In April, I will take my daughter across the country to Arizona to visit relatives that have never been a thought in her head. I contemplated not even going, to not even open up that section of questions and family when they were never even formed, but in good conscience I could not let my bad familial ties become hers. In Arizona there are a handful of cousins I have not seen in 20 years, a niece I have never met and an uncle in prison—all of whom had always been wonderful people.
One might begin to question why I would take my daughter into a prison situation and if I am honest, I must tell you my original thought was nothing more than family. In my own life, I spent a great deal of it moving around with very loose ties to my family members so that today, as an adult, they are names and faces I know, but not people that I am attached to. I did not want this for my child—to be separated from the possibility of knowing people that could somehow change her life. After thinking about the implications of bringing a young girl to a prison, I then began to see the benefits of the visit.
In this day and age I see many children that live in a nice bubble of protection afforded for them by their parents. They grow up thinking the world is happy and shiny and that everyone in it will be nice to them. As much as it pains me to know that isn’t reality, it pains me more to think I will send my child out into the world unequipped. She is a child who does not see consequences very readily; she does not understand the world out there. I remember being eight years old and it is an impressionable time. It is when independence really starts to rear its ugly head; there are only a few years of opportunity left before the teenage years when it is hard to get children to believe anything you say. The clock is ticking.
It would be safe to say that I don’t “know” these relatives of mine anymore, but in our youth we spent a great deal of time together, suffered together, laughed together and saw the world from common view points. I have always loved these cousins I am about to visit. I have always loved their father who is in prison. He is one of the kindest and funniest men I have ever met. The question was posed to me why would a man in prison want to expose his young niece to a prison setting? I have only one answer—family. Through all the hardships of his life and that which he has put his children through, he maintains that family is the most important thing in the world. It is something we cultivate no matter how hard that might be, no matter how difficult the circumstances, because in the end it is all we have.
So after contemplating these things, I asked my daughter if she would like to visit our uncle in prison when we go and her immediate reaction was tears. As an eight year old a child she only has what she sees on cartoons and television in which to form some sort of judgment as to why people are in prison and what goes on there. She had seen enough to have fear not of the prison itself, but of what was inside. I had not expected this reaction at all. It made me laugh until I saw that she was seriously worried. I told her she could stay with her cousins while I went if it scared her and she started crying harder. I asked her why and she said “because I would be worried sick about you getting hurt.” It was valiant that she thought her going with me would somehow protect me. The thought of her very being often does, though I have never told her this.
This question sparked a conversation laden with the effects of crime, prison systems and how one leads their life. I hesitated to continue on, not knowing how to approach each subject with knowledge, but had that feeling that this opportunity may never come by again. We discussed in general the reasons why some people commit crime and I spoke of our uncle’s problem specifically—drugs. I explained to her that he has spent half his life, on two separate occasions, in prison for armed robbery attempting to get money for drugs. My daughter questioned how come he just didn’t buy more instead of doing the crime.
I realized a valuable lesson about my child and how my own protective bubble keeps her from seeing the truth of the society we live in. In her generation, everything can be purchased as easy as going to the store and swiping a card; drugs are the norm; avoiding people accepted and saying things that are judgmental is easy as breathing. The estimated value of money means nothing and her perception is if you want it, you just go get it, no problem—it will always be available. I told her buying drugs is very expensive and getting caught for buying them or robbing for money to buy them is also a crime and this makes it a crime within a crime. These actions put you in jail or prison. The strained look on her face did not lessen and she had serious doubts about this uncle of ours and whether or not it would be safe to even speak to him. Her concrete thoughts were very evident and I felt like I was spinning my wheels.
I told her a story about the time I had visited a prison once during nursing school to look at the medical wing. During this tour, we saw all the sections, even general population. It was a frightening experience as an adult. The sound of bars locking, the guns and clubs, guards everywhere, the sound of the prisoners and the feeling their eyes give you as they scan you over. Going to the cell block was the most mentally defiling experience. The level of noise unbelievable and the amount of fear I could smell on myself was intense. I knew right then that prison life was never for me and that I couldn’t even stand to work there no matter how good the benefits were.
I explained to my daughter my experience and told her that she would not have to see those scary things, but she would see prisoners in the visiting room and the guards with their guns and she would get patted down before visitation. She said, “What is an eight year old going to do to hurt prisoners? I won’t have a gun.” I found it very hard to explain these hard cold facts about the world. I wanted her to live in a nice mental garden, but wondered to myself if that would really make her ready for the world? I told her imagine standing in our walk in closet and closing the door for which you could never open when you wanted to. You had no light and you had to share that space with another person even if you didn’t like each other. All your hours are spent thinking about the mistakes you made, or how to survive in a hostile place. You have no television and no computer and you wear the same clothes all the time. You get told when you can eat and when, if you are lucky, you can go outside and feel the sun on your face and remember what life could have been like…and when you imagine all of this, you are a prisoner. I told her that sometimes, people who aren’t in jail do this to themselves when they know they have done bad things. Her face softened some and thought again about the question I had asked her.
Despite her fear, she maintained that she wanted to go and meet this uncle, stating she was scared, but wanted to do it. I admired her bravery and her character and her curiosity. I told her this would be her chance to see what happens when you don’t live your life in a good way, when you let the temptations of the world take you over until you aren’t the one making the decisions. And as we finished this conversation in silence and contemplation, we passed a crew of juvenile jail workers on the side of the road showing her that living right, starts now.
Aleathia Drehmer 2010
Published by On The Wing, Full of Crow, 9/10