He is my “brother.”
Or, to put it more aptly, my “street brother.”
Even more accurately, he was my drug dealer. When my then-fiance went to jail, he took care of me by making me his full-time driver. Shortly before my man “B” went in, our dealer “J” began referring to me as his “sister.” He had quite a few “sisters” surrounding him – none related by blood. One of the first times J and I were alone together (ever), I told him that if he wanted me to be his sister, and wanted me to consider him family, I’d take that seriously; it would be a big deal to me.
He said he understood and agreed.
B was arrested within a few days of that conversation. J was my first call. He told me to come over. At the time, I still had a drivers’ license and a legal vehicle with insurance. He kept me by his side pretty much 24/7 for the next 6 days.
Unfortunately, 6 days later, we were arrested together, in that vehicle. He was absconding from his probation officer and was charged with Intent to Distribute (with Priors) among other things. I was charged with DUI and possession – since it was my first arrest in this state (and my prior out-of-state record had been expunged), I was released after being booked in. He and I sat together in booking before he was dressed out. That was the last time I saw his face. My brother. 10 1/2 months it was until I saw him again.
He hadn’t written down my number when he was booked in. Having done as much county time as he had, with no one writing to him or paying for phone calls from him, he hadn’t seen the point. I promised to write him a letter when I got home that night including my phone number. When the phone rang 5 or 6 days later and the automated voice announced his name, I grinned and accepted the call immediately. I could hear the tentativeness in his voice when I answered. He hadn’t expected me to pick up.
Two or three weeks later, J was transported to The Point, which is the nickname for Utah State Prison’s main campus – so called because it’s location is directly across I-15 from “The Point of the Mountain”, which is the dividing line between our two most populated counties – Salt Lake County (home of Salt Lake City) and Utah County (home of BYU).
I alternated letters, keeping greeting cards and stationary and stamps in my purse at all times. When I finished a letter to B, I began one to J and vice-versa. B remained in County Jail and I spoke to him often, though the calls were expensive and the cost became prohibitive. I didn’t hear from J for almost 2 months.
Utah Department of Corrections has a You Tube Channel with a series of orientation videos for Friends and Family. I watched them all.
J’s first stop was “R&O” – basically Intake. While in R&O, he was not given an opportunity to contact the outside world and had almost zero commissary privileges. For a first-time inmate, R&O typically is 4-6 weeks while the staff evaluates the inmate’s compliancy, ability to understand and follow rules, evaluates their educational and programming needs and determines their long-term housing assignment.
The Point has different areas for drug offenders vs. gang members vs. violent criminals etc. Female inmates spend far less time in R&O typically as they only have one housing area for women. The other option available to inmates is to “County-Out”. Basically, the Utah Prison system is over-crowded and so several of the smaller counties with available jail space house prison inmates on a contract. Many inmates prefer staying in a County environment (whether that’s a housing preference or they prefer fewer cellmates or they like the availability of programs like “Getting Out” which is a communication option at some counties that is unavailable at the Point). Other inmates prefer staying in the main prison (or it’s sister facility in Gunnison) – commissary and phone calls being cheaper and the guarantee of jobs and/or programs to fill the hours.
After R&O, J went to Promontory aka The Conquest Program, which is the drug treatment program inside Utah State Prison for men (Women have a version called Excel). While in Conquest, he did not have the ability to have a paid job (inmate labor is underpaid – between 65 cents and $1.75 an hour – for anything from working in the kitchen, organizing and distributing commissary orders, working in the cafe open to the public, administrative jobs, custodial work, groundskeeping, maintenance) because of the nature of the Program, but he did become a Trustee (which is a position of authority within the housing section including responsibility for keeping the Unit clean, distributing meals) and in addition to nearly completing the program, he managed to earn his High School Diploma.
In Utah, when a person is sentenced to Prison, the trial court judge does not have the authority to limit or govern the length of the prison stay. A third-degree felony carries a maximum penalty of 0-5 years in prison. A second-degree = 1-15 years, a 1st degree = 5 years – Life and then there’s the “Super-First” which is, I believe either 15 or 25 years to life. Once a person is convicted and in prison, a different agency – The Board of Pardons and Parole (BOP), assumes jurisdiction over the inmate.
The BOP sets a hearing date for each inmate based upon his/her convictions – a 3rd degree felon will see the Board after 3 months (+/- depending on backlog); a 2nd degree, after 6 months and a 1st degree after 18 months (It’s unclear to me whether persons convicted of a “Super First” ever have the option to parole. J’s hearing was held approximately 7 months after he arrived at The Point. A few weeks after the formal hearing, the Board renders its decision – usually including a potential release date.
Here’s the thing: there’s a TON of bullshit rules about prison.
The first one I learned: inmates cannot have pictures of themselves. My first letter to J got returned because I enclosed a bunch of pics of him and me, him and his girl, etc. Just sent back. Letter too.
Next: persons on probation cannot visit the prison – in fact, if you have a misdemeanor conviction within the last 7 years, you cannot visit the prison (except to see family members).
“Family” is strictly defined. To be approved to visit someone you claim as family, included with your visiting application must be documentation of the relationship (i.e. a marriage license, both birth certificates showing a parent in common). So much for visiting my “brother.”
Putting money on an inmates books (so they can order items from the commissary for themselves) comes with substantial fees (about $6 added to whatever amount you’re giving them).
Phone calls are WAY cheaper from the prison than from the jail (depending on the jail). When B called, I was charged 29 cents a minute when I funded a prepaid account (each time I added funds to the account, there was a $3 surcharge). When J called, it was 10 cents a minute (also with a surcharge but still.)
J saw the Board after about 7 months and his tentative release date was set for two months later – March 28. Here’s the thing about that: because he would be paroling (as opposed to “term-ing” or terminating), Adult Probation & Parole had to pre-approve any address he wanted to reside at. This meant a parole officer would have to call and verify that J could stay there and perform a check of the place (to ensure it met parole requirements – no alcohol or firearms on the property) before his release could be confirmed.
An inmate without an address to go to has to wait an additional 6-12 weeks for a bed to open up at one of the halfway houses before being released.
Here’s the other thing:
Being a person willing to receive letters/calls from inmates immediately subjects you to A TON of requests.
Since J went up, I have written to several other friends who were sent up to prison as well.
Universally, they all want you to do something for them (and often for their friends as well). J had me send texts and make calls to his buddies’ wives and/or girlfriends who couldn’t afford to take calls, write to other buddies who had no one writing to them, put money on his books if I could. Another friend of mine, a woman, beginning her third stint at the Point, included messages from her friends for me to forward, requested magazine subscriptions, requested that I send blank greeting cards and silver rings from WalMart that she could sell to her fellow inmates… and yet another friend (without asking me first) enclosed a letter from his buddy to his buddy’s girl for me to forward. J was the only one whose requests I did my best on.
But healthy boundaries are TANTAMOUNT when you have a locked-up loved one.
Of course, when J received his March 28 tentative release date, his immediate request was for me to find him a place to go. I was on probation by then (making me ineligible), plus I was homeless and living in a shelter (a very comfortable shelter but not one I could receive him to) at the time. He submitted the address of his mother’s trailer and asked me to call her and tell her to please hide the beer and the gun so AP&P would approve the address and could he please stay there etc etc.
Did I mention I hadn’t ever met his mother?
Her first question: “Well, couldn’t he stay with you guys?”
She told the parole officer when he called that there was beer and a gun at the trailer so that option was gone.
J called me, despondent, asking me to try to find someone.
Finally, I asked my probation officer for sober living properties in the area that might help. He referred me to a place. I submitted J’s application online myself (he dictated the answers to me on a phone call). I committed to paying $500 before his release to pay his first two weeks’ rent and the application fee. I put up with bullshit flirting from the Program Director.
But I secured the address, submitted it to AP&P and got it approved.
The street sister.
Here’s the other thing about inmates:
You get a lot of promises about what they will do once they’re out.
Pay you back.
Make it up to you.
Change their Ways.
J promised me a lot of shit.
He was released March 28. The Program Director picked him up from the prison and (despite some crazy drama culminating in my emailing the dude’s boss) B & I were allowed to go to the Sober Living and see J the day he got out. An ex-girlfriend of his gave us a ride up there. She was clearly wanting/expecting to be the center of J’s attention. She turned a little green when I was.
J went through his property bags that day. His prison-issued Bible, his court papers, the one letter he had received from the ex-girlfriend, the one from another girl and the three foot-high stacks of cards and letters from me.
I’m still proud of the way I held my brother down while he was away. I’m proud of him for staying sober since the day he and I got arrested almost 18 months ago. Better than I’ve done.
But I’m supremely disappointed in him.
He and I don’t talk anymore. He prefers to help out buddies who use him and his goodwill – even though they are still using drugs. Buddies who jeopardize his parole status for their own reasons. The girlfriend who told the cops the drugs in my car at our arrest were his – then lied to everyone on the streets about he and I for months, never wrote to him or anything, cheated on him, but when she lost her kids a couple of weeks ago (due to continuing to get high on heroin after a 90 day inpatient program), sitting with her was more important than trying to help me through a hospitalization.
It hurts to admit, but the fact is that people in prison are different than the people they were before or return to being after their incarceration. I loved my brother in prison. I will always love him in so many ways. But I don’t like him out here. And I can’t allow myself to be used by him anymore.
I have ended all contact with incarcerated persons except my now-husband, B, (who is back in county again *sigh*) and I have made an exception for his best friend. I have changed my phone number. I have blocked almost everyone on facebook. J isn’t blocked, yet. I did “Snooze” him for 30 days. it was too painful seeing his comments to lowlifes and dumbasses I know to be still hustling.
The last post of his I saw was that his PO has told him that if he continues to do well he will terminate parole successfully at the end of April.
Well done, Bro. Proud of you. Wish I didn’t know for a fact that you could have gone back to prison at least twice for breaking the terms of your parole. Not getting caught isn’t exactly what you should be striving for here.
Wish I had a way to show you how much danger I can see you’re in.
I wish prison weren’t a revolving door.
And even if you manage not to go back in the next 5 months +/-, I wish I could be convinced that you understood what REAL priorities are, what REAL friendship should be, what REAL family does for each other.
I totally can imagine what you’re feeling and I’m so, so, so, so sorry.
I’m so sorry. I was a public defender in another life and it’s heartbreaking to see pain caused to the people who love someone who just can’t break the habits that sent him to jail. I’m just so sorry.
I can only imagine how frustrating it is to watch someone that you’ve put so much love and time and effort (not to mention money that you didn’t really have to spare) make choices that could ultimately lead them right back into the situation you spent so many personal resources helping them through. At a certain point you have to step back, and I’m glad you did. You’re making the healthy, responsible choices even when they suck and are hard. I’m proud of you.