Our son Mike has taught me so many things about the social and criminal justice systems, and it's an education I would never have sought without the connection I have as his father. There is no way I would willingly sit through meeting and meeting with frustrated, overworked social workers looking for the "answer" to Mike's dilemmas. On my own I would never have visited any of the many treatment centers Mike has called "home" over the years. And I would not have spent as much time visiting in jail settings without his presence.
Soon, it appears I will have the opportunity to visit him in a Minnesota State Correctional Facility ("prison"). But I get ahead of myself.
On Monday I received a pleading call from Mike that I attend his parole hearing. The next day his parole agent called to give me the details "since you asked to be present for the hearing." It was a voice mail message, but I audibly responded, "Uh, no. I did not ask to be present for the hearing. Mike asked me to be present. That's not quite the same thing." She mentioned in her message that I might not be allowed to be part of the hearing, but that she would ask the Parole Hearing Officer on my behalf. I pondered calling her this morning to decline the opportunity, but then hung up the phone before she answered. I decided to show up anyway, if for no other reason than to remind Mike that we love him no matter what he has done.
Per instructions, I arrived at the county jail early, telephoned from the lobby (as is the procedure there) and was buzzed to the third floor. Upon arriving, I waited for the click of the steel bars indicating I could push open the massive doors and enter. There is always a sense of finality as the doors "click" shut behind me, and I am faced by uniformed officers in a musty, grungy, time-worn building that has housed inmates for three decades. The bright fluorescent lights reflect on the shiny floors and there is a sense of abject silence. I am led this morning to wait in the cubicle in the command center. Space is at a premium, and on this floor there is no place for someone to wait who is not uniformed or otherwise directly connected with incarcerated life.
Like anywhere, employees at the local law enforcement center vary in the depth of their humanity. While all are steeled for their work with the criminal element, some are more humane than others. In the cloistered cell with several others (I being the only one without a work-related reason to be there) I heard more cynical, brash commentary than I choose to blog here. I will choose not to violate the workplace environment of those I overheard, because I was, after all, in their space. Suffice it to say that what you see on television or hear from those on the "inside" about those who work there is not far from the truth. Vulgarity (and I am no prude), personal commentary and cynicism abound.
During the wait I spoke with Mike's parole agent. She is professional, but guarded. We have what I would consider to be a good conversation. She expresses her concern that there aren't many options for someone like Mike, who has consistently engaged in criminal behavior, and who violates the terms of his release. Eventually I ask her, "What will be your recommendation?"
"I'm recommending ninety days incarceration, which is according to the state guidelines," is her response.
I commiserate with the few frustrating options available to her, and take a moment to remind her that over the course of our years as Mike's parents we have discovered how little is available that would be helpful, especially for someone who is as defiant as he is. Those who do not believe "oppositional defiant disorder" is a legitimate disorder really need to meet someone like our son.
I stand in the crowded cubicle for an hour's time. Others filter in and out, oblivious to my presence, unsuspecting that I am Mike's father. In casual conversation one of the employees asks another, in a voice that bespeaks "let's make a bet on this," "So, is Mr. Fletcher going back ... um, I mean, going for his first time [to prison]?" The professional young male officer says, "We don't know yet." The interlocutor steps back out of the cubicle. Ten minutes later I hear the commentary of two less-than-professional (in my opinion, of course) employees, "So is Fletcher going to prison?" "F***, I hope so," is the response.
I am momentarily enraged. After all, the name they are battening about is not simply my son's last name. It is my last name as well, a gift given at the time of adoption years ago, and now only a surname to be poisoned with cynical vulgarity. I choose to say nothing. It is not my space, nor my place to defend a barely-adult son who has violated the law (and I'm sure the personal lives of these officers) many times. What parent can defend such an errant son in such a situation?
So I stand quietly, awaiting the verdict. I can see through reflections on the glass into the room where my son, his attorney, his parole agent and the parole hearing officer sit. Mike's head is impassive, unmoving. His attorney is calm. His parole agent is unseen, but the parole hearing officer gesticulates, his hands speaking volumes as he communicates his decision to Mike.
Minutes later they emerge. Mike is directed toward his cell. His attorney and the parole hearing officer head for the exit. His parole agent enters the cubicle, apologizes for the time I have spent standing without being asked to be present for the hearing. "He received ninety days in prison. He'll leave sometime today for one of two locations," and she names the possibilities, both miles north of us.
I thank her for her time and exit in time to be momentarily with the departing hearing officer and attorney. The attorney offers his hand, identifies himself and says, "Are you Mike's dad?" I respond affirmatively, and he asks if I have any questions about the process.
"Oh, no," I reply. "We've been through this kind of thing with Mike many, many times."
But what I don't say as they make their way to the elevator is: "Many, many times, but not with a prison sentence. This is new territory for all of us."
Just as I am about to leave the humane officer I describe above calls to me, "Mr. Fletcher, would you like to have a quick video conference with your son?"
And so I do, the details of which I will blog in my next entry.