Families behind bars: The cycle of imprisonment

Jan 20, 2016 at 5:07 pm
Artwork by former inmates adorn a wall in the women's area at the Louisville Metro Corrections Headquarters
Artwork by former inmates adorn a wall in the women's area at the Louisville Metro Corrections Headquarters Photo by Brian Bohannon

Jackie Floyd is a widow who works as an outreach worker in the Russell neighborhood. Last January, her son, Robert Robinson, began serving a two-year prison sentence after he cut off a home incarceration ankle bracelet. Robinson started his sentence in a Barren County jail, but he was recently transferred to a jail in Fulton County. Floyd regularly forgoes amenities for herself, like getting her nails done and eating out, so that she can put $30 in her son’s phone account and money in his commissary so he can buy extra food, clothes and other essentials; and she covers the cost of the four-hour car trip (each way) to see him for a 15-minute visit.

Floyd does this not so much for Robinson, the only one of her five children to have problems with the criminal justice system, but for her 13-year-old grandson. “Believe it or not, Rob was a good father when he was out,” she says. “He would be washing dishes and my grandson would have a rag washing off the fridge. Rob was teaching him what to do. But now I can tell my grandson is angry his father is not around, but he has not really started demonstrating that anger yet. When he sees his father, he’s respectful because of their bond. Rob can still say, ‘Boy, don’t do that.’ But I can see it slowly slipping away. I’m afraid of what will happen if my grandson loses that connection with his father.”

Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton told us that Floyd’s concerns are warranted. Many studies have found links between parental incarceration and behavioral problems in their children. According to an October 2015 study done by Children Trends, about 5 million children, or roughly seven percent of all children living in the U.S., have a parent who is currently or was previously incarcerated. The Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, found that between 33 million and 36.5 million children — nearly half the total population of U.S. children — have at least one parent who has a criminal record. These children are more likely to have discipline problems in school, poor mental or physical health, and are three times more likely to be  incarcerated themselves one day.

Bolton believes that parental incarceration is the main cause of the “school-to-prison pipeline” that so many activists complain about. “I would bet you that a strong majority of the kids in juvenile detention have parents that are in jail or prison or have been in jail,” he says. “I don’t know that for sure, but I can guess that that is pretty much true. I do know that Jefferson County Public Schools is looking at the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ and the effect of mass incarceration on kids.”

Communities pay a high cost for the cycle of imprisonment — both literally and figuratively. Metro Corrections has about 1,800 prisoners on any given day. Bolton says it costs $72 a day to incarcerate a prisoner. The charges go up to $340 a day if the inmate has physical or mental health issues. He believes the financial impact alone should be enough for municipalities to begin to reconsider the current process of crime and punishment. But his assistant director, Steve Durham, adds that the social impact of mass incarceration might be even more expensive.

“The family is the basic unit of a community,” Durham explains. “It is part of the health and strength of our community to have healthy families. When people see someone on television, they say, ‘I wonder what he did?’ But they don’t say, ‘I wonder how this is going to impact his family?’ I’m not saying that we need to take ownership for all of a family’s problems, but we have to realize that the criminal justice system has a big broad impact that affects all of us directly or indirectly.”

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Kentucky has the seventh-highest incarceration rate in the world. Our state imprisons 948 people per 100,000 residents compared to the national average of 716 people for every 100,000 residents, which is still higher than most industrial nations. The main reason for the high incarceration rates in the United States has been the war on drugs. According to Drugwarfacts.org, annual drug arrests rose from 328,670 in 1973 to 1,561,231 in 2014. The majority of 2014 arrests were for possession and not the sale or manufacturing of drugs. Heroin especially has become a widespread problem in recent years. Last year, the Office of National Drug Control Policy targeted $2.5 million to fight heroin trafficking in five regional high-intensity areas, including Appalachia, which contains 26 counties in Kentucky.

“Are we locking people up because we’re afraid of them or are we locking people up that we are mad at?” Bolton asks. “We’ve got to start rethinking some of this. Even if you don’t care about the inmates, you’ve got to start thinking about what it is costing you as a taxpayer and the community as a whole.”

Virgie Douglas knows firsthand the impact the prison system has on children. She and her husband, James Douglas, celebrated their 15th marriage anniversary this year. Before they got married James was in the military where he developed a heroin addiction. He was clean for 11 years and operating a successful handyman business when he had an injury that required two surgeries. He did the first surgery without any medications, but the second surgery left him in so much pain that he began taking the prescribed pain killers. Eventually he began selling his pain killer to purchase cocaine.

“Overnight, we went from taking trips to Hawaii to pawning stuff to pay rent,” Virgie remembers. “That’s how quickly the addiction took over.”

James’ drug activities led to a 10-and-a-half-year sentence in a New Jersey federal prison. Virgie, who is director of admissions at American National University, was left alone with two children – four-month-old Ja’La, now 11; and 14-month-old Jacob, now 12. Virgie says having James in the federal system had its perks. He worked a job which paid for the phone calls, which were $0.05 a minute and the e-mails were equally inexpensive. He was even able to send home $1,000 one Christmas. Unfortunately, since he was incarcerated so far away, Virgie was only able to visit him twice in a decade.

James was released from federal custody on May 15, 2015, but rather than letting him go home, the state of Kentucky took possession of him for violating a 1995 parole agreement. He is now serving time at a state facility in Lexington and will be eligible for release in July.

“I hope he gets out, but I’m not going to get my hopes up,” Virgie said. “I haven’t really had to deal with the state in forever and it is like, ‘wow.’ We live paycheck to paycheck. We don’t get phone calls because I have to put the money on the account and it’s $4 for a 15-minute call, right now. Every email costs the price of a stamp. We go see him a lot more often in Lexington. Thank God gas has gone down. Ja’La got to spend her first Christmas with her daddy last year.”

Virgie says that she and James talked about divorce early in his incarceration but she couldn’t bring herself to go through with it. “I married him before kids,” she said. “I know the man he was and can be. He has to prove me wrong before I give up on him. It is just that we were totally prepared for the 10 and a half years. That is what makes this extra time so hard. We had Christmas presents saved for him and I even bought a coffee maker. He loves coffee but I don’t drink it. I don’t see who it is helping; it doesn’t make anyone any safer.”

Ja’La and Jacob are both honor roll students who participate in a number of after-school activities. Virgie believes that one reason that they have adjusted so well is that she and James have been honest with them about his situation and encourage them to tell the truth to other people. “They know that daddy made some bad choices and now he’s paying for that,” Virgie says. “We are not ashamed about where daddy is. They know bad decisions have big consequences. That’s what we focus on.”

She adds, “I don’t understand the so-called justice system. I watch the news and some kid that killed four people is given probation. It seems like rapists and murderers are going in and out of jail all the time. My husband is an addict and he’s spent almost 11 years in the system. He’s not there on a violent charge. His actions hurt people, don’t get me wrong. But I think the system needs a better way to do things when it comes to non-violent criminals. I feel like he could have killed somebody and gotten less time.”

Metro Corrections has a detox program for men and women who are struggling with drug addiction. However, there are just 16 beds for women and 30 beds for men. People in the program participate in life skills classes and help care for new inmates who are going through withdrawal while in jail. Bolton says he would like to expand the program so that inmates go directly from jail to an outside rehab program like the Healing Place. Many times prisoners are released and they have to wait days or even weeks for a spot in a detox program. It is during their wait that they are more likely to relapse.

“I’ve been from Southeast Kentucky to here and Louisville is the only jail I’ve been in where there is even a recovery program,” says Keslie Bailey. The 37-year old former nursing student was transferred to Metro Corrections in July after serving a sentence in another county on drug trafficking charges. She is in Louisville because of a theft by failure to make proper dispensation charge relating to a laptop computer that was not returned to Jefferson Community and Technical College.

“I am grateful that Metro Corrections isn’t treating me like I’m a lost cause,” Bailey says. “I think the biggest misconception about prisoners is that we are just bad people. This is not really the way I saw my life playing out.”

Bailey’s drug problems began in 2001 when she lost a daughter. On the same day of the funeral she had her first cocaine binge. Her doctors then prescribed anxiety medication and pain pills to her. She started abusing the pain pills and once they became too hard to obtain she turned to heroin. Since their mother’s incarceration her two remaining daughters, who are 13 and 16, have been living with relatives in Bowling Green. Bailey is a co-mediator in the Metro Corrections Detox Program. She is adamant about getting clean because she knows the impact her incarceration is having on her two daughters.

“I try not to think of the ifs and what could have been,” she says. “My daughters are going through puberty without a mother. They are learning to be women without a mother. They are learning the impact of drugs and alcohol firsthand, which is something I prayed that would never happen to my children.

“My daughters have told their school I’ve been on a permanent vacation or mommy’s a traveling nurse. Whenever there is a sleepover, mommy just isn’t here. I can’t image the stories and the wave of lies. This is not the foundation I wanted for my kids. You hope you instill good morals in your family, but on a foundation such as mine I don’t know where they choose to go but down a deceitful road.”

Ken Wright, Metro Corrections Substance Abuse Program Coordinator, says incarcerated women are often judged in a harsher light than men because they are considered to be bad mothers on top of everything else. But for men and women it is easy to embrace change when they are locked up and paying for the consequences of their actions. Wright says the real work begins when they are on the outside and have to face the same temptations and pressures that sent them into prison in the first place.

“I hate to use word dysfunctional,” Wright says. “Let’s say a person comes from a family system that is not working properly. Someone might say, ‘If so and so would stop drinking and stop using, everything would be fine.’ But when that person goes away, gets healthier, and comes back and nothing has changed because the system is the same. When they return to that system the only way they know how to operate is dysfunction. For something to really change, everybody has to be treated.”

Rather than just punishment, Bolton would like to see American correction focus on creating pathways for inmates to reconnect to their families. He believes in the end this is the only way Louisville and the rest of the country will stop the tide of crime and drugs from passing from one generation to another.

“When you ask the women in the detox unit how many have children,” he says, “just about every hand goes up. Many of them have two, three, four and five. They are sitting in jail and someone else is taking care of their child or children because they are strung out on heroin or they are addicted to alcohol or meth. We can develop a higher level of evidence-based services in the community — at the same time we’re reconnecting families and kids and friends — a hell of a lot cheaper than what we’re doing now with zero return on investment.” •

Family matters: Profiles behind bars

Father of four

John Watkins Jr. has been in Metro Corrections for two years and five months awaiting trial for robbery charges and being a persistent felon. His bond is $100,000 full cash. Watkins is a married man with four kids that range from 5 to 19 years old. Before he was arrested he worked for a moving company and was a dispatcher for his brother’s towing company. His children are staying with members of his wife’s family because she is sick.

“It’s hard to try and parent from jail because the only way to parent is through actions,” Watkins explains. “They don’t get to see me do anything. Unfortunately, the last thing they saw of me was not the thing I want them to remember.”

Watkins says an addiction to alcohol and cocaine led him to prison. He definitely doesn’t have the usual junkie story. Both of Watkins’ parents were college educated — his mother was a nurse and his father a retired Army Ranger. However, Watkins started experimenting with drugs when he was 10 years old. He says because he never felt comfortable in his own skin he got deeper into drugs to avoid the problems that came up in his marriage.

“The misconception is that drug dealers are bad people,” Watkins says. “But we are fathers, brothers and football coaches. I didn’t really know how to communicate and so I turned to drugs to avoid the conflict in my life. Now, I know I can’t stay sober on my own. I need to be around other recovering alcoholics and addicts all my life if I’m going to be a good father and husband.”

A daughter

Fatima Abudiab was raised in a large Muslim family and has spent most of her life in the United States. The urge to be a typical American kid clashed with her father’s desire for a “traditional” Muslim daughter. Abudiab says that she never felt like anything she did was good enough. At 17, she started smoking marijuana, and after her finance died in 2013 she upgraded to Xanax and cocaine. This led her to Metro Corrections eight months ago. She is charged with complicity to robbery, and since she’s been in the detox program she is coming to some realizations about herself.

“I used to really hurt my mother’s heart,” Abudiab remembers. “Xanax gets you really emotional and I would yell at her. I never used to fight with her before. Now that I’m sober I tell her I’m sorry. She says it’s okay, but I don’t feel it’s okay. I wasn’t the best daughter I could have been.”

Abudiab has only been in the detox program for three weeks but she relates to the stories from some of the other women. She realizes that she had a better upbringing than most of them. She was a popular student at Fern Creek High School and her family is still involved in her life. Abudiah plans to go to a drug rehab program when she leaves the system. Her deceased finance had a son that she hopes to help raise.

Stepmother of three

Emily Childs used to be the kind of person who looked down on heroin addicts. Then the stepmother of three started using pain pills and when they became hard to find, she found that heroin was a good alternative. It led to a life of depravity. Fifteen months ago the 28-year old and her husband of five years were arrested on rape charges.

“I guess destruction would be the best description of what has happened to my family,” Childs says. “There was a lot of drug activity in my life prior to this and it went downhill from there. Xanax, cocaine, alcohol, marijuana and pain pills — you know it, I’ve tried it. I did miss a good part of my son’s life due to drug use. They were never around it. I just went off with other people who were into drugs.”

Childs comes from a big family, she has seven siblings. Two of her brothers refuse to talk to her now, but other members of her family are still supportive. She says the harsh judgement from people around her is the worst part of her situation. Yet, even she can’t believe where drugs have taken her.

“One is too many and 1,000 were never enough,” she says. “A lot of people have that thought, ‘I could never be that.’ But it only takes one time and you’re hooked. I’ve lost the respect of a lot of people.”

A new father

Dylan Bryant has a four month old son who he has only seen a handful of times. Since October 2015, Bryant has been in Metro Corrections for receiving stolen property (guns) and assault. This is his first time being incarcerated as an adult, but he was in boot camp as a juvenile.

“It tears my mother apart to see me like this, in orange,” Bryant explains. “She don’t like this at all. She’s sick; she has lung cancer, so this is really bad for her. Me and my son’s mother, we don’t get along at all. But she wants me to come home and be a father. The relationship  between me and drugs have torn me and my family apart.”

Bryant started using drugs when he was 14, just partying with friends. When he was 16, he went to Florida and got clean. But only two weeks after returning to Louisville he was shooting heroin. He blames it on hanging out with the same people in his Pleasure Ridge Park neighborhood.

Bryant has a brother and two sisters. One of his sisters actually works at the Hall of Justice. He says all his siblings are good citizens with college educations. He hopes to follow their example. Bryant was working a demolition job before he was arrested. The company has agreed to take him back if he is serious about his rehabilitation.

“From my age, a lot of us don’t get it,” he says. “We keep coming back and back. But I’m going to try to get my life together for my son.” •