The hidden grief of incarceration.
The day my older brother walked away from the re-entry facility and did not return, he became an escaped federal inmate. The sentence he was serving was within weeks of completion. After that, he would have been a free man. My dad called me with the news, and my heart sank, a physical sensation like the briefest of moments when you are plummeting down on a rollercoaster and your stomach lifts uncomfortably.
It is not a new feeling. The ringing phone is a trigger from the countless times there has been bad news waiting on the other end. News that my mother was dead. News that my brother was dead. News that my dad’s fiance was dead. And long before that, the sound of my mom’s voice so many times. She would barely need to form a word before I would know something was wrong; something had happened. Here is the rollercoaster again, in my stomach and my life. Here comes another plummet down. The news always came in a similar order, like we had our own Disney fast-pass to ride again and again. The details were different, but at some point, there would be a call that he was missing. Then the in-between. Then another call that he was arrested. The phone has always been my gateway to loss.
The time he was wanted for arrest as an escaped inmate was similar to past experiences and yet different. Loss and traumatic experiences have a way of compounding. Your body remembers the past. Two years after my youngest brother had died, my grief from that loss was recent enough to cause pangs of familiarity when similar emotions surfaced. Anxiety, sadness, anger, irritability, and uncertainty were unwanted companions of mine.
The difference this time was during the waiting, the in-between; knowing the potential outcomes were bleak. No matter how I spun it, my brother would either be found dead, or he would be arrested again and facing another (longer?) sentence- Death or incarceration. Those were always two of the possible outcomes I grappled with, though generally there would be a third with a glimmer of hope- found safe and makes efforts to get sober, healthy, and finds his way in life. But, this time was the same without the glimmer and without two members of my family. My mom couldn’t be on the other end of the phone, and our youngest brother couldn’t be the proof I grasped onto that he could make it to the other side.
The in-between is lonely, a lot of waiting with no control. Every phone call is scary; every news headline is a potential outcome. I began following all of our local news stations on social media. I found a few titled “Crime, Incidents, News, and Reports” for our local city. I followed them all and checked them frequently; it was all I could actively do. Sometimes this waiting period is short, and sometimes the days continue to pass by one after another, and you wonder if there will ever be an outcome or it will be a perpetual in-between with no end. That is the other possible outcome that I never remember until we are waiting, and that terrible possibility comes to mind. There are so many families who have to stay in that space with no answers.
A few weeks passed before it happened. He robbed a bank and was tackled by customers and held there for the police. There were newspaper headlines and social media stories about him. There were the inevitable comments that came with those. People always have opinions and aren’t shy about typing them for the world to see.
I felt a bundle of emotions. Relief was mixed heavily with grief. As a family member of a person who is arrested or incarcerated, you experience that awful mixture of grief emotions because it is a loss at the end of the day. It is a loss of what could have been. A loss of time. A loss of freedom to have a relationship with your loved one on your own terms. If you want a relationship, it is dictated by visiting hours with guards and metal detectors, handwritten letters sent in the mail, and expensive phone calls that cut off mid-sentence. It is a loss of hope, and it comes with a heaping amount of shame and sadness.
Visiting jails and prisons has never gotten easier for me. I always feel physically uncomfortable. My heart beats faster all morning; my hands are fidgety and slightly sweaty. Each facility is different. Some allow you to wear your wedding ring; others require you to remove any jewelry. Some ask you to take off your shoes to be inspected as you walk through the metal detector like you are at the airport with no beach destination to lessen the annoyance. There are usually lockers for your things, but there is no guarantee. One had lockers but no locks, so they were functionally useless. One had tokens to use, but half of them would jam or refuse to open, token or not. Family members often mill about while we all wait to go in, carefully looking at the floor or anywhere away from each other’s eyes. Sometimes the minor interactions are the most welcome. A girl saw me struggling to find a locker that worked, having to go to the guard desk for new tokens more than once and told me which locker numbers were functioning. Her help was a small lifeboat in an ocean of anxiety.
Once through the metal detectors, we all go in together. Take a seat, and wait. There is usually some plexiglass between myself and where my brother will sit, but it doesn’t go all the way to the ceiling. Now that we are living in a pandemic, this arrangement might pass as looking semi-normal. Of all the prisons and jails I have visited, I have never had to speak through a phone receiver as we see in movies, and for that, I am grateful. One facility allowed us to sit together in an open room like a cafeteria with vending machines and other families with their incarcerated loved ones. It felt the most human, as long as you ignored the guards standing against the walls. But, in most, I sit in what feels like a cubby. On both sides, there is a stranger seated waiting for their own loved one. Sometimes the inmates come in at different times, and the seconds until he arrives, I nervously wonder if the visit won’t happen. The first time I visited my brother after this arrest, I was so anxious that my body was tense with fight or flight. I watched the door from which he would enter and the door where I could leave with equal amounts of hope.
How do we find words for conversation in these moments? It was too much for me that day, and the tears burned my eyelids until I could not hold them back any longer as he sat across from me. I tried to talk and inconspicuously wipe the tears away when they began blurring my vision too much, illogically hoping that he wouldn’t notice I was crying. The tears came without my permission like they were so disconnected from me that it didn’t matter how much my brain silently screamed at them to stop; they just kept falling rebelliously.
Those tears were for what we had lost, what my brother was losing. They were for my beautiful niece, and my nephew, who I haven’t seen since he was a toddler, the life and experiences they have missed out on. They were for the lack of attention to mental illness in the system and some failures of the big machine that is our criminal justice system that I fear will never change. They were for what felt like personal failures despite logically knowing this had nothing to do with me. Finally, they were for the unknown ahead of us and the rollercoaster ride that I know will have more descents.
That was not my last visit, and on most visits, I do not cry. Mostly I sit and frantically search for topics to talk about. Do we talk about the elephant in the room or the weather outside? Do we discuss my very typical life in suburbia or his restricted and regimented days? The clock moves slowly, and I feel pangs of guilt as I steal glances at the time, the pull of escaping this environment overpowering my attempts at being supportive. Every time I leave, I replay it all in my mind on repeat- searching for things I could or should have said, wondering when or if I will see him again.
During the in-between, I had shared my fears and anxieties with a few friends. But, after his arrest, they all gave the same dismissive response.
“At least you know he’s okay.”
I wondered if they were just relieved not to have the burden of my grief that is morally expected if he had died. I felt relieved for my brother’s perceived physical safety as well, it was certainly better than death, but it didn’t feel good either.
When we were growing up, our two bedrooms were divided by a wall. It was thin enough that we would knock on it sometimes to get the other’s attention and then talk through the wall after bedtime. In the many years that have passed since then, the walls between us have grown. They now range from plexiglass with armed guards to across state lines with barbed wire walls. Yet, our bond was born and grew while growing up together in our childhood home. We rode bikes on the back road behind our house, ate dinner as a family every night at five o’clock, and would run down the stairs in our pajamas on Christmas morning together. Later, that bond held us side by side in the front of a church to the clanging of ceramic plates that shook as we read our mother’s eulogy from them. That same bond hangs precariously by a long but seemingly sturdy thread.
I don’t write letters often. I don’t pay for the phone calls. I use avoidance as my go-to coping skill. I do think about him and what his life is like in there. I do wonder with fear what comes next. I do still love him.
Sometimes I wonder about other families in the same situation. Are we sitting next to each other in the doctor’s office or standing together in a line at the grocery store? Statistically, there are many sisters out there with brothers serving time. I don’t know who they are. They don’t know me either. We are silent because our society is more comfortable with death than incarceration, and we are pretty darn uncomfortable with death.