This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
“Davis, your son is at the toy box putting a plastic bag over his head,” says the correction officer, her body looming over me and my wife, April, as we sit in the visitation room.
“You need to go get him,” the guard says to me. “If you can’t watch him, I’ll terminate this visit. I’ll give you a misconduct report.”
I want to say, “Why the hell are there plastic bags in the children’s toy box in the first place?” But that would ensure a misconduct report. As a general rule, if you’re trying to get out of prison and get home, don’t question the guards. You are wrong and they are right. So instead I simply say, “Yes, ma’am.”
I walk over to my son, Caden, and swat him gently on the behind. I tell him he can’t play with plastic bags, because they could hurt him — and if he does it again, he and his mother would be told to go home. Caden looks up at me and says, “Daddy, no. I stay here.” He had just turned three.
“Why don’t you bring one of those trucks over to the table with me?” I say, pointing to a pile of toy cars and trucks sitting next to the toy box.
With Caden in tow, we return to the table where my wife is sitting. Caden gets up and climbs into my lap — but the CO looms over us again.
“What’s wrong with you, Davis?” she says. “So help me, if I ever see you strike that child again, I will put street charges on you. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am.” She is right and I am wrong. That’s how it has to be.
Later that day, after the visit, a different officer wakes me from a nap and escorts me to Central Control. There I meet an Oklahoma State Trooper, who looks deeply concerned.
We make our way to a conference room at the back of the building where I’m introduced to a young woman who says that she is a counselor specializing in trauma and grief.
The trooper is the first to speak: “Mr. Davis, are you the husband of April Michelle Davis?”
“Yes,” I say.
He explains that earlier that day on Highway 412, my wife’s vehicle crashed into a tree and burst into flames. There was a child in the backseat. Neither the driver nor the passenger survived. He needs to know if April had been driving the car and if the child was mine, because the bodies were burned beyond recognition.
“Yes,” I think I say.
She and he left visitation just a few hours ago. They would have been traveling on 412.
Sitting in that conference room, my world implodes.
“It’s okay to cry,” Wendy says.
Prison has made it wrong for me to cry. I can’t be weak.
“He must be in shock,” she explains, as if I’m not there.
“Can I go back to my unit?” I whisper.
“No, not yet.”
The state trooper takes me by the arm and escorts me to the segregation housing unit, where he leaves me in a sterile cell. Fluorescent light bounces off the walls. The room has a stainless steel toilet and a mat with restraint straps at all four corners. There is nothing else in the cell.
This is the Department of Corrections’ idea of a “safe observation” room. I don’t know what I should have expected — I am incarcerated, after all.
For three days, I stay in that cell. I spend most of the time sleeping. When I’m awake, I’m crying. From time to time, an officer stands at the square window in the door and asks me how I'm doing.
After those three days in isolation, I'm released back to my unit, and something strange happens. As I walk down the hallway, the entire unit goes dead silent, watching me. It’s as if I have some communicable disease. They know how important family is for prisoners. Don’t talk to him, I imagine them saying, or your family will die, too…
Later that night, I dream of April and Caden. In the dream, they’re seething with anger. They scream, “You have done this. By being in a far-off prison, you have done this.”
“Look what you have done to your family…”
Then comes the funeral. Later that week, I am transported the five hours to Muskogee for the ceremony. The transport officer chats away on his cell phone, as if I am not there.
When I arrive at the funeral, my mother and mother-in-law are puffy-eyed and sniffling. When they see me in handcuffs and leg-chains, they really start to wail.
“Sir,” my mother-in-law says, “can’t you take the cuffs off him, please? This is his wife’s and son’s funeral.”
The officer refuses the request.
Two weeks after the funeral, I get released from prison. My case manager calls me into his office and informs me that since this is my first time in prison, I am eligible for a judicial review. Two weeks after my wife and son died, I'm out. Maybe if I had been released just two weeks earlier, none of this would have happened.
Now I am free, but have nothing to go home to.
Charles Davis was serving a five-year sentence at William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply, Okla. for unlawful possession of a dangerous controlled substance. After writing this essay, he was sent back to prison, at Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center Center in Vinita, on three separate charges, including knowingly concealing stolen property.