Why you should care
Because everybody in jail is related to someone not in jail.
We pull into the parking lot. My daughter sits beside me, shoving Pringles into her mouth. This is a reconnaissance stop, before our official visit. We park for a moment, hardly breathing as we sit there.
A few weeks ago, the headline of the local newspaper read, “Man charged with having 5 illegal guns.” The story continued with police seizing said handguns during an investigation of an assault case. The man charged is my brother. I sobbed when I read the article and through the days that followed.
Tomorrow we’d be visiting him for the first time in jail.
My brother is the youngest of four, born into a family of alcoholics. He and I also added drugs to the mix. Eventually, I got sober. He always said it would take going to jail for him to stop. I believe his chemical abuse led to his arrest. That’s where it became tricky for our family.
… He was arrested for illegal handgun possession, he was also charged with second-degree assault with a knife, the knife a woman who called the cops claimed he cut her with.
The question for us, his siblings, was: Should we bail him out? Though the headline read he was arrested for illegal handgun possession, he was also charged with second-degree assault with a knife, the knife a woman who called the cops claimed he cut her with. She said they were arguing over prescription drugs. When she refused to hand them over, she said he cut her. He claimed she was mad about his ex-girlfriend and cut herself, then called the police.
Both of them were drunk.
What happens if we pay bail and he runs before his hearing? I’d once worked for the Philadelphia court bail program and sensed he wouldn’t take off. A judge finally deemed him unfit for ROR, or being released on his own recognizance, so the decision was in our hands. Would he get drunk and chase this woman? My sister and I believed he would.
So by the time we visit him, my sister will have already given him the news. What will we say when we see him? Will he freak out, amping up my guilt? This seems the least of my daughter’s concern. It’s her first visit to a correctional facility. I’d been to Holmesburg in Philly a number of times and did poetry readings at a prison near home. Yet as we approach the entrance, my heart flips the same way it did each time I visited Holmesburg before.
But this time, I’m visiting my brother.
The day’s warm. We dress modestly, aware of the eyes that’ll peer at us. Before walking in, I pop some gum into my dry mouth. I offer a piece to my daughter, who shakes her head: It’s against visitation rules. After years of Catholic schooling, my rebel self still pushes against authority.
I hold my breath as they file in, feeling my eyes crowd with tears when I see my brother, slightly slumped, dressed in black-and-white stripes.
We check in, looking around at the other visitors. “Do you have gum in your mouth?” the guard asks. “You can’t have anything in your mouth.” I take the piece out as she eyes the trash can. Shame replaces the gum.
We’re instructed to store our stuff in padlocked cubbies, and I realize I left the card I’d bought, holding money for my brother, in the car. I tell my daughter I need to duck out. She grabs my arm. “Mom, you can’t leave. What if we get called in?” I dash to the car, then get told I can’t give him the card. “But I have money.…” I’m advised to deposit it in the machine. But it’ll have to wait, as our group gets called.
We line up, like kids entering a cafeteria, the surrounding women chattering like teens, my daughter and I quiet. The guard herds us into the visitation area, where we wait for the inmates to be brought in. The woman in front of me fidgets, shoving something into her mouth.
I hold my breath as they file in, feeling my eyes crowd with tears when I see my brother, slightly slumped, dressed in black-and-white stripes. The prisoners sit, and we take our seats across from my bro, with only a 6-inch barricade built into the counter between us. We lean over and hug him, aware of the guards peering around the room. The girl who was in front of me kisses the guy she’s visiting.
We start with small talk. My daughter, sitting with her hands in her lap, isn’t sure what to say. A guard orders her to put her hands on the counter. Eyes roll between us. My brother says the young guys call him Pops, his goatee now showing strands of gray, smiling about this endearment he’s acquired. He talks about being bored and getting strip-searched after every visit.
He goes on about his arrest, how it wasn’t his fault, how he was set up by the woman he was dating. The room buzzes with conversation, making it hard to hear him, his habit of mumbling dating back to his insecurities as a child. I ask my daughter to repeat what he says. She becomes his translator, which turns into a joke, lightening the visit. I’m relieved we’ve gotten this far without mention of the bail thing. And then of course, he asks. “Why the hell aren’t you getting me out of here? I mean, you gotta get me out! It’s so freakin’ boring.”
Knowing he can’t explode, I lean closer, telling him the same thing my sister told him, why we won’t bail him out. His face turns crimson, filling with the frustration he must feel for us leaving him in a place we’re nervous visiting. We let him rant, going on that his arrest had nothing to do with drinking, waving his hand in disgust, reminding me of fights we had with our parents about their drinking, a thing we all hated, including him.
Something my daughter says makes him laugh, and we end on a good note. Telling him about our money deposit also helps. We hug one more time, then watch as the inmates are marched out. Just as I’m about to lose sight of him, another inmate is thrown to the floor. Three guards hold him down, an arm cuffs around his neck, another hand pries open his mouth, fingers violently searching for something inside as his legs wrestle to break free.
The girl who’d been in front of us in line lets out a scream and crumples into heaving sobs. A guard grabs her arms, hauling her up as she continues howling. She must’ve passed him something. I catch one more glimpse of my brother before we’re hustled away. We leave the jail with the violent takedown, the woman still screaming, echoing in our heads. I cringe at the thought of my brother getting strip-searched.
My brother was convicted and sentenced to three and a half years, six months served in county jail. As his siblings, it caused years of turmoil in our lives. It also brought us closer together. And in the end, it got our brother sober. At least for awhile.