Four years ago, I moved home to Oregon to run a program for incarcerated women and their daughters. Every other Saturday, a small group of program staff and volunteers and I rose before the sun and drove hundreds of miles to places we’d never been to retrieve girls from the places where they lived, or the places where they’d stayed the night. We found impossibly long addresses on country roads named for Oregon’s native peoples, hotel rooms on the outskirts of towns, trailers with metallic street numbers pasted on doors.
The girls ranged in age from five to eighteen. Regardless of their age, they almost always walked out to our rental vans alone. Sometimes their grandmothers waved from inside a screen door. They wore housecoats or nightgowns, hair wild and uncombed, looking impossibly vulnerable as we left them behind. We took the girls’ small hands, and they handed us their IDs, inhalers, and insulin kits. We packed them carefully into the vans, buckling booster seats, distributing granola bars and extra sweatshirts. We covered their bare legs with fleece blankets, looked them in the eye, asked them if they were OK. The girls talked quietly with one another, listened to music through their earbuds, slept. Our soundtrack was the radio, usually tuned to early-morning news; even turmoil in the Middle East can sound comforting when the volume is low enough.
Vans full, we pulled up to the front gate of the prison complex and asked permission to come inside. Sometimes we got a response barked back through the speaker; other times, they said nothing to us at all and just buzzed us through. We never knew who we were asking permission from, never saw their faces or heard their names. We drove up to the main building and gathered in the parking lot, standing together in a tight circle to protect against the wind, we drivers and these thirty-six girls, just a few of the estimated twenty thousand children in Oregon with an incarcerated parent.
The girls were excited, so we were, too. They jumped, skipped, grabbed our hands. They told us all the things they couldn’t wait to tell their moms, trying the words out, gauging our reactions. We split into two groups, one to medium security, the other to minimum.
It was always a battle to get the girls inside. The guards sat in their stations, behind bulletproof glass, looking down at us. Their rules were clear, except when they weren’t, which was always. Depending on which correctional officer, or CO, was working, girls’ leggings could be deemed too tight, their skirts too short. Girls would wear clothing that was permissible for many months, but then it would suddenly be ruled against code. Pants sprouted holes and were deemed unsuitable. Dresses could be outgrown overnight, hems resting just above bruised knees. We pleaded over girls’ blue sweatshirts or black jeans. We stiffened as male officers looked the girls over, passing judgment on the intention of their clothing.
By now, the girls were restless, wiggling in line, eager to see their mothers. The COs instructed them to walk through the metal detector slowly, one at a time. It buzzed angrily for buckles on shoes, barrettes, and bobby pins. I said a quiet prayer that clasps on training bras would be plastic.
Girls, no matter how young, had to provide ID. What does a six-year-old use for identification? Usually, a Medicaid card or a birth certificate, with a date so recent it was nearly impossible for me to comprehend: 2008, 2009, 2010.
Once the girls passed the security check, we turned art supplies over for inspection, passing them to the guard station through a metal drawer. These supplies were approved months in advance, the paperwork stamped and processed. But most weeks, something was still rejected. We packed the rejected things into plastic boxes and locked them in the trunk of a car, as if bits of colored paper or stickers cut into gold stars were wild and dangerous things. We kept one eye on the guards and one on the girls, but our minds were on the clock, as precious minutes were squandered by paperwork, bureaucracy, and protocol. We worked to streamline everything we could, trying to use our whole bodies to ease a wider path out of a bottleneck.
The rules changed to remind us who was in charge, to keep us on edge and off-balance. Later I realized that the rules changed in order to keep us uncomfortable. The same reason prisons are built far from city centers, behind locked doors and endless security protocols. The same reason for endless bureaucracy and paperwork, using language and acronyms we didn’t understand. It’s to keep people in, but it’s also to keep us out. It’s harder to be held accountable when no one understands what you’re doing.
The girls were used to all of this, and their faces never betrayed fright or frustration. They knew what it was to be left behind. They knew how disappointment operated, how it tasted and smelled, how it felt inside their bodies. They lived with it each day, woke to it in the middle of the night, recognized its shape at the foot of their beds.
When the girls and their mothers were finally reunited, the mothers were rough and gentle, young and old, all at the same time. They sat together, read and laughed, told stories and jokes. Mothers teased their daughters in small ways, about boys, about makeup, about anything. They learned each other’s likes and dislikes. Mothers told their daughters about the past, when they were young. Daughters told their mothers about their wishes for the future. They taught each other about the world outside.
The other program staff and I planned activities and art projects with the mothers, things to do with their daughters. We encouraged the mothers to be gentle and follow their daughters’ leads. The activities provided a structure to our visits, a way to build shared experiences. Sometimes the girls were excited to try new things, to learn and be taught by their mothers. Sometimes the girls just rolled their eyes, because that’s what kids do, even inside of a prison. Sometimes they were excited together, picking out art supplies, planning, referring to themselves as a unit: What should we draw? What should we write?
This was a rare opportunity in a prison: to do things together, instead of being limited to recounting what had already happened in lives lived apart, a reprieve from the reality of what they couldn’t do together. Girls and their mothers shared private conversations, small moments away from the supervision of fathers or grandmothers who chaperone visits between inmates and minors. Most children whose mothers and fathers are incarcerated never have the opportunity to say things to them without other family at the table.
In these visits, the girls and their mothers were able to play with and touch each other, hug or hold hands, braid or tuck girls’ hair behind their ears. Mothers were able to take care of their daughters, to make small choices based on their own judgments. To parent.
They ate together. We made requests from the kitchen on special occasions. The prison always cashed the checks, and sometimes the food came, too. Once, the mothers decided they wanted to teach their girls about Mexican traditions. We brought in books about famous Mexican artists and writers and thinkers, colored Day of the Dead skulls. We put in a request for tacos, refried beans and rice, quesadillas. The cooks in the prison kitchen made a yellow sheet cake, because there always had to be a sheet cake to make it feel like a celebration. We all agreed it was the best horchata we’d ever had.
We tried to stay out of the way, easing conversations and prompting as needed, unlocking the bathroom for the girls. We were each required to carry a walkie-talkie, were told it was for our safety. It was heavy and old, and we kept the volume at a low hum, because we weren’t allowed to switch it off. Halfway through the visits a call would come over the walkie-talkie. The COs would come in, call the mothers to the front of the room to be counted. We tried to predict when count would come and time the activities so the girls would be distracted and wouldn’t see their mothers be counted off and referred to as “inmates.”
At the end of each visit, we hustled the girls out. We turned and waved at the mothers as the COs began to pat them down. The girls didn’t know what was different or what was possible. We brought them for visits as long as they wanted to come. We saw what happened as some girls got older, as they began to understand and recognize the situation, to name it, to grapple with it. We watched some of the girls grow away from their mothers, watched their anger carry them elsewhere. Many of their mothers had years or decades left on their sentences. Some had no release date at all. That line on their program application was left empty or marked with a long dash, signifying endless time.
Outside of the prison, I spent a lot of time explaining the program to others. People often asked me, is it safe? Are you ever scared? Is a prison a good place for a child? I would tell them that it was safe, that the mothers were protective of their daughters and the program staff. That sometimes I was scared, but that the girls never seemed to be. That for these girls, not going into a prison meant not seeing their mothers at all.
I was also asked about recidivism, and about the program’s success at breaking the cycle of incarceration. I was hopeful about the work, but I knew the system was stacked against the mothers, and that many would end up back in prison. Statistics say that the girls’ chances of success, of health and survival, are almost as bleak as their mothers’. But statistics like “3 in 10” or “8 in 10” sound different when all ten are people you know, are children with faces you see and voices you hear. The numbers catch in my throat because I’ve tied ten sets of shoes, wiped ten noses, held ten hands. I’ve seen ten girls be brave and ten cry. It’s hard to worry about statistics when you’re living inside of them.
Sometimes those days at the prison felt unbelievable; when we dropped the girls back home, it was almost like the visit had never happened at all. Maybe I’d never gone to the prison, and instead had just driven around the block, pulled back into the driveway.
But the girls carried proof, so I knew it was real: drawings and advice, secret notes written in the margins of notebook paper, cards tucked close to their hearts. From the prison kitchen, thick slices of banana bread wrapped in disposable plastic gloves tied tightly at the wrist. Sometimes, twelve hours or more would have passed since morning, and it was dark again when we dropped the girls at the houses that many of us would never see again. We unclipped booster seats, helped them carry their belongings to the door.
We got back in our vans and said a quiet prayer that the girls could stay at that place for another night. That they would hold on to the attention and affection, warmth and laughter of the day. That it would be enough to carry them a little farther as they drifted alone in open waters, through nights black and deep, with no land in sight.
1 comments have been posted.
Walking up the steps to the OSP I, as a 55 year old man felt some of the fear those girls must have felt. Most memorable was being the first person into the visitation room and seeing the many faces desperate/eager to greet a loved one, even to simply greet me. It seemed obvious to me that I should say hello to everybody that was inside and the second visit it took very little time and no trouble to say hi to anyone who happened to catch my eye. On every subsequent visit every hello was returned. Thanks for the service you provide. Peace and love.
David | August 2019 | Hood River