For the past three months, my office, The Office of Returning Citizens Affairs, has been planning a free bus trip to three facilities in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. It has been challenging for me to handle my emotions surrounding this journey.
We started out with a 47-passenger bus and ended up securing a second bus that holds 25 people. In order to weed out people who were not definite about taking the trip, we asked everyone to come down to our office in advance to sign a waiver. Signing this waiver secured seats for children and caregivers who want to visit men and women who are incarcerated in the Hazelton facility. The trip will take six hours, round trip.
By last week, over 60 people had secured seats. I was tracking this list so intensely I have the names memorized and I know the personal stories of each family member.
Today several people came down to sign waivers at the last minute. The trip is tomorrow. I had to tell one woman that she could only have two seats. This meant that she would have to choose between one-of-three children to take to visit their father.
Another woman was told that only she and one relative could visit her sister. The worst thing today was telling a 17-year-old girl that she could only take one other sibling on the visit with her to see her mother. She looked like she wanted to curse me, or maybe even slap me. I was so hurt. I know her mom personally. I have served time with her. I want, more than anything, for mothers to be able to see their children.
I understand how these visits help to heal wounds inflicted by the separation that incarceration imposes. I know first-hand how visits, though infrequent, can make a huge difference in the reentry process and help foster a family’s reunifications upon release.
Just a few minutes ago I turned a woman away who was trying to take her seven-year- old son to see his father for the first time. She threatened to cry and I just knew if she did, I would cry too. She was so distressed that she just rubbed her face and sank in the chair.
Another woman has a four-year-old son who has never seen his father. We spoke on the phone, and she told me that she made several unsuccessful attempts to fax the waiver to our office. Today she learned that there are no more seats left. She lives 45 minutes outside of D.C. and said, “I’m still going to catch the train to D.C. and I’ll just see if someone decides not to show up.” Although I told her it was highly unlikely that the people who signed the waivers would not show up, she refused to change her mind. So, at 5:30 a.m. she will bring her son to D.C. hoping to carve out a place for the two of them on the bus. It would be her son’s first time seeing his father and it’s Dad’s birthday.
I’m aware that I’m not supposed to take these things personally, but I know what it’s like to be in prison longing to see your children, knowing that being in their presence, even for a short period, will give you the inspiration you’ll need to get through.
I know the challenges people in prison face trying to encourage family members to come for visits. The cares of the world make it hard for people to pull away and take the time to visit loved ones in prison. It’s financially draining, and it’s a hardship.
Here at our little agency we are doing our part to make a difference because we get it. We know that maintaining community ties and fostering a family bond is critical to surviving and thriving in prison and increases the likelihood of a successful reentry.
We know that the children of incarcerated parents are suffering immensely, and we understand that seeing their parents, even short periods, is so very important to their welfare.
I pray that we will be in a position to have more frequent trips, and I pray that I can come to terms with the trauma of my own past so that times like these won’t affect me so profoundly. Right now I’m just plain sad.