Early on during this pandemic, the thoughtful folks at AFSC-Michigan, and here at Safe & Just Michigan, had an idea to create a safe space for families and loved ones of men and women incarcerated. As prisons ended visits out of COVID-19 fears, we wanted to create a space for people who might want a place to share their concerns, fears, and information with others who know what it’s like to be in their shoes. Together, AFSC-Michigan and Safe & Just Michigan have been co-facilitating these weekly conversations with folks who are struggling to get updates on loved ones spread throughout the state.
There was — and continues to be — so much frustration with the way the Michigan Department of Corrections and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have handled COVID-19 in relation to 36,000 human beings currently serving sentences within the MDOC. So many precautions were being taken in relation to the general public, and to us that have loved ones inside it seemed as if the safety of the citizens was second thought at best.
I never understood why these men and women who are someone’s son, daughter, mom or dad, puppa, mimi, aunt, uncle or friend … and the lists goes on … are forgotten. The stigma of incarceration and the dominant narrative regarding people with criminal records makes them the “other”. They all have one thing in common with people not incarcerated: they are human beings that hurt, struggle, love and forgive just like you.
We have had the pleasure of having Keith Barber from the legislative ombudsman’s office join our calls. He gives us updates on the prison “hot spots” that have bigger outbreaks than others. His updates are welcomed by our group members because family members often struggle to obtain accurate information regarding the situation of their loved ones.
We welcome new members to our Family Support Group calls, which are hosted every Friday at 3 pm to 4:30 pm. You can join by simply clicking the link HERE.
We share our struggles and our pain with the hopes of helping someone else on the call. We also share good news that often revolves around Jpay letters — a kind of email — from our loved ones. Sometimes they are delivered timely. Sometimes the news lags by hours or even weeks. These letters and phone calls are so crucially important because they are the only way to communicate with the outside world for folks who are incarcerated. ALL VISITS have been suspended due to the pandemic.
To make matters worse, a new mail policy requires all mail to be photocopied. That means no more color, only black and white — including photos of children or parents, drawings that kids make for mom and dad, or even the newsletters that Safe & Just Michigan sends to our subscribers inside prison. Just imagine what it would be like to never see another color photograph of your family, or to only see black-and-white photocopies of your granddaughter’s artwork on your refrigerator — it seems ironic in a world that is filled with rainbows of color everywhere we look.
Even smells evoke different colors in our minds. I’ll never forget the feel of crayon from my daughter’s drawings. Seeing my girl’s thoughts expressed with color from crayons or markers and wonder why they used so many colors for just a few short words such as I Love You Dad. Or the smells that came with those letters, sometimes I imagined smelling the fruit they snacked on, or smelling their favorite foods being cooked.
It was through letters that I connected with my girls. Back then, calls were about $8 for 15 minutes, so I could
only manage three a month most of the time. Over the years as they were growing up — they were 2 and 6 when I went to prison — I would send “favorites lists” and would ask all these different questions about who or what was their favorite. Everything from food, snack, singer, band, color, movie, television shows, you name it. Then I would watch the shows or movies so that I could talk to them about things that mattered to them, so I could somehow overcome the cinderblock walls, razor wire fences and miles in distance to someway bring myself closer to my beautiful daughters that I had abandoned at such a young age.
That’s why it pains me to see these policies implemented in the name of custody and security.
To remedy the visits being closed, MDOC is starting “video visitation.” Video visitation allows you to see your loved one — sort of like Zoom. That eases some of the unrest that comes from not seeing your loved one for months on end, especially during this time that is COVID. However, it comes with a cost. It comes will new rules and standards. It is so important to remember that often times, families struggle to maintain a household with one less breadwinner, so not everyone can afford this solution. That’s why this Giving Tuesday, Safe & Just Michigan is raising money to continue to support the support group and to help families in need connect with their loved ones on the inside by helping pay for video visiting.
Over the years of my incarceration what continued to be that light at the end of the tunnel was my family and friends that were there for me to offer emotional and spiritual support. I cannot find the words to express how important it is for folks on the inside to stay connected to the outside world. I could list studies that show that chances of folks reoffending goes down significantly when people are connected to their family, friends and community and have support from them.
This space has been a place where family and friends of loved ones inside can come and share their concerns in a confidential and safe space. I remember learning of one members husband that was COVID-19 positive. She feared she might never see him again, hold him again. We also got to hear how one member of the group had secured the funds so her eldest daughter was able to head off to start her freshman year of college. We saw the smile of one member as she recounted her video visit with her son, whom she had not seen in years. You could see and feel how much joy it brought her to see and hear her son during these uncertain times.
On Dec. 1, SJM will be participating in #GivingTuesday to continue our work supporting families living with the worry, isolation, and fear of having a loved one in prison during the pandemic. In addition, we will be providing stipends for families so they can connect via video throughout the winter with their loved one. Please stay tuned for more information via our social media channels.
- FB: https://www.facebook.com/safeandjustmi/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/safeandjustmi
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUbRFInVe0cMEqRZtrOLlkw
We’ve created two short videos explaining our #GivingTuesday campaign, which you can find at the bottom of this post. If you could spread the word by sharing them on your social media accounts, we’d be very grateful.
Finally, if you have a loved one who is incarcerated and would like to join our weekly support group, we would love to have you join us. If you have any further questions about joining the support group or giving Tuesday feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can help families with loved ones in prison through our Giving Tuesday campaign here . Every gift given between now and December 1st will be matched dollar for dollar. Thank you.