The destinies of prison families

Loving someone in prison should not be stigmatized


bridgingthegapA biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

I’ve been gone a long time. At the very beginning, someone in my family sat behind the glass in the Hennepin County visiting room with tears in her eyes and told me not to worry. She said, “This is not our destiny.”

I wanted to believe her. Destiny is a powerful word. Sixteen years later and hundreds of visits later, it feels like it absolutely was our destiny to be a prison family, the proof as pictures with opaque backgrounds and kids who don’t know the figure in the center in pressed state pants and gray sweatshirts outside of that strange room where doors lock behind them.

It was a destiny where all of the great hallmarks would have to be had through these visits or through a telephone with physical and psychological barriers firmly entrenched between us. It was through those barriers where I learned my father had died and my grandmother a few years later. It was through these barriers where women I loved left, had children with other men, created their own destinies, and friends — not out of malice or intention —evaporated.

Being in here, I’ve come to notice it was not just my family divided by the overpopulation of mass incarceration in the last three decades. Instead of being praised for an undying commitment to the people they love, what I noticed was the criminalization of the prison family unit, which despite whatever the individuals’ standing in the community, they were left to be judged no better in correctional circumstances than the members of their families actually living in these facilities.

On January 13, I and the men from the BRIDGE Trust welcomed our partners from Voices for Racial Justice and other organizations throughout the community, as well as legislators and Corrections administrators, to Lino Lakes Correctional Facility for the second time. We organize because of what we have felt as the result of the social and community-prisoner disconnect, a condition that came alongside of the massive overpopulation in our prisons.

Our intent has always been to re-humanize men and women in these facilities. Part of that re-humanization process comes from the identification with something larger: a reintegration into community and family.

I realized, sitting in a room full of free people, next to men I have only known in incarcerated environments for years, how important it is for community to see these men in humanized environments. They used to do tours at Stillwater where they would walk groups of people in multicolored representations of spring and summer into our units where we were locked in cells with bars.

Men would yell and sometimes bark, and it felt like we were being shown to these people as creatures in a zoo. We weren’t people to shake hands with or discuss our future — we were animals.

I have realized that the re-humanization of the people in prison won’t come without the re­ humanization of the prison family as well. Our families know what the people on those tours weren’t able to see, because on their Sunday visits they saw human beings they loved, who were sons and fathers, now sitting in front of them.

Our mothers and wives and children have to be understood as people as well and not some kind of grimy extension of the people in these places to be taken advantage of financially or politically. A month ago, a gathering of our family members got together, ate lunch, shared the frustrations of loving someone in prison, frustrations that came to be part of their identities. Just as we have worn the tattoos of our younger behaviors, they have their own.

All of these family members had instances of having to fight by themselves against the larger beast we have been trying to tell them about for so long. Most never realized there were other people fighting these battles at the same time or recognized their power as a collective.

There is a popular conception that we come to prison because of failing family structures, and the truth is very real that sociopolitical environments play significant roles in how people make choices in their lives. However, poor families and prison families have been given such a dysfunctional rap as if somehow they are morally lacking.

The people I’ve shared these cells with for the past 16 years come from families and from people reflecting all shades of the moral spectrum. What I heard wasn’t moral confusion; what I heard were the same things the people in my family were saying about being treated poorly, looked down upon, spoken to as though they weren’t capable of discerning when their sons or brothers or husbands were being inadequately treated.

When my mother told me this was not our destiny as a family, I wanted to believe her because words like destiny are strong and evoke so much emotion and life. But destiny is not concrete — my father still died, my grandmother still died. For a long time my mom was judged harshly by coworkers, her abilities were questioned as a parent. She never even told anyone on her side of the family about my incarceration because of the shame and stigma of being so closely attached to a prisoner.

Maybe when she was speaking to me it wasn’t about the destiny of our family’s single unit, but rather, unconsciously she was speaking about the destiny of the prison family unit. Maybe it is the prison family unit’s destiny we should have been worried about all along.

 

Ezekiel Caligiuri is prison justice organizer and arts coordinator for Voices for Racial Justice and a participant in Voices’ “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.