Thursday, October 02, 2008
A Look On the Inside from the Outside
I mentioned in an earlier blog this week that I received a telephone call from our nineteen-year-old son, who is nearing the end of a ninety-day sentence for a felony charge. He is scheduled to be released in about three weeks. That could change, though, if his upcoming sentencing (for a separate third degree felony charge) results in more time "inside." Although I have been writing to Mike faithfully over the past few months while he has been in and out of at least three separate county jails (sometimes it has been hard to even know where he has been located), I have not visited him for some time. In one of our telephone calls this week he asked if I would be able to visit him. I agreed to come on Wednesday night after my responsibilities at church were completed. So last night at about 7:30 PM I stopped for my 30-minute visit.
The jail in the county in which we live is nothing special. It is dated, overcrowded (it's one of the reasons Mike has been "moving" from county to county) and resembles what you might have seen on one of those television prison reality shows. We are not a big county as counties go, so it's not a huge facility, but the county is currently in the process of constructing a new facility which, I am told, will house up to 300 inmates. The current facility is stretched when there are seventy-five inmates, and it is always full. I won't even take time to comment on how "we" can build a new jail facility to hold four times as many as we can now, in contrast to the lack of any kind of post-incarceration services available. It is lunacy.
It is Fall now, so by the time I arrived at 7:30 last night the facility was enshrouded in mist and the glare of bright lights. There were few vehicles in front of the jail, and I breathed a sigh of relief. There are times when there are so many visitors that the schedule is filled early in the evening. It's always irritating to prepare emotionally for a visit "inside" and then be turned away. While I'm on the irritating subject, it is also irritating, as a law-abiding, respectable citizen who pays taxes in this fine county, to be treated as a criminal when I show up for a visit or to request information from someone who is a law enforcement officer or assistant.
Earlier this week I stopped by to drop off paperwork for our son so the could apply for jobs and was treated so rudely by the front desk person I had to bite my tongue. I was simply inquiring as to how I could drop off the paperwork and her persistent response was, "You can't do that here. We are not permitted to accept items for inmates at this window." She would not offer information as to the appropriate procedure until I pressed, "Well what is the right procedure then?" She shrugged, pointed to a phone sitting on the window counter and said call [an extension]." You can't tell me that she didn't know exactly what the procedure is, and she could have been more courteous to me. After all, I didn't commit the crime, I'm not doing the time, and I'm helping to pay her salary. I wish this were an isolated instance, but I have been treated poorly in phone calls to this county and to another nearby county as well when I was simply inquiring as to visitation hours or procedures. The gruff, huffy, "I don't have time for your stupid questions" response is all too familiar, and it irritates me.
Anyway, last night I was pleasantly surprised by the voice of an officer on the other end of the phone line who, after asking the appropriate questions ("Who are you visiting? What is your name? What is your address? What is your relationship?") politely told me to "come on up to the third floor." Minutes later I walked into the visitation area where there are three or four separate carrels with a video screen and a telephone handset. There was no one else there tonight, so I didn't have to combat the collateral conversations to my right or left. I could focus on my visit, and that was nice.
Behind the other side of the glass sat our son, who eagerly picked up the handset to talk. After exchanging the typical pleasantries Mike updated me on his legal status. As a result of his past year of criminal activity his record will include two felonies that are permanent on his record. He was convicted of receiving stolen property and car theft, and these incidents will follow him the rest of his life. Nineteen years old and every time he fills out an application for a job or a volunteer opportunity or to try to finish high school or to go to a trade school or whatever he will have to mark the box that says he is a convicted felon. It could turn to three in a couple of weeks, but that remains to be seen.
"Well, I've grown up a lot in the past nine months, Dad," Mike said.
"Yeah? I'm glad to hear that, Mike. What's your plan when you're out again?"
"Well, it's mostly to try to finish high school and get a job. But that's hard to do when I don't have a place to live."
"You're right. That is a big issue."
"Do you think you and Mom could talk to [the person who a year ago agreed to rent to me, but who dissolved that relationship after seven days?]"
"I don't think so, Miike. I don't think she is willing to do that again."
Another moment of silence.
"So, do I have any clothes at home?"
"No, Mike, you don't have any clothes at home. You took what you had when you left the last time, and there really isn't anything of yours there." [It has been a year since Mike was even in our home, and at that time he had virtually nothing].
"Hmm. It's kind of hard to get a job interview when I don't have any clothes to wear."
I glance at the orange jail garb that clashes with his reddish-orange hair and feel a pang of paternal angst. What is a parent to do at this juncture in a conversation? The reason Mike has no clothes is because he has spent most of the past year in and out of jail, staying with low-life friends when he is out and having his clothing and any other possessions "lost" or "misplaced" or "taken" by "friends."
"Do you think any of the guys at home have any clothes that are too small for them now that I could use?"
"I can check, Mike, but I'm not sure. Remind me of your sizes again."
He tells me, and I make a mental note to ask my wife about any possibilities on that front.
We continue to talk, exchanging information about family members and the like, when I ask him if he's on any medication.
"Yeah. It's mostly for my PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and insomnia. They've tried different things, and these help some, but I really just need to get out of here. Jail is no place for someone with PTSD."
I have noticed during the first few moments of our conversation that his facial tics are more pronounced and that he is often wringing his hands and pulling his fingers through his hair. Periodically, without warning, at the slightest movement behind him he turns rapidly and anxiously in an effort to self-preserve.
"Do you fear for your safety, Mike?" I ask.
"Umm. Yeah. But I'm going to get out in three weeks or so."
And again, what can a parent do. This is my son, nineteen years old, jailed with criminal adults whose lives have been hardened over the years by their actions and consequences. He is one of the youngest of the seventy-five men currently locked up. His chronological age does not match his emotional age. He is, maybe, sixteen emotionally at this point in time. And I am helpless to do much for him.
He cannot live in our home because he steals everything he can from us. His presence terrorizes our other children. He brings into our home his drug-using friends, and we cannot feel free to leave our residence because he will enter it when we are gone. (We have a restraining order now that has prevented him from doing so currently).
I am torn. We adopted Mike (and our other children) to help them avoid homelessness, to show them a way of life beyond what their birth heritage alloted them, to give them a chance. Some of our kids have seen those open doors and walked through them. Others have seen those doors and walked past them, kicking a way through the wall to make their way of "escape" into bondage.
But I will do for Mike what I can do. And at this point what I can for him is to love him, to be present in his life (although he cannot be "present" in the same way in our family's life) and to remind him always that he has more potential than society or he thinks he has. It's not enough, but it's all I have to offer.
And I hate that.