In the Wilderness
Pekin Federal Prison. Peoria, IL
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said the Pekin Federal Prison Camp (FPC) administrator, commenting about overcrowding. “We have about 40 more transports in the pipeline.”
To alleviate overcrowding, the administrator asked 12 women to voluntarily relocate to Victorville, CA, where an FPC is being enlarged to handle more prisoners.
Only women facing three or more years of imprisonment are eligible.
Yesterday, three Hispanic women stuffed belongings they’re allowed to take with them into white net laundry bags, gave final goodbye hugs to friends here, and headed out to California where they will help build a larger prison.
Most of the dozen women who volunteered for relocation to Victorville, CA did so because it will place them closer to their children. “I just hope I can see my kids,” said Ana, a young mother whose children live in Arizona. “It’s been too expensive for them to come here. I really needs to see my kids. I think about them all the time, and it’s so hard to cope with being away so long. That’s why I’m out on the track running so much. I just try to run and pray.”
Shortly after I arrived here, Ana supplied me with used but quite usable gym shoes, a tote bag, and sweatpants. Several other women recalled her kindness and joined me in hoping she’ll be similarly welcomed in Victorville.
I had presumed that the Bureau of Prisons would use “Con Air” or a prison bus to take women to Victorville. Remembering prison air and bus travel 15 years ago, I still shudder. In a weeklong trip, zig-zagging all over the country, we were locked up in different county jails each night. Our wrists and ankles were shackled as we boarded; on the tarmac, armed guards with their guns raised encircled the planes. Prisoners often arrive at their destination sleep-deprived, hungry, disoriented, and scared.
What a relief, then, to know that furloughs were granted for Ana and the others who have set out in groups of three over the past several weeks. Each woman is given $50 and a bus ticket. But, hang on, –if these women can be trusted to travel cross-country, carrying cash, on a public bus, and if they’re trusted to turn up for self-surrender at a federal prison, why can’t they be paroled to home confinement and probation? Why can’t US taxpayers be relieved of expenses to imprison them and, in many cases, to provide guardianship for their children?
Deneise, who lives in the cubicle next to me, works as the librarian during several evening and weekend shifts. She also teaches yoga, helps coordinate photo opportunities for women in the visiting room, shares her expertise in ceramics, and sings in the gospel choir. “You with your 13 jobs,” joked one friend, “how is anyone ever supposed to find five minutes to talk with you?” I smiled, knowing she barely gets five minutes to herself on many days as a steady stream of women find her, seeking advice, a favor, or a word of comfort. Prisoners and guards alike share regard for Deneise.
One Sunday evening, in the library, just before closing time, Deneise asked if I had time to watch a 7 minute video. “It’s my favorite possession here,” she said. “We made it the night before I self-surrended.” Filmed in her hometown chapel, the video shows her 7 year old son, Joshua, delivering Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. The child’s fine diction and timing plus his obvious appreciation for the words he’d memorized evoked growing pride and affection in the audience. When his voice rose at the end of the speech, promising freedom, the congregation erupted in applause that must have infused the youngster with pride and hope.
“Deneise,” I asked, “was that Joshua with whom I saw you, earlier today, in the visiting room?” “Yes,” she said softly, “that was my Joshua.” Now a 12 year old boy, he was resting his head on her shoulder as his plump arm encircled her waist. Joshua will be 25 when Deneise is released. She was convicted of money laundering and sentenced to 18.5 years.
“Connie cried herself to sleep last night,” said Ruth. “I was praying for her at midnight and she was still crying.” Connie has been here for five years and has nine more to go. All of the new prisoners know her because she helps to lead an orientation designed to help newcomers adjust. Connie presents a session about “long termers” and “short termers.” Over 1⁄4 of the women here face eight or more years in prison. 82% are first time nonviolent “offenders”—virtually everyone hopes for new laws that would allow for early release. “Don’t get your hopes up, and don’t call your family with rumors about everybody getting out. You set yourselves up for disappointment that way,” Connie counseled, “and you don’t want to do that to your kids.” But even Connie had begun to think the combination of budget cuts and prison overcrowding might offer some hope. It’s a setback to learn that the BOP will cope by enlarging and opening new prisons. Connie’s two sons are a foot taller each time she sees them. The younger boy, a high schooler, vows that he’ll enroll in a university near Pekin so that he can be closer to his mom. A petite athlete, Connie is a pillar of nerve and strength here. “Bad days happen,” said Carol, another long-termer. “Happens to all of us.”
“Connie was so down last night,” said Ruth, “that she said might as well volunteer for Victorville and move out of her sons lives, make it easier for them, let them go on without trying to include her, –she says she’s not really part of what’s going on in their lives now anyway.” Ruth, Carol and others saw Connie through the hard slump. Her spirits were revived after a few days.
Thinking of women headed to California in hopes of keeping their families together while enduring long prison sentences, I dipped into John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. In the wrenching tale of migrant families, called “Okies”, who headed toward California in search of food, shelter and work, Tom Joad, a main character, kills a man in self-defense. Tom had become involved with a preacher, Casy, who tried to convince the migrant families to band together when greedy landowners cheated and abused them. The landowners hire paramilitaries to hunt Casy down and kill him, in retaliation for organizing a labor strike. The thuggish guards go after Tom Joad next. He suffers a severe blow to his head, then attacks his assailant and flees, unsure whether or not he murdered the man. Realizing that he’s now a liability to his family, Tom hides out, but his mother knows where he is and drops off daily food for him. One evening, “Ma” waits for him to fetch the meal. Warning him that he’s no longer safe in his wilderness hideout, she urges him to disappear into a big city.
Tom has been thinking about Casy, the preacher. “We talked a lot” said Tom; “Used to bother me. But now I been thinkin’ what he said, an’ I can remember –all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’ have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ‘less it was with the rest, an’ was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn’ think I was even listenin’. But I know now a fella ain’t no good alone.” (Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 28).
Ma Joad didn’t want her family to “crack up,” but ultimately she learns that her family is strongest when they can share their meager resources, even with strangers. And she must find courage to accept her beloved son’s self-sacrifice on behalf of others.
Within US prisons, a host of contemporary Ma Joad and Tom Joad protagonists passionately appreciate family values and yearn for ways to strengthen the fabric of society by embracing needy people. The absurdly long sentences imposed on hundreds of thousands of the 2 million people imprisoned in the US are every bit as dehumanizing and cruel as the measures taken against migrant workers who were and still are often regarded as less than human.
I find some comfort in knowing that English literature teachers and students explore themes in The Grapes of Wrath in classrooms coast to coast. If they need to draw comparisons with comparable hero figures desperate to nurture families and community in the midst of calamity and loss, I’d recommend Ana, Deneise, Connie and trios of women prisoners heading to Victorville, dying to see their kids.
KATHY KELLY, three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness, is serving a three-month sentence at Pekin Federal Prison for crossing the line at the School of the Americas/WHISC in Ft. Benning, Georgia. She can be reached at: Kathy@vitw.org.