When Americans think about the prison system, we think about the men and women locked up in them and the people who work there. But we rarely, if ever, think about inmates’ families. We should.
The Boston Globe had it right in its recent editorial on the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s putting a halt to the Bristol County sheriff’s $5 dollar a day fee on inmates for upkeep. As the Globe noted, since there were no work release programs or jobs at the jail, inmates’ families were the ones who had to pay the fee, placing on them “an even heavier burden” than they already carry. The Globe urged the Massachusetts legislature not to legalize that burden.
Visiting days were some of the hardest days to work at the county jail where I taught incarcerated high school kids. The lobby filled up with anxious mothers and grandmothers, and got a little raucous with toddlers and babies brought to see their daddies by wives and girlfriends who still found the fortitude to stand by their locked up men.
They got there early because they knew that the jail routine ate into their limited time with their loved ones. But getting there early meant an even earlier start from home, many coming cross county. Most visitors didn’t have cars, and so they took bus after bus after bus. Once signed in, they sat on cracked vinyl benches and waited, the way they waited for those buses.
Then, the slow crawl through security where papers were checked; belongings searched; where belts, boots, bobby pins, jewelry, even the occasional bra had to be removed to clear the metal detector. One glitch and the whole process ground to a halt. Except the clock. It kept ticking, robbing families of what little time they had together.
It was nobody’s fault. Things happen. Someone didn’t know they had to have a picture ID. A grandmother only spoke Spanish. And who would have thought that they needed the baby’s birth certificate?
Things like that happen. But that doesn’t explain the most egregious wrong of visiting days—the way the correctional staff treated visitors. Although the officers working the lobby were “polite” in that cardboard cutout way that people in charge can have, the suspicion and contempt with which they treated the visiting family members were as obvious as the print on an arrest warrant. It was as though those mothers and grandmothers, those wives and girlfriends were themselves criminals.
Those correctional officers, however, were only reflecting the general view that most Americans have about inmates’ families. “If you’d been a better mother.” “If you’d only raised your daughter right her son wouldn’t be here.” “Where’s the father?” “What are you doing having that thug’s baby?”
Jail strips people of their freedom, their community, and their identity. But those family members who we accuse of neglect and complicity are the only ones who give inmates a sense (as tentative as it may be) of stability and self, of connection to a world they are cut off from.
And when inmates are finally released into a world they are expected to fit into, they return home to those same families we consider inadequate. They may not have much to offer the ex-offender, but what they do offer is a lot more than the plastic bag for clothes, the bus token, and the injunction to “stay out of jail” that most criminal justice systems provide. Imposing an upkeep fee on inmates only adds to the responsibilities these overburdened families already carry.