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When the One You Love Is Behind Bars

A justice system reporter explains how she fell in love with a jail-bound man and how their relationship was strained by his prison sentence.
 
 
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A story like this needs to be told, but it's painful in the telling.

I write articles for a living, because I need to tell people's stories. It's a blessing -- and sometimes a painful aspect of my existence -- that people from all walks of life seem to want to tell me their stories, whether I ask to be told or not. Sometimes I seek those stories out to begin with, and sometimes I ask permission to turn their stories into articles that allow others to listen to them. Journalism comes naturally to me. But I think of my profession more as a way of letting the stories be heard and considered than as a "career" that I've chosen for one reason or another -- and wealth or fame are certainly not among them.

I love writing meaningful stories of all kinds, but there's one kind that's my particular passion: "muckraking" journalism. Within that broader field, I've specialized in criminal justice/prison issues for the past decade. Through personal interviews, statistical analysis, research studies -- and a wide variety of visits to jails and prisons nationwide -- I've always sought to uncover what really happens behind imposing, concrete structures, barbed wire and the confines of tiny prison cells which now contain 2.24 million Americans. (The U.S. has the highest per-capita rate of incarceration in the world.) My work has always been framed in the context of the imperative that our society should provide fundamental civil and human rights for all. As a result, I have a rather obsessive passion for getting to the bottom of things, to understand why people behave the way that they do, and how social trends and public policies evolve (or devolve) in the way that they do.

Again, my journalism been about other people, but this is a different kind of story, about the pain and lasting trauma of experiencing my loved one getting arrested on a nonviolent drug charge. It's about the struggle to keep both of us going both during and after he was thrown into the vortex of the prison system.

It had been an awful, nearly unbelievable coincidence that Tommy* was sentenced shortly after I signed a book contract to write about the plight of women in prison. For the first few months after his arrest and sentencing, I didn't know what to do with myself. I had seen and interviewed so many people moving through the various echelons of the system that I initially reasoned that I could handle it. After all, I thought I knew what to expect. I understood criminal law, and what I knew from prisoners about doing time. But when arrest and imprisonment happens to a loved one, it cuts so deep that you start to feel as if you're serving time along with him. I had to watch Tommy struggle visibly with the untreated mental illness that directly contributed to the behavior that got him arrested in the first place. I watched him get marched into depersonalized jail hearings and treated like trash.

Like most drug-possession-related defendants in this country, Tommy pleaded guilty at the recommendation of just about everyone involved in his case. I didn't disagree, especially if it meant the possibility of a shorter sentence. The hard evidence was overwhelming, obtained through a number of "snitches" and two undercover buy operations. Tommy was selling ecstasy, actually eating most of it himself in an ill-fated attempt to try to stay "happy" after he lost custody of his kids; survived several suicide attempts; and had been living on the streets for several months.

Say what you will, but I had taken Tommy in six months before his arrest. All of this started with a chance meeting at a bus stop downtown. I sat alone, the way that I do almost everywhere I go, holding my own against any kind of chaos that might swirl around me. But Tommy broke through with the look in his eyes: sincere, kind, and a bit of an awkward goofiness that made me smile. After that, I kept running into him all across the city. Tommy's eyes still lit up, and he still had that goofy grin when he saw me, but he seemed worse for the wear. A couple of months later, I saw that the man with the gentle smile was on the verge of giving up altogether. He had nothing left, and I had something to give: a warm home, a couch, and the knowledge that he would not steal from or take advantage of me. People thought me crazy, but I knew that he needed to know, unconditionally, that someone actually gave a damn about whether he lived or died.

No matter what you think of that -- and there are many reading this who find the very idea of taking in a homeless person or his drug use reprehensible -- I saw the remnants of a brilliant, beautiful spirit in Tommy. In a way that was quite familiar to me, I saw that he was self-destructive, trying to stay afloat in the only way that made seemed to make sense to him at the time. I can't explain it, but we fell in love. Tommy moved in, and I set about trying to help him make it through.

But that love wasn't enough to get him the help he needed, fast enough. I had finally gotten Tommy to agree that he was in serious trouble. I was going to accompany him to the Seattle Indian Health Board to get the treatment he desperately needed. That was to be the next morning, the night after the collect call came from the Port Orchard jail. Tommy was in the throes of a full, psychotic break. I knew that the situation had just turned for worse. He could barely talk. Nothing made sense. The only thing I could think was that maybe, just maybe, he would finally get the help he needed.

Seeing clear evidence of the shape he was in, the prosecutors still slapped him with every charge imaginable, including trafficking and manufacturing, something that bumped up his bail to an incredible $50,000, up to ten times as as much as many violent offenders are held on. These charges were patently absurd, and everyone knew it. (In King County, as many criminal defense lawyers have subsequently told me, most of this wouldn't have stuck past the first court hearing.)

But Tommy was busted in Kitsap County, where the resident population is overwhelmingly Euro-American. Everyone in the courtroom involved with his case was white; we decided not to risk a jury trial. So when Tommy was sentenced to two years in state prison by a judge who didn't hear anything about his personal background until the day of his sentencing -- when I was allowed to get up and speak on his behalf -- it was at least it was nowhere near as bad as the staggering 15 years that the prosecutors had originally talked about.

These are the broad strokes of the early challenges that we faced, but the devil is in the details of what was to come. So here's a small snapshot of what it was like when Tommy "fell," as the prison jargon goes, likening the experience to trying to survive on a battlefield.

If Tommy was in the line of fire, then I was in the background, minding the fort. While Tommy dealt with physical attacks by white racists, verbal and physical abuse at the hands of prison guards, illness-inducing food, and terrifying bouts in solitary confinement, I dealt with isolation, depression, an overriding sense of helplessness, and massive collect call phone bills. (Washington's are $4.00 per every monitored and timed 15-minute call.) Most of my friends and even family members dropped off, as though I had gotten leprosy. Shoulder leaning wasn't an opportunity I was afforded except by a small handful of people. I started to become horrified by my own behavior when I began to break down and cry in public, something I had never done before. I drank too much, sat in darkness in my apartment and fell apart far too many times to count.

In the midst of this, I started on the most intensive travel and research portion of my book, heading everywhere from the nation's largest federal prison complex in central Florida to the world's largest women's prison complex in central California. I went to prisons in London, Finland and Canada along the way. As a journalist working on a book about a subject that doesn't usually get covered, I actually got treated relatively well in prisons -- even being allowed to interview inmates in prisons where pre-arranged interviews were verboten. I moved through prison yards with ease, while Tommy considered himself lucky if he got an officer to even look or talk to him as though he were human.

He was a captive. I was a reporter writing about captives. Our roles in society couldn't have been more different.

Each time I schlepped to visit Tommy at the McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) -- one of a total of six jails, prisons and work release centers to which he was shuffled throughout his prison term -- I had to make a three-and-a-half hour trip from Seattle to Steilacoom, taking four buses to get there. (Oddly enough, the MICC depot is located on the grounds of the Western State public hospital.) It's there that civilians are checked, from head to toe, for anything forbidden by prison code-- no more than one set of earrings, one necklace, open-toed shoes without stockings, skirts that rise more than three inches above the knee, and so forth. Visitors can't carry anything on board the ferry except for vending-machine cards, IDs and locker and/or car keys. Even mothers of infants are limited to the number of diapers and baby food jars they can bring in. (Those rules sometimes changed from week to week.)

From there, visitors pile on to an old, rickety school bus. For 10 minutes, we bounce along toward the ferry dock, walk accompanied by another prison guard and then shuffle toward another waiting room. Over the course of this journey to MICC, family members, wives, girlfriends, children and friends of prisoners must wait a very long time during every step of the way, with nothing to read, nothing to do but fold our hands. Then it's onto the ferry where visitors are told how they can or cannot sit on board. After a 20-minute ride, we arrive at MICC, a lush, state-owned island where deer and squirrels roam free, but men do not. All visitors must wait again until a prison guard shows up to escort us. We walk single-file, across a bridge and down a hill, and then enter MICC through two barbed wire-lined gates to the sterile visiting room.

One of the times that I made this journey in the wintertime, it had been nearly one-third of a year since I had last seen Tommy. Before that, I had seen him just about every other week, after the Washington Department of Corrections handled his request for psychological assistance, while in work release, by throwing him against a wall, shackling him and placing him back in the 23-hour lock-down DOC "reception" facility in Shelton, a place where bewildered, sometimes angry men find themselves face to face with what it feels like to become a number and not a human being. The first day there, Tommy (whose ethnic background is a mix of black, Aleut and Samoan) heard his first command: "Negro," two white guards told him, "get to steppin'." Altogether, Tommy wound up serving almost six months of his sentence in this prison, without access to education, counseling or prison employment, in a three-man cell designed for two. (The third man sleeps on the floor, by the toilet, and is called "the rug.")

After carelessly doled out psychotropics that left Tommy in a zombie-like state, someone finally paid enough attention to get him the medication he needed -- and a psychiatrist who took genuine interest in him while he was still at MICC. (In my experience this is more than most prisoners suffering from mental illness can say.) I wish I could say this story had a happy ending, but it's far from being anywhere near it. Instead, Tommy came out of prison with a whole, new set of traumas.

Men and women come into prison as human beings -- no matter how flawed, troubled, disturbed or angry they might be. If they eventually have the chance to leave prison, as more than 95 percent do, these men and women have to relearn what it is to be treated as a human being without a number attached to every aspect of their existence. Even more importantly, they have to relearn what it is to live without constant commands to do this or that, even to feel what it is to be a human being worthy of any measure of respect and dignity. Small wonder that most former prisoners recidivate, or relapse -- largely for parole violations of one kind of another -- amounting to more than two-thirds of the 700,000 people who are released from captivity each year. While they are still locked up, prisoners' lives are predicated on the fact that they are not respected as such, and correctional employees are in the position of telling them what to do, all day long. The only decision-making power that most prisoners have is whether to obey or disobey even the smallest commands without question. The latter is fraught with all manner of consequences upon re-entry into society.

Prison is supposed to serve a "correctional" purpose in making our society a safer place to be, but the fact remains that genuine rehabilitation is usually the last thing on the agenda. While in prison, employment is scarce and low-paying. (When he was briefly employed as a carpenter at MICC, Tommy made 28 cents an hour.) Prisoners in Washington State are released with $40 in what's called "gate money." There is almost nothing by way of a safety net to help former prisoners, whether in terms of finding a job, securing housing or public assistance, accessing medical or psychiatric care, or obtaining the quality of educational or vocational training that would help these men and women improve their chances at staying out of the criminalized side of the American economy.

After too many baffling and enraging twists and turns during his period of incarceration, Tommy is finally under what's called "community supervision." Regrettably, things are hardly looking good. The list of challenges is a long one and quite familiar to those who have done prison time. Namely, Tommy hasn't been able to find a regular job because of the check box on employment applications that legally mandates him to list any kind of felony conviction -- and the clear discrimination that follows his honest disclosure. All the while, we live on a freelancer's income and so money is hardly flowing our way, something made worse by the fact that I was Tommy's primary financial support while he was incarcerated. To make matters worse, most of our old friends (and some family members) have long since stopped talking to us because of their stated or implied disapproval of Tommy's arrest.

We also live with the knowledge that employees from the Department of Corrections (DOC) can show up unannounced and legally demand to enter or search our domicile, as they already have. Many police officers know he's been in prison, and follow Tommy around when he's downtown, which is one of the many off-limits DOC-designated "drug" zones. These areas encompass not only incredibly huge swath of Seattle's neighborhoods, but actually includes our own street! (To be exact, former drug offenders are technically not allowed to be in these areas unless they're traveling to and from work, or to appointments.) Tommy's no longer eligible for federal education assistance or for most forms of public assistance outside of food stamps -- a small concession thanks to former Gov. Gary Locke's willingness to bypass federal legislation that denies even that to former prisoners sentenced on drug felonies. According to the terms of his parole, Tommy can't even sit at a bar -- although his crime had nothing to do with alcohol. And if he's even "caught" talking to another former prisoner, it can also be a punishable offense.

Yet now that Tommy has come home, we are grateful, every day, for the love that has held us together. But the fact remains that the odds are truly stacked against him and, by extension, the very health of our relationship. There are the incessant DOC obligations that have him bouncing from one Community Corrections Officer to another; the social stigma; the lack of any transitionary assistance around his need for continued medical and psychiatric care -- the latter being something that's now been diagnosed and can be managed well with the right combination of medicine and counseling. Much to his alarm, Tommy will also be denied the right to vote until his legal financial obligations are entirely paid off. In addition to a monthly fee for his DOC community supervision, Tommy must pay off the cost of his own public defense, fees for his own incarceration and "reimbursement" for the trouble that law enforcement went to in order to arrange the sting operation. The last time we received a bill for his LFOs -- three months after Tommy's release -- the amount had already grown to $3,500, including accrued interest of $500.

Still, Tommy and I actually consider ourselves among the very fortunate. We have a safe space in which to live, enough food to eat and plenty of love to keep us moving forward. I have passion for the work that I do and Tommy is there for me, every step of the way. He left prison with all manner of physical and psychological trauma, but those experiences do not define who he is and what he wants to become.

I wish that I could say the same for every other person who walks out of those prison gates with $40 in his or her pocket, with no one waiting to help them survive. The odds are stacked against them to the degree that it's only a surprise that our society even expects them to make it. For most former prisoners released this way, freedom from their captivity quickly begins to feel like a farce.

All of it amounts to little more than a recipe for failure and disgrace. Were that the rest of us would begin to feel that this set-up for their failure amounts to a failure of our own.

* I've assigned a pseudonym to protect "Tommy's" identity while he transitions into the free world and seeks employment.

Silja J.A. Talvi is an investigative journalist and the author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press: 2007). Her work has already appeared in many book anthologies, including It's So You (Seal Press, 2007), Prison Nation (Routledge: 2005), Prison Profiteers (The New Press: 2008), and Body Outlaws (Seal Press: 2004). She is a senior editor at In These Times.

 
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