“What do you say to your child in jail when he calls home on Christmas day?”
An open letter from Eileen Siple
Bob recently turned 18. His last two years of childhood were spent in the Harford County Detention Center, automatically charged as an adult. He’s just a kid, really, even at the age of 18. Years of abuse stunted Bob’s emotional development, which has only been further hindered by being tossed into an adult jail at the age of 16. He hasn’t had any counseling; that’s not an option for him in the adult jail. Still, he’s not a bad kid. He loves fiercely, and he worries about his friends and family on the outside. Even from within the jail, he does what he can to help, by writing letters of encouragement to a friend who is having a hard time or sending small gifts, bought from the jail commissary, to the people he loves. It’s probably easier for him to deal with the pain of others, than to acknowledge his own pain.
Bob’s incarceration began with 10 months in solitary confinement. He was confined to his cell for 24 hours a day, except for occasional walks to the shower. He was unceasingly cold, given only a paper hospital gown to wear, and no blanket or bedding. The light in his tiny cell remained on, 24/7, so he never knew whether it was day or night. For the first 5 months of his stay in solitary, he was not allowed books or magazines, mail, phone calls, or visits. He slept a lot, and wished he could sleep even more. I asked him once, how he was able to survive those first 5 months. He replied that he had learned, early in life, not to expect much.
After his time in solitary, Bob was moved to protective custody or segregation. He was finally allowed out of his cell for one hour a day, but never with other prisoners. During his hour, he could watch television, make phone calls, and shower. He was allowed to share a cell with another juvenile for a few months, but when Bob turned 18, they were separated. After about a year in segregation, Bob was finally allowed to have his “property”. That means he was allowed to wear a regular jail uniform (with pants!) for the first time in almost two years, and to have a blanket on his bed. To talk with him, you would have thought he had just been given the most incredible gift; I suspect that, for Bob, it might have been just that.
If you were to ask Bob what he misses most, he would tell you, without hesitation, that he misses human contact. For more than two years, he has not been allowed to hug another human being. His visits take place in a crowded phone bank, through a dirty window, struggling to be heard over a phone that always has a bad connection. And when Bob looks as if he wants to cry, as if there is no way that he can stand another day, there is really no way to comfort him. Anything I could say would be woefully inadequate. For 2 years, every conversation he has had, and every piece of mail he has sent or received, has been monitored so that it could be shared with the prosecutor, who is intent on sending him away for the rest of his life. Sometimes, it seems as if the goal of the “justice” system is to turn this boy’s brain to mush before his trial. If he is dehumanized, then it will be easier to treat him like less than a person. It will be easier to throw his life away. These are the thoughts that race through my mind.
I didn’t know Bob before his incarceration, but I have come to know and love him since then, as we talk on the phone almost every day. I have a huge amount of respect for him; I wonder if I would have been strong enough to survive what he has survived. He recently started calling me Mom. His own mother passed away when he was 10, following a long battle with cancer. Most of his natural family has had little or no contact with him since his arrest, and so we have welcomed him into our little family, where he seems to belong. We eagerly await the day that he can come home to be with us. We pray that the “justice” system will think that he is worth saving.
Holidays are especially hard for Bob, and for all of the kids. They are barely acknowledged by the guards, who would likely rather be home with their own families. The jail makes a bit of an effort to provide a holiday meal, in the form of processed meat and bland side dishes, but the day is otherwise just like any other. It’s hard for those of us on the outside too. What do you say to your child in jail, when he calls home on Christmas day? Do you say, “Merry Christmas”? Won’t that just draw attention to the fact that the world continues to celebrate the day without him? Will it just emphasize the fact that he is not with his family on this day when families should always be together? And how could he possibly have a merry Christmas, anyhow?
In speaking with Bob and the other kids at HCDC, it’s apparent that their emotional and psychiatric problems are exacerbated during the holiday season. All of the kids describe symptoms of anxiety, depression, and sometimes worse. Tensions run high, and tempers are short. It’s a dangerous time to be in jail, as it seems that a fight could likely break out at any moment. It seems that anger is an easier emotion to deal with than sadness.
The two year process has been filled with constant delays and the uncertainty and anxiety that surround those delays have made his time in the jail even more difficult. Sometimes he is barely able to cope. Most of the time, however, he is able to push those emotions back, to somewhere deep inside, because if he starts to feel them he may never be able to stop. And so when he calls, we laugh and we joke, and we try to talk about anything other than what is really important, because we can’t open that floodgate. Not yet. Not until it is safe for him to cry.
We decided to wait to celebrate Christmas this year. We just can’t enjoy the holiday while Bob is in the detention center, and while the trial is still looming. We’ll have Christmas in March of 2014. It just feels right. If you come to visit us at our home in March, you will likely see our Christmas tree, decorated in the living room, with packages wrapped under the tree, and still waiting to be opened. You’ll see gifts for Bob too. I don’t know if Bob will be home to celebrate with us this year, or even next year or the year after. But we pray every day that his judge and jury will recognize that he’s just a kid, and that he is worth saving, and that he is very, very loved.