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(Part 5) Nonviolent, Missing Home, Missed at Home: Incarcerating Family

(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 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.”

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