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Life Inside

I Wonder If They Know My Son Is Loved

Visiting my son in jail for the first time, I know that I cannot protect him. Although he is too young to drink, the criminal justice system regards him as an adult.

I ease into a narrow parking space at the West County Detention Center in Richmond, California, turn off the ignition and lean back in my seat. I draw three steady breaths and watch my exhaled air cloud the rearview mirror.

I jam my purse under the seat knowing that a jail parking lot packed with police cars is one of the least likely places to be the victim of a break-in.

Clutching my single car key and my California ID (the only two belongings allowed inside, per jailhouse policy), I step onto the pavement to visit with my son for the first time since he’s been incarcerated.

As I approach the gray cement building, I recall my son and I having driven past it years ago. It was a sunny summer day, and we were taking our dog on a hike along the beachfront. Back then the jail was an immigration detention center; we saw a crowd of irate demonstrators gathered outside.

“What’s happening, mama? What’s wrong?”

I had to explain to my inquisitive 10-year-old that people were angry because their loved ones were locked up. It was a brief conversation that I navigated with caution, not yet comfortable with exposing my son’s tender psyche to the ugliness of the world.

Afterwards, we plunged down the sandbank toward the water. Laughing, we watched our dog sink up to his shoulders into the warm sand, with startled eyes. As the dog sped off to find respite in the cool waters of the San Francisco Bay, my son and I began our customary search for ideal skipping stones. Smooth and dark, they shot through the air and skidded across the surface. One, two, three, four rings of energy rippled outward, working themselves back toward the shore where my boy stood, inflated with pride.

In the jail holding my son, the waiting room is sparse. There is little furniture and few people. Two correctional officers with flat affects sit behind the front desk. One takes my ID and my completed visiting form—an inquisition of impertinent personal information that I dutifully offer up. Without attempting pleasantries, one tells me to have a seat. The clock reads 1:30, but I know that it’s 12:30. The maintenance crew simply hasn’t gotten around to adjusting it for daylight saving’s time, which occurred a week prior. There is little need, I suppose, as time moves begrudgingly inside.

I am, as required, half an hour early for visitation. I will later learn this to be a non-negotiable: Even 29 minutes early means you are denied your half-hour visit. The earliest another visit can be approved is three days in the future.

On that first visit, 30 minutes of waiting means I have sufficient time to survey my surroundings. It is midday on a Friday, so the waiting room is vacant. In the following weeks, I will find out that the crowds come on weekends.

On those Saturdays and Sundays, weary grandmothers, anxious wives and distressed sisters will look on as ever-observant children manifest their trauma in fidgeting. Sometimes there will be men, too, but they are generally on the other side of the bars.

Visitors will be mostly Latinas and African-American women. Many will come with colorfully manicured nails and well-groomed tresses, but they will not be so dolled up as to break the jailhouse rules of appropriate attire.

My jeans, T-shirt and short, unpainted nails will make me stand out. And my whiteness. Although it will be apparent that some of the others know one another, most will keep to themselves. No one will strike up conversation with me, nor will I be subjected to ill will. Mainly, I will sense that people are focused on getting the visit over and done with and then beelining their way out of the building.

I will bring blueberry muffins to share with those in the waiting room in an attempt at building community. A gentle reminder that we are deserving of sweetness.

I will learn that many of the women double up their two permitted weekly half-hour visits and stay for a full hour on a Saturday or Sunday. It makes the commute less costly and time-consuming. Of course, in between the two half hours, the visitors will be shepherded back out into the waiting room and their loved ones back into their cells. The entrance procedures, which take nearly as long as the visit itself, will be enacted all over again. Jail policy.

On that day of my first visit, though, I am alone. I spend the rest of my 30-minute wait staring at the walls as the two officers chat in low tones. Finally, one belts out into the completely empty room, “Vargas!”

I rise to the sound of my son’s surname, pass through a metal detector, and make my way down a long corridor.

Without acknowledging me, the officer strides ahead of me. I take her haste to be a power play and choose to walk at a respectable pace with my chin up.

My son walks into the room in an orange jumpsuit and sits down on the other side of the glass. His long hair, normally picked out to spherical perfection, hangs stringy and limp. He plucks the phone from its cradle and his lower lip begins to quiver.

Before he can bring the handset to his mouth, he erupts into sobs.

“I’m sorry mama, I’m so sorry.”

“I. Love you. I. Love. You. I love. You.” The words escape me before I realize they are mine.

While I do not yet know all of the particulars of what my son did to be in jail, the why stares back at me. Our conversation is limited both by the fact that his grief impairs his capacity to speak and by the knowledge that every word we utter is under surveillance. But words are unnecessary.

I see him through motherly eyes—a well-intentioned, gentle-natured teen who got caught up in the moment and, with the impaired impulse control of a 19-year-old brain, committed an act he already regrets. I hear him with motherly ears—the raspy, gasping voice begging for the forgiveness that I’ve already given him. I feel his pain with motherly perception, disemboweled by the realization that, for once, I cannot protect him because, although he is still too young to drink and nearly too young to vote, the criminal justice system regards him as an adult.

After spending nearly two months in custody, my son is currently out on bail. We are among the fortunate. I was able to cash in my retirement savings (I’m a teacher) to buy him some time to heal and to prepare for prison. He is back in college, finally receiving therapy, working, going to church and attending Narcotics Anonymous. But he likely faces years behind bars.

I know my son to be an ethical, gentle human who temporarily lost his way, and yet we are preparing to lock him up later this year, depending on what happens with the courts and the coronavirus pandemic. I think back to those grandmothers, those wives, those girlfriends, those children, and all the men who belong to them. The odds are against them all.

Many will remain incarcerated without counseling, education or job training. Without human touch by those who love them. Without anything to support their eventual release and transition back into society but a pair of flimsy jail-issue flip-flops. I wonder if those aloof correctional officers are aware of these facts. I wonder if they are trained to be apathetic, or if the empathy is drained out of them through their years of service. I wonder if they know that my son is loved.

On the beach that day, I sprinted over to my 10-year-old’s side and tousled his soft brown hair. He stared up at me, his large chocolate eyes beaming with exhilaration, and then scrambled off to find another stone.

“Good arm, baby!” I shouted after him, “You’re gonna be a winner one day!”

One day.

Ymilul Bates lives in the Bay Area. She has taught in the San Francisco Unified School District for 22 years.

The West County Detention Facility declined to answer questions about their visitation policy.