with family, as “one of the happiest days of my life…I was about to cry just seeing how things changed in three years, like cars and changes to my city, people who died.”
The night of his release, Anderson and his father stay up almost all night, just talking.
A prisoner who has been incarcerated in Alabama for almost four decades, and in all but two of Alabama’s prisons, interviews in late April. He is identified in this series as “G.” His prison sentence started at age 16 – primarily, he says, because he “didn’t have no help.”
He has “no sisters or no brothers. I’m the only child. My momma died in 2010. So I’ve just been – just been still basically on my own,” he says about family life.
For the most part, the variety of burdens placed on families by mass incarceration during the coronavirus pandemic are not caused by the pandemic, and existed long before the lockdown measures. But these burdens and problems are more burdensome, more dangerously problematic, for additional reasons, during a pandemic.
This series will begin with interviews conducted with one source before the coronavirus hit the United States. In many ways, mass incarceration was already a pandemic of its own. Looking at the life and relationships of the prisoner and his family should begin before the era of coronavirus in America, for a view of what prisoners and their families already dealt with before life behind bars became even more dangerous.
Before the pandemic, in an early December 2019 interview over written correspondence, a prisoner in Holman Prison discusses how mass incarceration has already impacted American families over the decades up to that time. He is identified as “X” in this series.
“The system of law enforcement and mass incarceration has impacted so many lives. First, it takes fathers, sons, and brothers from their family. It leaves young men without their fathers. It cripples…communities,” he writes in early December.
He adds: “Then, if moms got to work long hours, that means, who is watching their kids? Not to [mention] the family trying to support the person that is locked up.” X has two cousins also in prison, he says, who, like X, have “no relationship with their fathers.”
X elaborates on the financial impacts of incarceration on prisoners and their families in a letter on January 4, 2020. “First of all,” he writes, “the telephone calls are high. [Many prisoners live] in poverty, and the [prices in] the canteen, and for visits, is very high. That is a big strain on families in poverty.”
Further, X says he knows “no family history beyond my grandparents, never looked up our family history. More [of our] family history exists, but I don’t think anyone went back to find it out. Family history have a lot of stuff they want to hide. Getting past shame creates problems. The elders of our family haven’t opened up about our family history.”
X knew his father only briefly right before his father’s death when X was a young teen.
X’s relationship with his mother was “not good” growing up. He “carried her abuse with me for years, which affected my relationships with women,” he writes in February.
He got along well with his several sisters growing up, he says, and their relationships are even better now. His “mom has changed a lot” since his childhood, he writes, “due to I have changed.”
He elaborates: “Here is an example: For years, my mom could never sleep, because she worried about me [being in prison], but after I gave my life to Jesus, and she heard it when we talked, she started going to sleep early with no problem.”
Further down, X writes that he “never felt poor” as a child despite growing up in deep poverty. The pain caused by childhood poverty that he remembers most clearly is “seeing my mom come home tired” from work, and “not spending time” with her.
“One of the downfalls of single parenting for men or women,” X explains, is having to “work long hours and neglect the bond of their child or children […] Those long hours my mom had to work also left me unsupervised.”
X elaborates on his father’s death in the February 10 letter, writing, “I first became conscious that my father was absent from my life at the funeral for him. I felt rebellious in my childhood without my father, which really affected my relationship with my mom. I feel like if my father were still alive, I would be more connected to his side of the family.
All X remembers of his father is going to work with him; his father worked at a horse racing track in Detroit; they took a picture together in 1986 “when one of his horses won,” and he died of a heart attack.
X notes later in the letter, “I would say that a majority of my family lives in poverty,” and again writes about how mass incarceration and “institutional racism impact my family and friends in a lot of ways.” He describes a close friend of his who was released soon before X’s February letter.
The friend who was released had “done 16 years here, which hindered his relationship with his kids and their mom, the relationships in his family […] What a past he is carrying, now that he’s free. The racism he endured, the executions [on death row], the people who passed away who he couldn’t be there for. And think about all the people that Jesus brought into his life, who walked away.”
He adds: “We are not made to purchase these shoes and canteen products. The reason for their cost is to keep families in poverty. Remember, it is not rich people locked up.”
“I would love to know more about my family history,” X notes at the end of his February letter.
(Part 2) “X” – Communication and the Meaning of Family
Prisoner X interviews again in May 2020, this time specifically about various ways that mass incarceration impacts family life, many of which he’s addressed throughout letters and phone calls in the past. He calls from Holman Prison, where he’s lived for around three decades.
“I haven’t seen my mom in over 10 years,” he begins. “The last time I saw my mom, my life was not as it is now.”
X has missed his mother deeply since arriving in prison, but she’s been on his mind more often than usual in the weeks leading up to the May interview.
“I just miss my momma, just want to see my momma,” he said in late April, just over a week before. In between then and the early May interview, X, his mother, some friends, and other family members started working together to create “a chance to see [my] mother” in a visit, whenever the pandemic and lockdown end. It does not seem likely, as of this writing, that Alabama prisons will reopen to outside visitations any time soon.
“It’s kind of a hard situation, but God’ll work it out for us,” he believes.
X continues, “The thing about it is, families get distant easily in [prison], because when we get in here, one of the biggest problems is the financial part. [Families] can’t make the long trip down” to the prison, often because prisoners are both poor and imprisoned far from the towns in which they lived, or were convicted and sentenced. The visit itself also costs money on top of the trip. Additionally, families of prisoners struggle to afford the food for sale to visitors of the prison, says X.
For families living in poverty, the imprisonment of a loved one is “a big financial changeup,” he says.
Regarding the psychological, emotional burdens that mass incarceration puts on families, X adds, “Also, a lot of families can’t take us being in here, especially coming and then leaving. So that divides, and puts a strain on the family.”
The psychological pain caused to the prisoner’s family is one reason it’s so important, X explains, for “us [prisoners] in here to reach out to family as much as possible, because if we don’t reach out to them, they don’t know how to respond to us. It’s hard to talk to someone that you love who is locked up. You don’t want to see them in that situation. So, that’s very hard.”
X has learned, through observation over the years, how families’ “communication is cut off, because some guys get so institutionalized that they don’t know how to communicate – not only with their moms and dads [but] their kids, even less with their cousins and all that. Because life done changed. They done grown up. You know? Everybody done changed.”
Maintaining and evolving one’s relationships with family and other loved ones in the free world upon arriving in prison “is key,” X reiterates, “because it will help them out a whole lot, especially when it comes to communicating and understanding your situation.
The visit from his mother over 10 years ago was his last one with any blood-related family. One sibling last visited X over 15 years ago, he says, and another “wants to visit me now” for the first time in over two decades.
“The thing for me is,” he continues, “I’m big on family now, and not just my blood family. I’m talking about my friends, too – I consider them my family…My lawyers, they’re family. So that’s why I reach out to people like I do, writing letters and calling them, because I try to keep my family connected.”
The reason X’s mother has not visited X in recent years is not that they aren’t in touch. They do not have conflict with or anger toward one another, and they both feel their relationship has grown stronger and healthier over the course of X’s life.
Rather, X explains, “She said that when she leaves [the prison after visiting], it hurts her bad. So, she doesn’t want to come and be hurt like that.” (In past interviews, X’s mother confirmed that the reason it’s been so hard to visit in recent years is the pain caused by walking away from him, driving away from the prison, when their time is up.)
X says he wants his siblings to “be able to come with” their mother, which he feels would “make her more comfortable, make it easier” for her.
X says he “tells [other prisoners] all the time – you know – ‘Don’t put a strain on your parents, especially when you’ve got siblings. Sometimes our siblings put strains on parents, because they don’t step up, and try to come and help ease the pain sometimes. But it’ll – it’s gonna get better.”
X is close with an older sister. He recalls a recent conversation between them in which she worried about how difficult life could be for him in the free world in the event that he’s released, in addition to the always present concerns in the meantime about how hard it is to live in prison.
“It’s what you make of it,” he remembers responding to her concerns about what his life in the free world would be like. “Yes, people done grown up. People done changed. I understand all that. That’s natural. But life still goes on.”
And, he continues, “I told her that, ‘There’s a lot of stuff I’m doing now that I wish I could’ve did before I got locked up, for our relationship,’ because I really didn’t have no relationship with my siblings. We talked, but not like we talk now. And that comes with maturity, too…It’s way different now.”
When X went to prison as a young man, “it was devastating to my family,” he recalls, “because they didn’t know what was going to happen, how it was going to be. They didn’t know nothing, man. And I didn’t know nothing.”
That devastation is “another reason why I tell guys all the time: ‘When you come in here, man, make sure you reach out to your family. Let them know what’s going on with you and around you, because, if you don’t, they already got their own perception about what’s going on in prison, and what prison’s all about.’ You see?”
X again describes how his mother “could not sleep at night” until a few years ago, at which point they strengthened their relationship, became closer, and got to know each other. “About three years ago,” X says, his mother told him she was “finally able to sleep at night.”
His mother’s insomnia going away at that time, X explains, “Showed me something. It showed me that, for all those years, I wasn’t really communicating with my mom…I was writing her but I wasn’t communicating with her. See, that’s a big difference too. It’s okay to just talk to your family but it makes a big difference when you really communicate with them, you see? Because when you’re communicating, you are really giving them information. But when you’re talking, well, you’re just talking.”
His mother winning her years-long battle with insomnia, X concludes, “showed me that I was finally communicating with my momma when she could have enough peace at night, knowing that I’m going to be okay.”
Getting in touch with certain family members he misses from the free world, X says, would be easier if he was out of prison, such as two cousins he knew in childhood.
“I would like to get to know them better, because they never stayed in Alabama,” he reflects. “They moved when we were young and we never got a chance to grow up with them. We saw them. But we didn’t grow up with them. So them, too, I wish I could be in touch with.”
X also has step-siblings on his father’s side, he says, but the “last time I saw them, I was 16 years old,” and hasn’t heard from or about them since. Some of X’s other siblings have been “trying to find [these step-siblings] for years,” he explains, “but we don’t know how to find them.”
Further, the conversation returns to financial impacts of imprisonment on prisoners and their families.
“A lot of people in prison are not financially stable,” he elaborates, “so that’s a burden on them,” and he’s also observed that the family members of many prisoners “are on Social Security, especially the moms, and that Social Security checks are often the only money they have to send their sons, “so it’s a burden on them that way, too.”
When mentoring other prisoners, X often reminds them, especially younger ones, he says, “to ‘take the burden off of your family as much as you can.”
X tries to “just enjoy what God gave me and not take advantage of situations,” he adds.
Asked to specify a few more of these financial burdens, X lists “money,” “food packages,” “clothing packages,” “phone calls,” “shoes,” “visitation hours,” and more.
“Them clothing packages cost $175.00. Man, that’s a lot of money” he continues. “Then you get new tennis shoes, [which] can run from $35.00 to $75.00…Yeah, so that’s a lot, man, for families that’s poor or just living off Social Security.” X hasn’t asked his mother for money in over 15 years.
“Praise be to God,” he believes, “because I was able to find other people in my life who can help me out…”
Asked to describe the toll it’s taken to be separated from his family for so long, X says there is a two-part answer. “The first part,” he explains, “is I’ve been wanting to see them” on the one hand, “but I understand them financially, their situation,” on the other.
Secondly, he continues, “I’ve got new vision now: See, when [a close friend] comes down and visits me [from the free world], he is family. He is family to me. So, I don’t really look at [not seeing blood family for a long time] as bad. But I also don’t look at it as good, either, because I really do want to see my family. That’s the honest truth.”
But “at the same time,” he reiterates, “I don’t want to put them into a financial burden to try to come and see me neither.” X notes that the close friend whom he considers family “is financially able to come see me without any financial burden at all,” which would not be the case for his family if they were to put resources toward visiting.
Part of the reason X wishes his blood family could visit is a desire for them “to know me,” he explains.
“They’ve always known an old me, You know? When you mature and change, especially when you done gave your life to Christ, I want them to meet that part of X. I want them to meet that X. You see? Then I just want us to go from there.”
He adds: “We all done changed. We all have a lot more to give now, though. Yep.”
Asked toward the end of the interview if it’s ever hard to see or hear about other prisoners visiting with their families while missing his own, X pauses, then answers, “Well – see – that’s another thing, Matthew: You can’t miss something you ain’t ever had. When my close friend comes down here, I just enjoy him. See, I’m like this, Matthew: I can’t enjoy the people that’s never been there. I can only enjoy the people that have been.”
He explains: “That don’t mean I’m mad at my family or anything like that, which I am not, but if I neglect the person that is there, I’m doing them a disservice. So, I just enjoy him. Now, when they do come, I will treat them the same way I treat him. So, no – I never have any jealousy of anyone having visits or anything like that.”
X has “always wanted to reunite with his family,” but is not bitter that he’s been unable, he explains, “because – let me tell you something – it [the hope of reconnecting with family] went beyond my wildest dreams, because I made family that I never had no contact with out on the street at all.”
Asked if he’d like to add anything before the interview ends, X answers, “Two things: For the brothers and sisters in prison, I wish they would reach out more to their families, and be truthful with them, which can take a burden off of them, and don’t try to live rich in prison.”
And secondly, his advice “for the family members” of prisoners, he says, “to always try to find out and keep communication. Whether it’s by phone, writing letters – keep a communication where you can help your family member who’s in here to have a different perspective, because once a person gets out of prison, if that person is still mad and angry, because they’ve been rejected in here, they’re going to go out into the same things [that led them to prison]. And they come back.”
He adds: “So, I ain’t saying to go into no debt or anything. Just do the best you can – you know – to be there for them.”
(Part 3) “G” – Railroaded
“Family plays a major part in everybody’s life,” says G, who is referenced in Part 1 of this series.
G is close with his aunts, but has no other family. G has been incarcerated nearly four decades, since age 15, for a crime he claims he did not commit. He has been incarcerated in almost every one of Alabama’s prisons during his sentence. In early and mid-April, he interviews on how mass incarceration impacts family life, both for him and other prisoners.
G was “railroaded” into prison, he says, because he had no legal or financial resources or other support. He is an only child. His mother died several years ago during his sentence.
“The thing about family is,” G continues, “these folks will keep you in prison for so long that your family will die off. And then – you know – you ain’t got nobody. I done lost my momma since I’ve been in here, and I’m an only child…I need to be the one to take care of myself. Like I said, they’re keeping me locked up so long that everybody dies off.”
G discusses death and dying, loss and grief, in prison. Over the decades, he’s seen many prisoners “lose their brothers, their sisters, their mommas, their daddies.”
Asked if death and loss have been difficult aspects of life in prison for him personally, G answers, “Well, no. It ain’t really been hard with me, because – you know – I know one thing: It ain’t nothing too hard for God. I just pray and try to leave it up to God. Let him deal with it.”
Like many Alabama prisoners interviewed for stories on mass incarceration in recent weeks and months, G’s religious faith sustains him through his time in prison. He describes himself as “a strong believer in God.”
G hasn’t seen any family members for about 15 years, he says, but is in close touch with his “aunties, my mother’s sisters,” his only remaining family. When G’s mother died, he says, his aunties “knew they were going to have to step up.”
G got married while in prison and stayed married for several years, he says, to a woman he knew in childhood. But when he was not released as he’d hoped and planned for, midway into the 2010s, “She said she had to move on with her life…So, I let her go,” G recalls.
He is not bitter that she wanted a divorce, was respectful and supportive of her decisions throughout the divorce process, and remains grateful for the years they had together, he says.
“I had to let her go, but she rode with me for five years long.”
G was first incarcerated at age 15. The Judge waited to hear the case until G was 16, at which point he was tried as an adult. G directs the interview to his childhood.
“I had a kind of rough childhood,” he says. “I was bad. I used to steal, rob, drink – you know – I used to do a lot of stuff. But they railroaded me, man. You know?…I didn’t tell on the guys that did it, so they gave me a life sentence. But if you’re on your own, they railroad you.”
He says the people who actually committed the crime of which he was convicted were older than him, and, he explains, “I didn’t know what they could do to me. I didn’t have my momma with me [at trial, or elsewhere]. I didn’t have a guardian. So, they railroaded me.”
Other than his ex-wife, G has had no contact with childhood friends from before prison. He doesn’t worry about them now, he says. “You just try to do your time and get on out of here, man.”
No friends from childhood have written or called him since he got to prison.
He did not know his biological mother well at the time of his trial. Having little to no resources when she became pregnant, she had another woman help raise G when he was born, and that woman was “the only momma I knew for a minute,” he says, “until I got a chance to really know my real momma.”
Asked if he misses his mother these days, G says, “Yeah, she’s dead. My step-momma’s dead too. My step-momma died last year, or the first part of this year.”
Asked what the experience of losing his mother in prison was like, “Well, I knew I had to stay strong and get up out of here, man, because that’s what she wanted me to do,” he answers. “You know. She wanted me to stay strong and make it out.”
He adds: “I thought I was going to get a chance to see her” after her death, referring to the wake and funeral.
G couldn’t financially afford to have an officer accompany him to attend any of the services for his mother’s death, so he couldn’t go.
Going to the wake or funeral “costs too much,” he explains. He and other Alabama prisoners have no money, and no right to earn money, with the exception of some on work-release.
He elaborates, “They’ll charge seven, eight, nine to take you to the wake. Back in the day, they used to take you to the funeral home, let you see your people – you know – let you visit with your dead relatives. But now it costs us too much money.”
Prisoners and their families have had to pay to attend the services of deceased family members ever since G’s been in prison, he says, “but it’s way more expensive now than it was.” And now, the few who can afford it are only allowed to view the body for an hour while accompanied by an officer. They have not been allowed to attend wakes or funerals for years.
“And you said it’s, like, seven, eight, nine bucks to do that?”
“Nah, nah. Back in the day, it was about $500. Now it’s…about eight hundred, nine hundred, 10 hundred,” he answers.
“Oh, hundreds. Sorry, I misunderstood. Just to attend your mother’s funeral?”
“Nah, nah, not the funeral,” he clarifies again. “Just the wake. You don’t go to the funeral. You just go to the funeral home, view the body, and then they – they just put you right back, lock you back up. Yeah, so I ain’t get a chance to go to my momma’s funeral.”
“Man, there’s no words for that.”
“Yeah,” G replies. “These people don’t care, man. They’re here to do a job. They ain’t here to help us. They’re here to hurt us, here to harm us. They ain’t here to help us. You know?”
In email response to a request for comment on questions about Alabama prisoners’ claims regarding the financial aspects of attending the services of deceased loved ones outside of prison, ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose largely confirms what prisoners in this series describe. The ADOC permits prisoners, writes Rose, “with approval from their warden, to pay respects privately to a deceased loved one” for “one hour.”
Rose confirms that “inmates are not permitted to attend funeral/visitation services or visit/socialize with family and friends,” because of “security concerns,” and that prisoners traveling “offsite to pay respects privately to a loved one are responsible for the associated financial costs.”
Rose explains that prisoners apply for an “escorted visit” with a deceased loved one by submitting “a formal request to their respective warden.” If approved, “security detail and transport arrangements will be coordinated by the ADOC.”
Asked whether prisoners are cuffed by either the wrists, feet, or both at any point in the process of visiting a deceased loved one, and if they are allowed not to be cuffed at any point, Rose answers, “The level of security and/or restraints required to safely and securely transport the inmate offsite is dictated by the inmate’s security level,” but will not answer directly.
Rose also would not respond directly to an inquiry about whether there are any organizations, programs, or government services in place for prisoners who want to attend the services of deceased loved ones but cannot afford to do so.
She also does not comment on whether the process has always been the way it is now, or, if not, when it changed.
On the financial costs to prisoners of viewing a loved one’s body, she adds, “Correctional officers assigned to transport an inmate to and from the funeral home/visitation site are not removed from their post or standard duties in order to accommodate these requests, and as such are paid an hourly rate by the inmate that is equivalent to the hourly rate paid to them by the ADOC.”
Rose does not offer an average or estimate of the cost of these visits, adding at the end, “The associated financial cost of this activity to the inmate is not static, can vary widely, and is dependent upon factors unique to the individual including the number of security personnel required to safely and securely transport the inmate and the length of travel to and from funeral home/visitation site.”
After a pause, toward the end of the interview, G adds that the increased challenges to visiting deceased loved ones for prisoners do not seem unique compared to other trends he’s observed over the decades in Alabama prisons.
“We used to get six magazines, everything,” he continues. “They took all that away. We used to get a dollar a day. Everything we used to get, they took it away. We don’t get nothing no more. [Prisoners] are picking up cigarette butts off the floor – you know – families are sending in food, smokes, all that type of stuff…Back when I first got to prison, cigarettes were cheap. But they’re high [priced] now.”
(Part 4) “T” – Dehumanization
“It’s wild” are the first two softly spoken words in an early May interview by a prisoner who is identified as “T” in this series.
T has been incarcerated for over 10 years, Ventress for the past several of them. He speaks low. His voice is strikingly calm. The discussion wanders from topic to topic, often focusing on the living conditions of the prison, always returning to its impacts on family.
Prison is hard for both officers and prisoners, T says, but “it’s hardest on the inmates, because of how crowded it is. We’re all right on top of each other, all the time. You know? You don’t get to breathe, really…It’s a real mess. It’s a miracle that we ain’t caught something. You know. We’re jammed in here like bunnies in a pen.”
Asked what these conditions have meant in the context of the pandemic, T says that “People are frustrated and scared. Most of them don’t know what to expect, and just hear all these different rumors. That can make an impact on a lot of people, the rumors every day. ‘Oh, I heard this,’ ‘Well, my folks told me that.’ It’s aggravating.” There are “all kinds” of rumors, says T.
First and foremost, he cites rumors about the various organizations pushing Governor Ivey to let nonviolents out early, because if coronavirus “did make it in here, which has happened in some prisons, like, it’ll be catastrophic.”
He adds: “We’re so close together. Guys don’t take precautions. You know. When they cough, sneeze, they don’t cover their mouth or nothing. It’ll get right on you. That causes problems. You know?”
ADOC recently confirmed that safe social distancing is impossible in Alabama prisons in an email response to questions about a different article.
T broadens his observations, reflecting on how these conditions are increasingly problematic and exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I feel like they can’t put a value on life, no one’s life,” says T. “You know. And they dehumanize people that are in prison. Okay, so [prisoners] made a mistake. They don’t make mistakes? People outside of prison don’t make mistakes?”
In prison, he says, “They treat us like animals. You know. I feel like a lot of guys act the way they do because of the way they are treated. Treat a person like a human being, talk to him like a human being, and then they act like one. But when you treat them like an animal or a dog or something, then they act like a dog.”
He pauses, then notes, “You’ll hear this term from a lot of people in prison: ‘Dogs live better than we do.'”
T says life in prison reminds him of a war movie he saw many years ago about a “POW camp overseas in the Korean War…This is sort of like living in one,” he says.
“Most of the time, the food we eat in here – we don’t even know what it is,” he adds.
After a pause, he adds, “The guys complain about a lot of things in the prison, but the most important thing is this: Getting ourselves together, and getting out of here. I try to – you know – encourage people.”
T reads the Bible to pass his time, which “keeps me sane,” he says, “keeps me calm. In this camp, there ain’t really much to do. So, mostly, [prisoners] are going to either read or watch TV, and that’s mostly what people do.”
T has been able to access his free weekly phone call during the pandemic, and uses it to call his family. He has always stayed close and in touch with them.
“Family – I think – is really emotional,” T explains, “especially…because most of the time, most people, when they have a loved one go into prison, they are also in prison, too. We’re in here, worrying about what’s going on with them out there. And they’re out there, worrying about what’s going on with us in here. There’s danger out there, and a lot of danger in here, too. You know. You have people fighting, all kinds of things. I think that’s part of it. That’s part of all of it.”
Families hear about “a lot of officers that will pick on certain inmates” and other problems within the prison, and remain caught between the experiences of their loved ones in prison and the public narratives put forth by the ADOC and others. “See, you have to have a – like a – a vision – when somebody’s telling you something.”
He explains: “Most people won’t believe a man in prison, but they’ll believe the person outside of prison. But people outside of prison tell lies. And then you get a man in here playing things or acting crazy, and that’ll impact somebody else [who is not acting crazy].”
T continues, “Or, if an officer and an inmate get into it, and the inmate winds up dead, then it raises a whole other issue. It ain’t often that happens, but officers will do things or inmates will provoke them to do things, and [the officers] always say, ‘He was a threat.’ So, he can just walk up and slap me and it’s just okay? I’m supposed to just turn the other cheek? He can kick me, and that’s okay? I don’t think that’s right.”
T says he’s seen these types of interactions between guards and prisoners many times over the years. They don’t happen to him, he says, because he just walks away when officers “start talking crazy” to him.
Returning to the impact of prison life on the families and loved ones of prisoners, T touches on the various financial burdens.
For married prisoners, he begins, “It has an impact on his household. You know. It takes away an income. He’s got no way to provide for them in here. So, even though they’ll make you work in here, you ain’t going to get paid nothing. That’s free labor. And they say that [prisoners] must have a job all the time.”
Some examples of these jobs are “dorm cleaner, mowing lawns, picking up trash,” none of them paid positions.
T also notes the high cost of prison products for families seeking to help imprisoned loved ones with “hygiene, or to eat something that they know what it is. Let me put it to you this way: chicken meat don’t grind up like hamburger meat. They have these boxes that say ‘Chicken Meat,’ and it’s ground up like hamburger. I say, ‘Man, you believe that’s chicken?'”
Primarily, T says, the most important thing families can do for prisoners is to “keep them company,” but there are also “things we need that we can’t get in the prison, like deodorant, decent soap to take a bath. You have to make sure you have your hygiene products,” especially now, the cost of which “depends on how much you need.”
Such expenses, which prisoners’ families and other loves ones on the outside usually have to buy if prisoners are to have them at all, are for things like “deodorant, shampoo, and soap, just things you ain’t going to get on a regular basis” for free from prison staff or administrators.
“And if you go ask [prison staff] for something,” T adds, “they act like it’s coming out of their pockets, and then they go up and down the aisle talking crazy to you.”
T says that, years ago, he saw an Alabama prisoner beaten for asking for a bar of soap. Officers “will cuss you out, pick on you for no reason, write you up. They’ll write you up for anything. Anything. You walk out the door and forgot to tie your shoes, that’s a write-up.”
T wonders, “What lesson can [prisoners] learn from that? That people are going to dog you every time you go somewhere?”
Outside of prison, he continues, “I can go to the mall and my shirt doesn’t have to be tucked in, as long as I’m neat and decent. I’ve seen people wear all kinds [of clothing] to the malls, to the movies. You are not teaching [prisoners] how to be civilized. You are teaching them to be aggressive toward people because people are aggressive toward them. That’s not right…They don’t give [prisoners] any respect. Respect is out of the question.”
He concludes: “So that’s why guys act like they act. If you treat them like humans, they’ll act like them. I’ve been to a camp where they do practice that – talk to you decent, so guys talk to them decent. They respect each other. But when you get into State prison, it’s a whole new ball game.”
T believes that 45- to 65-year-old prisoners should not be expected to sleep on the top bunks of the prison’s beds. Older prisoners “got no business climbing up and down the top rack, and then there’s 30-year-olds on the bottom rack. I think that’s backwards.”
But prisoners are ignored or ridiculed by officers if they “say something to them about, ‘Well, I can’t climb up and down. I’m tired of jumping off, hurting my knees and my legs,'” says T. “And I’ve seen youngsters walking around with broken bones, and it seems like every one of them got a top rack. That’s crazy.”
T adds that he knows a 19-year-old in perfect health living on a bottom bunk.
“I’m an elder,” he goes on. “I’m 55, and on a top rack. That’s disrespect. So, they don’t care nothing for my well-being. They don’t care about wrong and right.”
The family members with whom T has remained closest throughout his time in prison are “my children, my mother, and my sister,” he says.
He has two children. They are in their 30s, as of this writing. His mother is in her 70s. T was also married to and divorced from the mother of his children, but prefers not to discuss their relationship.
“It’s been hard” for his kids to have their father in prison, he says.
“A lot of times, kids – you know – children do things – well, mine are doing things now that I didn’t see them do when I was out there. So, I think it’s harder on them that they don’t have that guidance. They don’t have that person there to influence them.”
Like X earlier in the series, T insists that consistently communicating is the most important thing prisoners and their families can do to support each other through a prison sentence.
“Communicating,” he explains, “is the best thing to do – you know – so you get to hash out issues. You get to talk about things that you can’t talk to these people about. Family are going to listen to you better, and give you better advice…You can actually talk to family better, because you can trust them better, and you can open up more about how you feel. In here, you can’t show feelings. So that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Toward the end of the interview with T, the discussion turns to how prisoners experience the deaths of their loved ones who are on the outside, and what it is like to grieve while locked away.
Like everyone else, different people in prison “show different emotions” in response to death and grief, says T. “Some people act out, pick fights with people.” Others “say things like, ‘I don’t care,’ or ‘I want to die, too.'”
And “people like me,” says T, “don’t do anything. You know. I be like, ‘Well, it’s just something I’ve got to deal with, just a thing that happened.’ I’m a person that holds a lot of my emotions in. And it’s hard, of course. You want to grieve and mourn over the death of a family member, or a personal friend, or an inmate will pass away, and it’s the same, just like you lost a family member. You know. We deal with each other day in, day out, every day, all day long.”
T’s most painful loss while serving his sentence, as of this writing, has been the death of his cousin. They were best friends. Before prison, T recalls, he and his cousin “used to hang out every evening when I got off work. We’d just go out and drink coffee, conversate. He just died a few weeks ago. I’m still trying to – um – figure this out.”
T’s cousin was a year younger than T. He served a sentence in a federal prison and died “not long after he got out,” says T.
“So, I didn’t get to see him after he got out. You know. So, it’s taking its toll on me. I get up, and I try to pray, and try to move on during the day.”
T reiterates what G said in an earlier article in this series, that it is difficult-to-impossible for Alabama prisoners to attend services of their deceased loved ones.
“They only have the security to take you to the wake,” T explains. “They don’t let you go to the funeral anymore. You have to go to the wake, and it’s just you and the person [accompanying you].” Asked how much it would cost to attend a wake this way, T answers, “One guy told me it was $1,800.”
Further, he adds that he’s “never wanted to go” to the wake of a deceased loved one because he “would never want to put my family through that” financially.
Asked if it’s even possible for prisoners to have or make that amount of money on their own in Ventress, T simply answers, “Exactly.”
He elaborates: “That’s where the anger comes in. That’s when you have to encourage a guy – you know – keep him from doing something silly. [Prison staff] don’t understand unless it’s their loved ones. But they think we inmates have no feelings. Truthfully, whether you believe me or not, they really think we are animals. Y’all created this environment. You created an environment where you packed in all these different cultures and characteristics into one place, and they’re on top of each other all day long. They have mixed emotions. Some people got money. Some people don’t. That’s also where the financial burden comes in.”
As noted in Part 3, ADOC Spokeswoman Samantha Rose responded via email to a request for comment on questions about Alabama prisoners’ claims regarding the financial aspects of attending the services of deceased loved ones outside of prison. Rose confirms what prisoners in this series describe.
T believes there are some ways in which imprisonment “is even harder” on the family and loved ones of the prisoner than the prisoner himself, he says.
“Now, [families] are trying to make sure you are financially supported in prison. Now, that’s a burden on us, because we’re looking at it like, ‘We’re taking food out of somebody’s mouth out there that they need.'”
T elaborates on additional financial burdens on prisoners and families.
“If a guy gets money – his family might send 30 or 40 dollars, okay – then he is going to try to share with those that don’t ever get anything. So, now it’s a burden, because it might be too late before he needs 30 or 40 more dollars, because he forgot to get something for himself trying to help this other guy. But he wants to help the other guy, because the other guy can’t get no money on his own. It’s a mess. This is a super mess,” he says.
The most intimate, crucial, recurring topic of conversation between friends in prison, T says, “especially [among] a lot of the older guys, is family. You know. They want to be able to go out and do for their families. They want to be able to provide that support, and they can’t. In here, you can’t. No way to do it. So, I think, for grandparents and parents living in prison, it’s hard.”
The interview ends as they all do – the automated voice of Securus Technologies ends the call at 15 minutes, in the middle of something important.
Perhaps calls would not be timed so strictly if the prison had more working phones, but they probably would be anyway. It’s always strange, almost incomprehensible, to think of prisoners’ calls with loved ones ending just as abruptly as their calls for these interviews. One never really gets used to the startle of being hung up on so relentlessly, surgically, robotically, every single time. Sometimes, the only thing that seems to always work perfectly in Ventress Prison is the robot voice of Securus Technologies, cutting off the few calls prisoners are allowed, on the prison’s few operational phones, at exactly 15 minutes. Even on calls in which the prisoner himself cannot hear or be heard clearly throughout, one voice with three messages is always crystal clear, never early or late, at the beginning and end of minute 14: You have one minute left; thank you for using Securus Techonologies; goodbye.
(Part 5) “Z” – Nonviolent, Missing Home, Missed at Home
Around the time of the early May discussions with other Ventress prisoners, a source identified as “Z” in this series interviews over the phone. His conversation in May also focuses on how mass incarceration impacts prisoners’ families.
“My kids miss me,” he begins. “They’ve been asking when I’m going to come home. And I really don’t know, because they keep on continuing my court dates on my appeals.”
Z describes some of the financial burdens placed on prisoners’ families. He earned his income in the free world as a small business owner of a repair shop, and as landlord of a few tenants. His girlfriend, with whom he’s been in a relationship for a few decades, has struggled to sustain both operations on her own since Z’s been away. Z can only provide so much assistance over their 15-minute timed calls.
Since getting to prison, he says, there have been “problems with my tenants and everything. Tenants have been having problems with stuff that needs to be fixed. My family doesn’t know how to go about [fixing] a lot of stuff, and they hire other people to do it. Then the people they hired didn’t do the job right.”
Z says tenants have not been paying rent as often since he’s been in prison, “because they feel like, if I’m not out, they don’t really have to pay rent, because they don’t have anybody to evict them, because I’m incarcerated.”
In addition to the complications surrounding his work while he is in prison, Z notes the high costs of basic, often necessary items that families of prisoners must purchase, which all the other sources in articles in this series have also described. He cites the food available for sale in the prison, which often functions as an alternative to the free meals served in the “chow hall,” as well as the hygiene products for sale, cost of phone calls, and more.
“The food here is so nasty,” Z explains, “that people don’t want to go to the chow hall and eat it, so people who have money to spend usually buy their food out of the store or whatever. But that’s high” priced as well, and not particularly healthy food either, just more sanitary.
The store-bought prison food is “all different prices for all different types of stuff. But it’s not cheap.” For one store-bought meal a day, for about five days, he estimates, “You might have to spend, I’d say, between 40 and 50 dollars a week…10 dollars a day, something like that.” Prisoners can acquire money for these items from family, friends, or others on the outside only. They are unpaid for their work, and do not have the right to earn money.
(In past interviews with a prisoner in Holman Prison, identified as “X” in previous stories, X casually noted that Holman prisoners are charged money for packets of barbecue sauce. They are allowed free ketchup and mustard packets, he says, but must purchase other condiments. X has no money of his own, and rarely ever has money sent in by family or friends from the outside, so he no longer eats barbecue sauce. Sometimes, X wakes up in the middle of the night to work 16-hour-long shifts all day, for nothing, no one except God, not even one dollar, or a packet of barbecue sauce. He surrenders all his life and work to God, it seems, and man gives him nothing in return.)
“A lot of people” in Ventress Prison, Z goes on, “ain’t got friends and family. So, a lot of [prisoners] in here get no money, especially people that have been locked up 20, 30, 40 years.”
Even though the financial burdens are concrete and illuminating, they are not the most painful or important struggles that prisoners and their families endure day to day. Rather, Z clarifies, “It’s just…everything” about life in prison is difficult for prisoners and their loved ones.
“Missing my kids’ birthdates last year,” he says, for example, adding, “and I hope I don’t miss – my son’s got a birthdate coming up.”
Z has three young children.
The hardest part of Z’s imprisonment on his family, he believes, “is my absence.” He pauses. “That’s the main thing.”
Z’s mother died years ago while Z was fighting the case he is now in prison for, he says, and the “only family I got, as far as my closest thing [blood family] is my dad…He’s alive in [another state], but we don’t have a really close relationship.”
Z also has “no grandparents, no uncles, no aunties, nothing like that,” no brothers or sisters either. His kids and girlfriend are his only family.
Asked if he ever finds himself wishing he had immediate family, especially now, such as siblings or parents to whom he could reach out, Z responds, “Maybe a brother, yeah, maybe a brother [who] could handle my business part out there, or whatever, pick up some slack for me.”
Asked if he has any loved ones on the outside to whom he can reach out for other kinds of support, such as mental and emotional, Z responds, “I call my girl. That’s about it.” But, he quickly stipulates, “I mean, I don’t break down or nothing, I’m just wanting to get home.”
Z is strikingly stable, but prison is painful regardless of one’s mental and emotional stability and fitness, or lack thereof. Indeed, that is the whole point.
Communicating with his girlfriend keeps him grounded and “sane” during his sentence, and he “can only imagine,” he reflects, how “some people in prison ain’t got no one on to talk to” on the outside.
Missing his girlfriend, with whom he’s been best friends since their teenage years, “is hard,” he continues, “but, like I said: As long as you can call and reach out to them – I mean…(trails off) I guess it would be different if I couldn’t.”
Asked what advice he would give to prisoners and their families, or both, who are trying to support each other through a prison sentence, he answers, “I guess, if they do have somebody to talk to, just trying to make sure they have enough money on the phone, and – I guess that’d probably be the most important thing to people in prison, for real. Just calling and talking to somebody else. If they got somebody to call and talk to out there, or whatever, it can probably give them a little inspiration, motivation, or whatever. Try to bring their spirits up for a little bit, even though they are incarcerated.”
Z discusses some of the hardest challenges and uncertainties for prisoners and their families in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. “I think a lot of inmates are scared they are never going to see their families again, scared they’re going to die in prison…So, I figure, on both ends, it’s the same.”
Further, asked how prisoners experience the deaths of loved ones outside of prison, Z first notes the same problem that two other sources in this series have described at length. He’s not been in prison long compared to most prisoners he knows, and is yet to experience the loss of a loved one himself during his sentence, but he’s been around many prisoners in Ventress who have experienced such losses.
“It seems like [prisoners] can’t get out to go to funerals and stuff like that, to see their loved ones,” says Z. “Well, I thank God nothing like that’s ever happened to me since I’ve been in here. I know it would not be a good feeling if somebody died while I was in here, and I can’t even go see them, can’t go to the funeral, or view the body.”
He explains: “You’re in prison, and the last time you seen this person you love was in the street, and while you’re still in prison, they die.” Z suspects he would “probably live with the regret for the rest of my life if something like that happened to me.”
Z’s biggest worries regarding his family at the time of our early May interview, he says, “are about the kids, mainly,” because he fears that not enough will be done to protect children by state government, federal government, and other organizations of adults.
He worries “about everybody, actually,” he adds, “but mainly about the kids, because, I feel like, grown-ups should know how to make the right decisions and stay safe. But the kids don’t really know, for real.”
Z concludes: “So, if the grown-ups make wrong decisions, then the kids are involved in that also. So, even though I feel like my kids and my family are going to make the right decisions, I just still want to be around them, just so I can be sure.”
(Part 6) “Q” – Home
In mid-May 2020, the girlfriend of the source identified in this series as “Z” interviews about how mass incarceration impacts Alabama prisoners’ families. She will be identified as “Q” in this article.
Imprisonment has always been close to home for Q, having lived most of her life in Alabama. Her “uncle was in and out of prison” during her childhood, Q recalls, “but I didn’t know that until I was probably about 10 or 11, something like that.”
A little later in life, Q’s brother went to prison twice as well. “For drugs,” she says. And now Z is in prison, too. Q is in her mid-30s. She’s had a loved one in prison at some point during every decade of her life so far.
Q recalls that the first time her brother went to prison “was really hard, because he was really young, and it was right after we buried my little sister. So, no one was really – could take care of him, let alone comprehend what was going on, especially with losing my sister and everything. But we had to do what we had to do to keep going, I guess.”
Q was the one who “took care of [my brother] financially the whole time he was in there,” she continues. “It was stressful. He’s not right down the road, you can’t get in touch with him, the calling and crying – it put me in an emotional state at that time as well. It was a process, to say the very least.”
Q has noticed “a distance there” in her brother – “you know – like a disconnect” in his mood, she explains, “to say the least. Definitely. It’s this air of detachment, almost, but not necessarily. It’s like a double-edged sword. Like, it’s there and it isn’t. Like, overly sensitive, but not [sensitive] at the same time.”
She pauses, then adds, “I don’t know. It’s weird.”
Her brother’s second term was two years long, for violating probation on a nonviolent drug charge.
Q believes the “distance” she senses in her brother was largely created by his time in prison. She suspects that trauma, depression, “a combination” of both, and the experience of “having your whole family and everyone around for your whole life, and then all the sudden having nothing,” created the distance.
She reflects, “I think that’s kind of what it is, honestly,” because when you are in prison, “it’s like [family] is there, but they’re not really there.”
Asked if her brother has trouble sleeping these days, Q answers, “Yes, he actually works a night shift because he doesn’t sleep at night, really. Actually, it wasn’t like that [before] he went to prison, now that you bring it up.” As far as she knows, her brother does not have nightmares, “but he is real private.”
Q believes, “in some sense,” that her brother’s incarceration “did some good, but in another sense…(trails off) I don’t know. It’s hard to describe, because it’s almost like a rehabilitation, but then at the same time, it’s not.” She feels there is “no sense of organization” in American or Alabama prisons. “I guess they all have the mentality of dog-eat-dog world – you know – like, ‘Myself against everybody else.'”
Regardless of whether or not one’s criminal behavior specifically is rehabilitated by prison, Q says toward the end of discussing her brother, most often, “They don’t come out better” than they went in. “That’s for sure.”
Q maintains that, especially in Alabama, communities should “incorporate some types of programs or something, to – I don’t know what though. I’ve tried to think about it, but at the same time, I don’t know. I don’t do jail, or anyone telling me what to do. So, it’s hard for me to comprehend being in there to a certain degree.”
Q is not an expert in such social work and community outreach, but suspects that “any” more programs than currently exist for Alabama prisoners, former prisoners, and their loved ones, would be a good start.
Further, on the topic of solutions and help to prisoners and families, Q feels there are “no outlets” in the communities of many young people in Alabama who wind up in prison.
She continues: “We can talk about what we could do to fix the prison population, or the ‘rehabilitation process,’ but what about before [prisoners] even get [into prison]? That’s the issue, because there’s nothing for them to do – you know – no jobs to go to. I mean, they don’t feel like a productive member of society. So – you know – everything is a hustle, basically. No sense of schedule, no sense of self, of being an adult.”
Q says that having an incarcerated loved one is a common experience to almost every person and family she’s known throughout her life growing up in Alabama. She says she doesn’t “know anyone” in Alabama who has not encountered this struggle in some way or another.
“Usually,” she says, “it’s either just drugs, or some type of crazy thing happening. Like, it’s one extreme or the other, basically,” and when it’s crazy, it’s almost never simple.
Q suspects there are probably some people and places in the community through which she could connect with other women and family members who have loved ones in prison, people enduring struggles similar to her own, “if I wanted to,” she says. “But it’s not anything I would partake in, because – I don’t know – I guess I’m extremely private. I don’t really know why.”
Many of Q’s close friends, too, she says, have been through or are going through the experience of family members and other loved ones being imprisoned, have themselves been incarcerated at some point, or both. This means she does have people to talk with about what she is going through. But, she explains, “The only [response] you can really get” from confiding in others in that way, even from the closest, most understanding friends, best case scenario, says Q, “is: ‘Well, you know where you’re at.'”
She notes that it “is important” to “get it off your chest, to have someone who’ll listen, and be human, because they almost dehumanize [prisoners], in a sense. Like, [dehumanization] not a good place to start from. If you have that view of inmates, then you’re already distorted.”
Q believes the dehumanization of prisoners “absolutely” dehumanizes their families along with them. “It’s a trickle-down effect, in a sense,” she elaborates, “because, like I said, they are not treated as human, first and foremost, let alone as a man or a woman – you know – and then they come home and they want to run the show, because they’ve been bossed around for so long. It’s just a never-ending cycle, basically, because there’s no structure, there’s no…(trails off) It’s chaos. And what breeds chaos is more chaos.”
Next, the discussion moves to how mass incarceration is currently impacting her family. Q has known and loved Z, who is incarcerated in Ventress Prison now, “since we were teenagers,” she says. “We grew up together, basically.”
Since their mid-teens, Z and Q have been best friends, boyfriend and girlfriend, co-parents, co-workers, and more. They haven’t always stayed together because it was ever easy, but because they’ve always loved each other. They are truly partners in life.
When they met as teenagers, Z “basically lived with his grandma, and I lived with my mom,” Q reflects. “My dad wasn’t here yet though.” Z and Q “would always just hang out – I don’t know – we just gravitated toward one another.” They broke up and got back together, too, all by age 16.
They’ve been a couple for around two decades, including through a difficult stretch in the middle, in which they lived apart for almost 10 years. They were “still seeing each other,” Q explains, “but I just lived out of town.”
They have four children between them. The youngest three are Z’s and the oldest is Q’s. They became pregnant together, too, says Q, but the baby did not survive the pregnancy.
When Z was convicted one to two years ago, Q recalls, it was “shocking.” She found it “random, out of the blue,” she says, “because the entire time he had been trying to fight the case, and doing everything he possibly can to fight it, and just being pushed around and pushed around, and then the next the we know, I…(trails off) Because the Probation Officer, the prison…nobody knows anything – you know – and the County Jail shook him off quick. It was kind of like a whirlwind.”
Q found out Z would be incarcerated in Ventress after he’d already gotten there.
Q “remember[s] the exact day” that she learned Z would be in Ventress, “but I don’t [remember], at the same time, because it’s almost like a haze, just kind of, like, bits and pieces. It’s almost like you move through your day like a robot. It was like, ‘I am on autopilot.'”
She spent the rest of much of that day “trying to figure out how we’re going to do everything else, ‘How are we going to take care of things?’ You know? ‘How are we going to pay for this?’ ‘How are we going to pay for that?’ That comes into play. I’m still trying to figure that out.” She sighs, and adds, “It’s just – if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”
The process of Z’s trial leading up to his conviction was hard for Q and the family in the beginning, says Q, and “ever since then, like I said, I’ve just been on autopilot. Whatever issues or anything arises, right then and there, we just fix that then, or in a few minutes, and then we just keep going with the next issue.”
Q elaborates on this “autopilot” sensation. She believes such a mind-state occurs when “you don’t want to actually sit down, and think, and process, in a sense, because then everything else is going to come into play, and – you know – the aspect of not being there, and not having that sense of safety…You know? So, you don’t really let yourself think.”
Q has immediate blood family who are still living, but “my family is not for my higher good,” she says. “We just choose not to associate with issues as best as possible. So, it’s basically just me,” which is “scary.” She sometimes wishes that her family could be more available to her.
“I don’t know if maybe it has something to do with the way they were raised, or what,” Q says, but currently missing from her life is a “sense of safety, like I said, and security. There is nothing like that.” But she cannot reach out to anyone on her side of the family for support, “and I told Z the same thing: ‘I feel like my life is in limbo.'”
Z’s absence has been particularly hard on the children throughout his time in prison. They’ve had crying fits on and off since he’s been away, missing him and asking Q when he’ll be back as they weep. Sometimes they ask while they’re not crying, too.
Some examples of the myriad problems Q has to address with Z away are “the financial aspect, the emotional security,” and dealing with Z’s work.
The hardest moment for the family during Z’s incarceration, she says, was when she, Z, and “the children thought that he was going to come home a few months back,” and then his court date was postponed last minute. They’d all been very excited about the possibility of his release.
When he had to call home at that time to report the bad news, “I know that [Z] got really, really sad, and he was upset for a few days.” Q and the kids would “try to cheer him up as much as we can” when Z learned of the delay of his court date. But there was only so much that even they could do to “cheer him up” when he learned the bad news, and struggled to accept the uncertainty, sinking in like mud, every day for months after the delay, “and then we couldn’t go anywhere because of the coronavirus.”
Q returns to the subject of the financial impact of Z’s imprisonment on their family. They’ve been impacted financially “in every way possible,” she says. “He was the head of the household. We depended on that. Q often has to decide, for example, “whether you’re going to put gas in the car or buy soap, just things like that, things you don’t really think about until you don’t have them.”
Between just the necessities of phone calls, hygiene products, and food items, Z’s imprisonment costs his family “easily” a couple hundred dollars a month,” says Q.
The stress of missing each other, the financial issues, and other aspects of prison life weigh on Z and Q all the time. “I don’t think I even sleep at night hardly anymore, for multiple reasons, but all pertaining to [Z being away], basically.”
His absence “takes an emotional toll,” she says, “very much so. And sometimes, you get through those 15-minute calls, and you really start to get a sense of being there, or being together, in a sense, but then it’s right quick taken back at the same time. That’s really hard to describe.”
Q says that life with Z in prison gets “very lonely,” and the loneliness “ebbs and flows…I’m used to being by myself, for the most part.”
Q misses Z in the good times, too, not just while anxious, lonely, or struggling financially. She misses him as much or more in the positive moments, she says, like “taking the kids to the park with Z.”
She misses that more than anything about him, more than emotional or financial security, more than sleeping at night.
Q feels that the children, more than anything else about Z, simply miss “knowing he is there and that they could access him any time they wanted, and being able to see him, touch him.”
The youngest one “really misses him, especially when she’s seen him crying or upset” before the pandemic. Whenever the youngest one understood Z was upset during family visitations, she would “love on him, and vice versa,” Q recalls, “just keeping a distraction, and when she brings him up, it’s just – just make another comment, or let her know that Z will call us later in the day.”
Q’s experience of Z’s incarceration in the context of the pandemic is that she doesn’t “even know what they’ve really got going on in there. You’ll get one report saying one thing, another report saying another thing. But I mean, if you think realistically, they’re packed in there like sardines. Where are they really going to go? And how are they going to have five feet? Let alone 10? Then you throw around the sanitary aspects of it, and everything else, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God.’ And, like I said, I’m an over-thinker like crazy.”
The “sanitary aspects” concern Q most about the physical health and safety of Ventress prisoners and others in Alabama, and the new implications of their living environments in the context of the pandemic.
Prisoners “don’t have access to proper things,” she explains. Additionally, she worries about the consequences of prison employees going back and forth between work and home each day during the pandemic, especially with such limited testing.
“There’s always this sense of a very, very big possibility” of coronavirus spreading through prison, she continues, “and, if it happens, they already look at [prisoners] as less than human, so what makes anyone think that they’re going to actually give them – you know – proper healthcare? Or proper and adequate care whatsoever? It’s almost like they are cattle.”
Since the outbreak of coronavirus, Q notes, all the pre-existing costs of prison life have gone up, are needed in greater quantity, and prisoners now need certain products with an urgency they had not before. One crucial example is “buying those little care packages and stuff like that, just to make sure – you know – that they have everything that they need hygiene-wise.”
Another newly high and frequent expense due to the pandemic, extra stressful for one parent, “is getting a sitter for the kids while school is closed.”
In the first of the pandemic taking up all news coverage and changing life for everyone most clearly and rapidly, sometime in early to mid-March, Q remembers, she was overcome with a feeling of “basically not knowing what to do, and know[ing] you can’t do anything. You can’t force” State or Federal governments to release prisoners, “but at the same time, it’s like, you’ve got a bunch of people packed into a building like sardines! And now y’all are talking about a virus – you know – so what are we going to do to fix that?”
Speaking in a distinctly motherly tone of voice for a moment of the interview, she says she frequently reminds Z to “wash his hands often,” and “not hold that prison phone too close” to his mouth.
The anxiety that Q, Z, and their children already lived with is worsened by the pandemic, says Q, especially because it broke out right after they’d expected him to be released.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “In the meantime, we’re just kind of, like, bumbatick, bumbatick, bumbatick. You know? I’ve just been thinking, like, ‘Where are [prisoners] going to go? They are surrounded.'”
Like most problems caused to prisoners and their families by mass incarceration, the impact of imprisonment on the prisoner’s child has always been extreme and traumatic, and is now rendered even more painful and frightening by the pandemic. Their kids’ experience of and reaction to the pandemic in general has been “mixed” thus far, says Q. For example, she elaborates, they enjoy not going to school, but they miss being able to play freely and safely with their friends.
When it comes to the pandemic in the context of Z specifically, however, the kids often ask when he will be home, says Q, and if she thinks that Z will get sick, “stuff like that, because they’re so little,” she says.
Q says that the children, too, frequently remind Z to wash his hands, and “‘Don’t be around anybody.’ He was sniffling a couple of weeks ago, and [the kids] were asking him – like, making sure he wasn’t sick and stuff like that. And they was asking if – if he has any hand sanitizer.”
Q abruptly sounds like she’s about to laugh with adoration and cry out in pain simultaneously, in a sharp breath that pierces through those last two words – hand sanitizer – but the jarred breath ends neither with a laugh nor a cry. She just sighs instead, like swallowing tears and laughter this way is a reflex, then sniffles matter-of-factly through a pause, and continues.
Perhaps her greatest fear for Z and their family about the coronavirus pandemic creating new problems and exacerbating old ones within the prison is that Z will be treated “like just another number” even more than he already has been, “and – you know – that they won’t take him seriously, and he will not get a fair shot, honestly. And he really deserves [a fair shot], and that’s what’s even more messed up, because he actually didn’t do anything.”
Both in general and in the context of the pandemic, Q says, the experience of having loved ones who live in prison “throws you,” she says. “It throws everything off.” She pauses, sighs again, and continues, “It’s not a good place to be in – when you don’t know what is going to happen next. You know? You don’t have stable grounding…You can ask any human being how that feels.”
Asked what advice she would offer prisoners, their loved ones, or both about how best to support each other through a prison sentence, Q does answer, but not with direct advice. Instead, she offers a simple and crucial reminder “to inmates, their families, and,” she adds, “to everyone else” who must live, too:
“You’re not the only one doing time.”
This is a reprint of work originally published in The Hard Times Review.
Matthew Vernon Whalan’s writings on mass incarceration have appeared in the Alabama Political Reporter, Red Crow News (MA), and elsewhere. His oral histories on homelessness have been published in The Brattleboro Reformer, The Commons, and elsewhere. He has also been published in the New York Journal of Books, Spin Education, The Berkshire Record, the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, and other journals and newspapers. He is a writer and contributing editor at the fledgling blog, The Hard Times Review.