(Part 2) The Meaning of Family and Communication: Incarcerating Family

Part Two – “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 re-open 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, become 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 who 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.”

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