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(Part 6) Home: Incarcerating Family

Part Six – “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 30’s. 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.”

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