By Evelyn V. Martínez
Driving back to Boston from Concord along Route 2, Josie Figueroa, 27, let’s her mind wander. Sometimes she’s alone, other times she’s with her 8-year-old son who has questions she cannot easily answer.
“When is daddy coming home?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” she says.
Figueroa never asked her son’s father, whose name she refused to reveal, how much time he is going to serve in prison.
“I wish it didn’t have to be like this. It just sucks. Every time I drive back I’m thinking that I don’t want to get used to this. I want to keep remembering that this hurts. I want to keep remembering that this is not OK,” said Figueroa.
It wasn’t until she was in her early 20s that she recognized she’d been going into prisons her whole life. Figueroa said she began visiting her older brothers in prison when she was just 8 years old. “It’s something that was normal to me and I didn’t realize that it made such an impact until I grew up and realized, ‘Wow, I did this when I was little.’”
For many families and women like Figueroa, who are not incarcerated, prison dictates their lives. They have to make time for visits, budget for phone calls and cope with the emotional pain of having a relative behind bars. “Prison essentially controls many aspects of these women’s lives even though they’re not incarcerated and have never been convicted of anything,” said Andrea Leverentz, associate professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston.
As a child, the excitement of seeing her brothers was so strong that she never really took the time to reflect upon where they were. The most “intimidating” part of the visits, Figueroa said, were the guards, with their “thick black boots” who frisked her. She remembers thinking, “Why are they so mean?”
“If it wasn’t for the guards I probably would have never knew that it was something weird, but even then I didn’t know.”
Not A Rite of Passage
All of the male figures in Figueroa’s life have been incarcerated. While growing up she believed that in order for a man to become a man, prison was a rite of passage. “I’m so embarrassed to say that–like to admit that that’s how I thought, but that’s what was around me so you can’t blame the ignorance in a sense.”
Ignorance, Figueroa believes, is why she didn’t know where her brothers were for many years and she refuses to bring up her son in the same way.
“I don’t want him to think jail is a good place,” said Figueroa. “I want him to know that it’s not a good place.”
During one prison visit when her son was 4–he is now 8– his father sat him on the table and said to him, “Listen it’s not OK to be here, all right. I didn’t make good choices and that’s why I’m here.”
Figueroa, fighting back tears, remembers looking at her son, with his head bowed down saying, “I know, I know.”
Although she constantly reminds herself to not conform, she has fallen into a strict routine to make sure she has time for her incarcerated loved one.
Figueroa works full time, cares for her son, goes to rehearsal and performances for And Still We Rise, a group which according to its website “is a collaborative theatre project dedicated to healing, public awareness, and social change through empowering the voices of formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones.” At night, Figueroa makes herself available to receive phone calls from her boyfriend before they both go to bed. Phone calls, Figueroa said, are “the most important thing.”
“One of the major things I found in my research and some of my colleagues research area,” said Damian Martinez, who obtained a doctorate degree at the University of Chicago,“has to do with strengthening positive relationship – so for those individuals who are incarcerated to maintain, strengthen and improve existing relationships that they had prior to incarceration.”
Those relationships can be strengthened by visitations, which can include letters, physical visits, but most often telephone calls Martinez explained.
Monthly, Figueroa said she spends anywhere from $300-$400 on prison phone calls because the calls keep them “connected.” The telephone service provider for MCI-Concord is GTL. The company charges 96 cents for the first minute of any phone call from Concord and 10 cents for every minute thereafter in addition to federal and state taxes.
Now, Figueroa is able to budget her money to include prison expenses like phone calls and canteen money, but that wasn’t always the case. Six years ago, before Figueroa’s boyfriend was first incarcerated, he handled everything in the home. When he was incarcerated, she not only lost him, but she lost his support. Because her job was cutting back on employees, she was laid off. As a result, she had to give up her studio apartment in East Boston and her forest green Toyota Celica.
Incarceration, said Leverentz, “gives women control of their relationships even though they’re being controlled by prison.”
For six months, Figueroa and her son, who was two at the time, lived with a friend while she struggled to get back on her feet. Life she said, “it’s so simple to some people, but this is kind of how I learned to grow up.”
But Figueroa knows that she could not have made it without the support of friends and family, her mother especially. Although she says she and her mother are “complete opposites” they had to stick together and give one another support while her brothers were incarcerated during her childhood and now that her son’s father is too.
“Whenever I see her down I pick her up, when she sees me down she picks me up,” said Figueroa, “it’s like a ping-pong [the support] it goes back and forth.”
Figueroa’s boyfriend served five years in prison, was out for a year and recently returned to prison.
For her boyfriend’s first case she remembers the immense pain she felt during his sentencing hearing. She thought they were describing a “monster,” not the man she knows.
“I don’t ever like to hear the court’s side. I know that’s probably wrong on my side, but I just feel like I don’t wanna know,” said Figueroa. “I feel more comfortable not knowing and even if I do know, to me it’s like I don’t know that person…”
Leverentz noted that this is just a reminder of the complexity of these relationship dynamics. “It’s very easy to think about incarcerated populations as criminals who commit crimes–many of them have done that right, many of them have done bad things, but even those people and everyone else are also all of these other things,” she said. “They’re sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and all of those relationships are very real and they’re only partially impacted by the incarceration.”
Therapy and And Still We Rise have helped Figueroa remain strong for herself and her son, but she wishes there were more programs like And Still We Rise for families. She said that too often people get used to the pain of having someone incarcerated.