THE FIRST LETTER MY BROTHER WRITES me during his incarceration arrives on August 13, 2008—a week after we bury our grandmother. It comes bearing his name and his inmate number, R0470, along with a warning, stamped in red, that the letter is from an inmate and that the facility—the county jail where he awaits sentencing—is NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR CONTENT. He is as stoic in the letter as he was at the church the day of our grandmother’s memorial service—I know things are hard right now. It seems like everything comes at one time—and I relive that morning while thinking of him trying to be strong in his cell. Perhaps because so much has happened in what seems like a short amount of time, I feel that I have gone through it as if I were walking through a set, an artificial backdrop onto which our lives have been projected along with a story that is already in process and beyond our control. I think of it now as not unlike the fake town at a dude ranch I visited when I was a child. The buildings were run-down, mostly facades, and I was surprised the first time I saw the actors stage a shoot-out. My grandmother and I stood watching, at once part of the scene, because we were there, and not—as though we had walked into some bizarre turn of our lives and it was playing out right there before us, and we were unable to stop it.
The morning we buried our grandmother, the church was like that. Still in disrepair—the sanctuary unused—the church seemed abandoned. On the ground level, windows on both sides of the church were boarded up, and a couple of the high windows up top that overlooked the balcony were still blown out. I could see birds flying in and out of them. The church marquis hadn’t been repaired, and most of the glass was missing. A few letters hung on—an O on its side, what looked to be a broken F. Missing it’s smaller arm, it resembled the gallows in a child’s game of hangman.
Only the small bunker attached to the back of the church was functional. It was the place food was served after services, and it held Sunday school classrooms and a nursery. When I called to tell the caretaker, Mr. Lloyd Croutch, that I was bringing my grandmother’s body back to Gulfport to have her home-going ceremony in the church she’d belonged to her whole life, he thanked me. “Since the storm we’ve lost a lot of our members,” he said. “Mount Olive is still struggling to raise the money for repairs that the insurance company didn’t cover. Most people have moved on to places that aren’t still in the process of rebuilding.”
I could understand the difficulties the church was facing. With fewer congregants, the church would take in a lot less in tithes, and the money needed in the budget just to operate—to keep the lights and gas on, even to pay the pastor—wouldn’t be there. Mr. Croutch, now in his early eighties, had done this job most of his life, and I wondered if he was being compensated for his work. I had arranged with him to have the doors opened early so that Joe would be able to have some time with our grandmother. The sheriff had granted him permission to come—but only to a private viewing—and we had to schedule it two hours before anyone was supposed to arrive for the ceremony. My husband, Brett, and I arrived early—even before 8:00 a.m., when officers were scheduled to pick him up for transport. We didn’t find anyone there when we arrived, no police car, so we decided to circle the block around the building in case they parked somewhere else.
Turning the corner off Jefferson, right in front of my grandmother’s house, onto the access road that runs parallel to Highway 49, we saw them. They were near the intersection of 49 and MLK, headed in the direction of the jail. I could see my brother’s head just above the top of the back seat. When I saw the car’s blinker come on, I panicked. It seems funny to me now that in moments like this it becomes so easy to ignore the rules of traffic, of law and order on the road. I asked Brett to speed up, and he did, flashing the headlights and honking the horn as he pulled up close behind the police car. When they stopped, I got out of the car and hurried toward the driver.
Later my brother would tell me that the two officers had been skeptical—that because of the condition of the church they hadn’t believed any kind of services could be taking place there. As I stood in the middle of the road, afraid they were just going to take him back, I could see the officer in the passenger side looking at me—my black dress and stockings and shoes—while the other one chuckled. “We’re just going to get something to drink,” he said. “We’ll bring him right back.”
We’d been told—when our request to have Joe there was approved—that we were not allowed to have any contact with him and that we’d have to stay back several feet from where he was. I didn’t even look at him in the car. When the officers brought him back and parked near the entrance of the church’s auxiliary building, Brett and I stood off to the side, away from the entrance. A few people had begun to arrive early, and I had to tell them they’d have to wait outside in the heat until the private viewing was over and Joe was gone.
When he emerged from the car, I saw that his ankles were shackled and his hands were cuffed behind his back. I hadn’t seen him like that before, and I stood there trying not to register any emotion on my face as I watched him walk into the church, flanked by the two officers. In my memory, this happens in slow motion—like a trite scene from a movie—and I feel like I notice everything, particularly the sound of his feet shuffling in the leg restraints, the birds flying out of the sanctuary and settling in the tree across the street, the whoosh of the door as Mr. Croutch opens it to let them in.
When Joe is inside several feet, Brett and I follow, shutting the door behind us. The flowers haven’t yet arrived, and the low-ceilinged room seems sparse, homely. Except for the pews they’ve managed to salvage and the folding chairs where the choir will sit, the room holds only an organ, a small podium and wooden chairs for the pastor and deacons, and the platform bearing the casket. Before Mr. Croutch shuts the doors to the makeshift sanctuary, I can see Joe standing before the open casket, his head bowed.
While Joe is inside, Aesha arrives with his daughter, PJ. Waiting with us, she explains to the child that she’ll not be able to touch or speak to her father. When Joe comes out a short while later, his eyes are red, and I look at him a good long moment trying to make my face convey everything I am not allowed to say. Perhaps the officers are moved by all this—the grandson in restraints, the run-down church still wearing the vestiges of Katrina, the small congregation there to say goodbye to a woman who wanted nothing more than to come back home. Before the car pulls away, the officers roll down Joe’s window to let him speak to us. Aesha and I—PJ between us—move a few tentative steps closer. “Love y’all,” he says, and “I’m ok,” before the car moves slowly down the street, toward the old, two-lane Highway 49.
During the home-going ceremony I can’t help thinking of what recovery and rebuilding means in this little room dressed up to serve as the sanctuary. My grandmother had made the draperies that hung in the church, and she’d seen her own daughter eulogized before them. And yet here she was being remembered in a room that served as church cafeteria, beneath low ceiling tiles—warped and stained reminders that Katrina isn’t over. As my niece PJ stood at the podium to remember her great-grandmother, I realized just how much she’d lost in this ordeal, and I imagined that for the rest of her life she’d remember this time as underscored by the devastation of Katrina. She could mark the passing of her great-grandmother, the arrest of her father—the turmoil of these years—as aftermath.
A week later, when Joe’s letter arrives, I am relieved to hear from him, to have some words between us beyond the few he was able to say leaving the church.
He writes with the penmanship of a generation—younger than mine—who spent only a cursory amount of time practicing handwriting in school. Most of his letter is in small, neat print, only his name and valediction—love—written in cursive. In that way, everything he says seems to be disconnected, just as he is, from the life he left outside the prison—everything except what binds us: love and the talisman of our names. We only have small, safe pens, he explains, so it’s hard to write. When he calls to ask if I have received the letter, he tells me that the facility is noisy and that he has to try to find quiet space to put his thoughts down on paper. He says he writes a draft and then copies a neater version to send to me. I imagine him on his bunk, or some corner he’s found away from the noise and low-level chaos of day-to-day life, trying to write what he thinks I need to know, and I begin to wonder if there are things edited out of my letter.
Later, when we are able to speak on the phone, I hold back all the questions I have about the jail, waiting for him to fill in what he can, what he is comfortable telling. I am hoping for reassurance, for him to tell me that he is safe and that the place isn’t so bad. But I keep thinking about his writing materials—that he used the word “safe” to describe what they are given, suggesting that there are other objects that are unsafe, that might be put to dangerous purposes. I try to keep my voice steady when we talk, to hide that I am afraid. I keep thinking that this is best for his state of mind, but I know better. I am keeping a silence to protect myself from knowing. So often this is what the silences—in families as well as in the public discourse of difficult events—are all about: if something isn’t spoken, it isn’t fully known, and we can absolve ourselves of the responsibility that knowing entails. And yet our civic duty as citizens requires that we not turn away from knowing and that we use what we know to continue working for the best society we can hope to achieve. In the ongoing narrative of Katrina and the aftermath, this means uncovering the difficult stories about the aftermath and “recovery” that are often suppressed. It means remembering both the natural disaster of the hurricane that hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast as well as the man-made disaster of the levee break in New Orleans—and the travesty of the early response to that break. It means reckoning with our own blindness and erasures affecting the national discourse of the largest natural disaster in our history.
Joe mentions very little of his situation in that first letter, and selfishly, I find it encouraging—if only because of what he doesn’t say. Signing off, he tells me he’s about to go play checkers, maybe win some extra grits or something—and I can go about my days trying to think of him playing a friendly game, banishing any idea that he might want or need more food. Over the course of several months, however, Joe’s letters become more like personal meditations—things he writes to himself during those minutes he is able to find some private space. In that way, he begins a kind of recovery—a process of personal recovery—that is beyond the rebuilding of his life that will have to take place later. And as the trajectory of his letters changes, I learn more about the difficulties he faces every day. I see in his contemplation the incorporation of a new narrative, one that integrates his past with the uncertain future he faces—his story on a parallel track with the evolving story of memory, rebuilding, and recovery on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
On August 28, 2008, I was being held in a facility in North Mississippi. The news reported that tropical storm Gustav destroyed parts of Jamaica, killing over sixty people. On August 30, 2008, one of the guards came into my area and shouted, “How many of y’all are from the coast? Gather round.” I had a frightening feeling that this was about the storm. He told us that Hurricane Gustav was headed toward the coast—“So make sure you call your folks and say a prayer tonight.”
This was a terrifying reminder of 2005. I began to worry about my daughter. I remember driving through town afterward with my grandmother as we left the shelter; it was like going through a maze, dodging the broken trees and fallen traffic lights. I could see the shock and disbelief on her face as she constantly asked, “How is the house?” While traveling we passed several people sitting in their cars on the side of the road, out of gas. There were no gas stations open, and traffic was backed up for miles. I saw families with their pets running alongside them as they pushed shopping carts with what little belongings they were able to save. It’s been three years and I can still remember the frightened little girl I saw clinging to a dingy teddy bear that had clearly been through the storm.
In some areas of the coast you can still see abandoned buildings, boarded up and spray-painted with the words We are here, We have a Gun, We will shoot. These are reminders of the crimes committed and the actions people took to protect their homes. Burglaries and looting became major problems. Police issued warnings that if anyone was caught committing these crimes, they would receive a mandatory five-year jail sentence. Thieves would prey on houses hoping that they were empty from people evacuating before the storm—businesses as well. Business owners began opening their stores and handing out items. I saw a local store owner crying, saying, “If we don’t give it to them, they will just take it.” Police started allowing people take things from the stores as long as it was for survival—like food and water.
Through the mass of the crowd it was hard to tell who was taking things out of desperation and who out of ignorance. When I asked some of the people in my neighborhood what it was like for them—how did you survive?—they said:
“Man, the people here would be ok, we know how to survive under stressful times.” “We are used to making the best of what little we have. Joe, you know that.” And, “It’s the upper-class people who panicked most under these conditions. Besides, the Bible warned us that this was gonna happen.”
In the county jail, I talk to a guy who tells me he is awaiting trial. He’s here for fraud. The house he lived in all his life was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina while he was incarcerated. And when he was released, he received a disaster check for about $12,000. He is in jail now because he wasn’t in the house during the storm.
I talked to another guy who was incarcerated on the coast during Katrina. He told me how they had to use the bathroom in garbage bags and store them for a couple of weeks while wondering about the fate of their families. “With no TV and no telephones,” he said, “that couple of weeks seemed like forever.”
In the weeks stretching to months that my brother is in prison, Aesha and I talk on the phone and e-mail each other frequently. We are both anxious to know how he is doing, and so we tell each other anytime we get word from him in a letter or by phone. Months after the threat of Gustav out in the Gulf has passed, Aesha tells me something my brother has insisted she keep from me. At the county jail where he spent months awaiting sentencing, the mechanical system that controls the locking mechanism on the inmates’ cell doors was broken. Each night at lockdown the guards padlocked the men into their cells. Had a need to evacuate the prisoners arisen—perhaps because of fire or a hurricane bringing floodwaters—it would not have been a speedy process. Each padlock would had to have been opened by hand, with a key.
When Joe and I next speak on the phone, I don’t tell him what I have learned. We keep a fiction between us rooted in silence. I learn to weigh what he is telling me against what I know he must not be. Not until much later do I come to see that my silence was the heaviest.
My first day in jail I’m immediately asked, “What you is?”—meaning what gang are you in? I quickly respond I’m just me. Most new inmates become affiliated and join organizations in order to ensure protection. Younger inmates, hoping to excel in gaining respect, often follow orders given by veteran inmates with higher rank. These young inmates are sometimes referred to as crash dummies.
Most arguments or verbal disagreements are followed by popular phrases such as “I’m not an inmate, I’m a convict” or “This ain’t my first rodeo.” I wonder why this is used as a form of bragging rights—or why respect is given for repeat visits to the penitentiary. Why not aim at other accomplishments to be proud of, or other ways to gain respect? Another phrase often repeated in prison is “Time does itself.”
While lying on my bunk, I look around at the different men in the facility and ask myself what am I doing here? How did this happen? I listen to the hopeless conversations, and I realize how lucky I am to have such a wonderful family who loves and supports me.
One of my most pleasant childhood memories would have to be my first day of elementary school. This was the only year my sister and I attended the same school before she started high school. I was really excited about this day; I remember polishing my new loafers that I had stuffed with quarters instead of pennies. I wore slacks and a button-down shirt with my father’s brown tie that my mother altered downstairs in her sewing room. I never told my sister how excited I was about that day.
Most of my childhood was normal—or so I thought. Things in our home seemed ok. I was a happy child; I had all of the things I wanted. With both parents at home, I thought my life was perfect. We lived in a big house in a nice neighborhood. There were many families on the street, so I had a lot of friends. It was the only neighborhood I had ever known, so it was nice to me. Prior to my imprisonment, I would drive by it, bringing back memories, trying to understand and put the pieces together.
Reading my brother’s words the first time, I wanted to believe only what was there, what I could see on the page. The narrative of me as part of that wonderful and supportive family suited my version of myself, and my willed blindness to other things, to what was unspoken and invisible, absolved me of more responsibility. In this way, I was not unlike those people content to look around certain areas of the post-Katrina landscape and praise the state for its remarkable recovery, while ignoring the dark underbelly reflected in the ongoing devastation of the lives of some of the poorest, least visible victims of the hurricane.
Reading them again, I am struck by what it means that he seems to be thinking out loud, not addressing his words to me but uttering them so that I might overhear: I never told my sister how excited I was about that day; most of my childhood was normal; we lived in a big house in a nice neighborhood. In all this time, I have never once written my brother a letter. I nearly tripped over furniture each time the phone rang so that I would not miss talking to him. I wired money through Western Union so that he could buy snacks and sodas at the prison canteen. I sent boxes of food and coffee and socks and books and music and underwear and aspirin and anything else he was allowed to ask for and receive. But it never occurred to me—and so I did not send—the one thing I know now he must have wanted more than anything: some words from me to hold on to longer than the ten minutes we were allowed to speak on the phone.
And in the midst of my silence, he begins on his own to recover some of what had been lost to him. He becomes the one of us most willing to voice what had not been said, giving more weight to what is spoken than to the silence I had been keeping—I thought to protect him—between us.
Growing up I really loved my father. We had a certain father-and-son bond. I remember we used to go for rides after dinner. We would listen to old soul music on his eight-track player, and he would let me take a few sips of his beer. I remember he bought himself some sort of hat with a feather in it. I liked it so much that he found a small one just like it to fit me.
I do recall one particular ride we took on the other side of town. I remember sitting on the porch talking to some woman with a short hairstyle. I think I was around eight years old. I later found out that she was the mother of my half brother. I only met him once at my grandfather’s funeral.
The morning my mother and I left was very confusing to me. I don’t remember going to sleep the night before, but I do remember leaving my house without saying goodbye to my father or my friends. I remember grabbing a few of my favorite things and leaving the rest behind, my mother explaining—trying to make me understand. I was very close to both of my parents, but I guess there is some sort of chemistry between a mother and child, and somehow I knew that I belonged with my mother. When we moved away from my father, my mother knew how much this had devastated me. She decided I needed counseling, so I started talking to Dr. Rocky. I had always been quiet and kept things to myself. But Dr. Rocky was an outlet: he tried to help me understand and realize that both my parents loved me. We talked about my father and some of the things he was going through and the reasons for some of his actions. We talked about domestic violence, something that I had no idea about—and I didn’t know it was happening in our home. My mother was amazing—keeping a smile on her face, camouflaging her bruises with makeup, keeping me unaware of the abuse.
Some of these things are still difficult to talk about.
Early in my childhood, my grandmother and I had a wonderful relationship. I would get so excited about going to visit her. I remember that I would call it “Sicky” because I couldn’t pronounce Mississippi. Moving to Mississippi to live with her was very hard for me. It was a major change from living in Atlanta with my family. My grandmother was a wonderful lady, and she did the best she could, but raising a child who looked exactly like the man who murdered her only child had to be painful. I learned a lot from her. She taught me the importance of family, especially during the holidays. This will be my first Christmas without her and also my first Christmas incarcerated.
To all of this I respond with a 12×12-inch box of supplies:
Aftershave, unscented, in a plastic container
Tuna in pouches, not cans
Two tins of potato chips
Instant coffee, flavored
Any kind of candy in 16-ounce packaging
Small electric shaver
Cotton work gloves
Thermal plastic cup
Something to read
Boot insoles, size 9
Tonight I arrive at my new location: Pearl, Mississippi, approximately 120 miles from the last facility. A different town but basically the same building—four walls attached to a timeless revolving door. Inside these walls there’s a different world entirely, a world that consists of its own unwritten laws and rules, a world filled with all sorts of personalities and custody levels. It seems like the bigger the crime you commit, or the larger the amount of drugs you were caught with, the more respect you have.
Almost everyone has a prison name, like Really Real, Walt Luv, Anthea, Bun B, Hot Boy, and Pistol. They call me Coca Leaf or Joe Coca Leaf. I realize that in the world of rehabilitation these may not sound like positive things, but when it comes to prison survival, respect is one of your greatest possessions.
Sometimes a place like this can bring out the worst in you. When you’re surrounded by negativity, it’s very easy to lose focus. This place is filled with a variety of people. We spend a lot of time discussing our plans for the future. I look forward to starting over and living a new life. The fact that I don’t plan on doing the things that got me here separates me from the people who don’t plan on getting caught.
This is not my life.
December 20, 2008
Today we had a shakedown. K-9 entered our zone, six or seven oversized country boys with attitudes in search of marijuana, cell phones, and handmade weapons. They seldom find them though. When you’re confined to an area for twenty-four hours a day, you get to know it—and its hiding places—pretty well, better than anyone else, including the dogs that sniff your surroundings while you’re facedown on the cold floor. From the corner of my eye I sneak a peek just to catch a glimpse of the faces behind the yelling and cursing.
December 31, 2008
I’m preparing to enter a new year. It’s not quite what I expected to be doing on this day, sitting around drinking “sexy babies”—a popular drink throughout the prison system. It’s made of hot coffee, milk, coco, lots of sugar, and a Snickers bar if you’re lucky. This is our brew, or cocktail, and we drink them one after the other like shots of liqueur at a bar as we say goodbye to 2008, imagining what we would be doing if we were out, hoping that 2009 will be a better year.
I am now located in a small town called Lucedale. I’m part of a work program, and I work for the highway department. I walk eight miles a day doing roadwork—free labor for the state of Mississippi. I look at it as exercise; this is what I constantly tell myself. This is how I preserve my pride, my dignity. I begin my day by marking my calendar, grabbing my work boots and safety jacket—bright orange with reflectors—though I am not really concerned with safety, only trying to hide my shirt with the words INMATE WORKER on the back of it. Cars pass by: some people in them blow, some wave, and some just stare. I wonder what they think when they see me: criminal, or just a human being who simply wants to pay his debt to society.
I am named after
my father; he’s named after
his. No disrespect
to my grandfather—
resting—I pronounce my name
Jo-el instead of
Joel. I am nothing
like him. Although I am in
prison, I’m not him.
January 12, 2009
Several months have passed, and I have learned to make the best of my situation and work with whatever I have—adjusting to things like hand washing my clothes in the sink and boiling my bottled water to make coffee instead of drinking warm water out of the sink as is expected. Some inmates draw tattoos or pictures for money or snacks from the prison store. These adaptations are often referred to as “convicting,” but I don’t like that term. What about creativity or ingenuity? We figured out a way to light a cigarette with a paperclip and an electrical socket, boil water with a hot wire and a piece of metal, and cut our hair with a comb and razor just to look presentable when our families come to visit.
If only we had utilized these talents in the free world.
A new inmate walks in. I’ve known him since high school. As soon as we make eye contact, without saying hello, he mumbles, “Man I can’t believe I’m seeing you in a place like this.” This reaction is all too familiar. It used to bother me a little bit. Now I think it sort of inspires me: if I stand out in this crowd, maybe I don’t belong here.