Pekin Federal Prison, Peoria.
“Two days an’ a wake-up, Ms. Kelly,” sings a prisoner as my out date approaches. In 90 days at Pekin Federal Prison Camp I’ve spun through a revolving door compared with realities experienced by most of the 2.1 million inmates currently housed in US prisons.
A friend sent me an inscription carved over the entrance of a Polish prison. “When you enter here,” it reads, “do not despair. When you leave here, do not rejoice.”
I shared this quote with my co-defendant, Cynthia Brinkman, whom the whole compound calls “My Nun.” (“Where’s my nun?” someone yells. “I need a prayer.” “She’s not your nun,” another argues. “She’s MY nun!”) Cynthia read the inscription, gave me a knowing look, and said, “You’re rejoicing.”
She’s right. I’m ready to leave, and perhaps I’ve had one foot out the door during much of my time here. But I’m also subdued by the realization that by any rational assessment I shouldn’t be the next one out the door–not when many mothers incarcerated with me haven’t seen their children in years. Lupe, for instance.
Yesterday, Lupe was thrilled because I gave her my “TV Day,” which meant uninterrupted access to three hours of Hispanic “soaps.” Later that same afternoon, Lupe came to see me while I was doing laundry. “Look, Kathy, I brought my gang to come and thank you.”
The “Gang” is the sweetest trio of young mothers imaginable. “Are you going to write about us before you go?” asked Lupe, as she and her friends helped me fold laundry. “C’mon, ask me questions.”
Q and A with Lupe brought nervous giggles, tears, and a rush of memories. “They don’t treat you like a person. You’re just a number to them,” she said, recalling her court date in Indianapolis three years ago, when a judge sentenced her to nine years in prison on drug charges. Her supporters had filled the courtroom. Among them was her grandfather, who had traveled all the way from Mexico for the trial. Many people had written letters asserting that Lupe was indeed a good girl, that she had never gotten in trouble before.
“The tough girls, they used to beat me up,” said Lupe, laughing, “because I didn’t do bad things.” It wasn’t until she met and later married her boyfriend that she became involved with drugs. “But the lawyers, the judge–they don’t care about your past life. My public defender didn’t try to help me. He never told me what was going on. I didn’t know what to say or do. And the judge made fun of all the people who came to the sentencing hearing. He said I’d need them more while I was in prison than while we sat in his court.”
Now, with her daughters, Alexandra, aged 5 1/2, and Lizette, 4, living in Mexico, Lupe does need help. She needs someone to bring them to Pekin for a visit. “I miss my daughters so much,” lamented Lupe, who hasn’t seen her girls since July 2001. “It’s driving me crazy.”
Each 15 minute phone call to Mexico costs $8.35. Lupe works hard to earn enough to manage a weekly call. Even though she is the main orderly for our unit, her wages, which have risen from 12 to 20 cents an hour during her confinement, are barely enough to cover this one brief conversation. “I call every Monday, at 1 p.m. Sometimes they forget to have my daughters there,” said Lupe, referring to her in-laws, who are now raising the girls.(Lupe’s husband is himself serving a 27 year sentence.) “I can understand; they’re getting bigger now, doing things. Still, it hurts. I live for that phone call.” The pain in her voice is all too evident. “The other thing that hurts bad–my younger daughter, she doesn’t want to talk to me. The older one says, ‘Mommy, Lizette doesn’t love you, but I do.’ And the older one says, ‘Mommy, I don’t want you to be in prison any more; I want you to come home.’ ”
Each day, Lupe walks between four and six miles on the oval track. “That’s where you can go to think a little more, and to cry,” she says. “I think about what I’ll do when I get out. Everything will be for my daughters. I can’t wait to take them to the Brookfield Zoo, and to the Mexican Day parade.”
“There are so many things I think about. What would it be like to fix their hair, to take them to the park, to make meals for them? I don’t even know my daughters’ favorite colors. I know Alexandra’s favorite song.” Tears spilled down Lupe’s cheeks.
“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
“When I get out, I’ll think three times before I do anything. I’ll ask myself how it will affect my daughters, our future. Will it help them grow up strong? I want them to grow up strong, not weak, like me.”
I asked Lupe if she really believed she was weak. She flashed her brilliant smile, dark eyes still filled with tears. “No,” she said. “I’m strong.”
Cynthia and the others whom I left behind at Pekin FPC carefully monitor the daily news, looking for updates about legislation that would revive systems of parole for federal inmates (see http://site.fppr.us). Prisoners across the US are also keenly interested in a proposal being considered by the American Bar Association to abolish mandatory minimum sentencing.
“Kathy, tell me the truth,” said Lupe. “Do you think there’s a chance I could go home before my time is up?”
I’ve no idea, but I promised Lupe I would join efforts to reform a system that condemns first time offenders charged with nonviolent crimes to harsh mandatory minimum sentences. As it stands now, Lupe must wait 53 months before she’ll hear “two days an’ a wake-up.”
KATHY KELLY co-coordinates the Voices in the Wilderness campaign. She has completed a three month sentence for protesting at the US army military combat training school in Fort Benning, GA. To contact Lupe or Kathy, write firstname.lastname@example.org