“Good night, Sweet Prince.
May a chorus of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Tony Casson has written eloquently in this space about the American mania for incarceration and the many ways that it affects both those who are locked up and those who love them and have been left behind to fend for themselves. So I thought it might be fitting that I write about my own experience being cut off from my family.
I am originally from Southern California and moved with my wife and son to Little Rock, Arkansas in 2007 to be closer to our grandchildren. My daughter and her family remained in California as did my brother, sister and nephews.
After I was arrested in 2009 and sentenced early in 2010, I was sent here to Oakdale, Louisiana, even though there are prisons closer to both Arkansas and California. The Bureau of Prisons claims that they recognize and support the importance of family in the rehabilitation of inmates and for that reason, they maintain a policy of locating prisoners within 500 miles of their families. Since Little Rock falls within that radius, the BOP is technically adhering to policy.
However, not long after my arrest, my wife announced that she would be divorcing me. (That divorce was finalized on September 25, 2012). She has never visited me since I was locked up. My son has moved back to California, so effectively I have no family left in Little Rock. Since coming to Oakdale, I was visited by my daughter once in September 2010. My sister visited in February 2011 and my first wife, the mother of my daughter, came from Colorado to see me earlier this year. Those are the only visits I have had in the nearly three years that I have been a prison inmate.
When I first arrived here, I inquired as to how I might obtain a transfer to FCI Terminal Island in Southern California where I might be closer to my daughter, my brother, my sister and nephews. I was told that I had to remain here for 18 months before any transfer request would be considered.
As soon as that year and a half was up, in November of 2011, I filed for the transfer. Owing to a series of bureaucratic foul-ups and a change in staffing, my request languished in a desk drawer for two months. Finally, in January of this year, my application went to the BOP and was denied on the basis of overcrowding. I had heard that many such requests were being turned down for that reason, so I had enlisted the aid of a friend on the outside to monitor the census at Terminal Island on the BOP website. Six months prior to my application, there were 1,128 inmates housed there. During the week in which my application was denied due to “overcrowding,” the count stood at 1,054. I was told I would have to wait for another year before I could reapply. I was disappointed, of course. But it wasn’t the end of the world.
Seven months ago, my brother informed me that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He began a series of aggressive chemotherapy treatments, though the doctors had pronounced his situation “dire”.
I know if I had still been a free man, I would have been on the first available flight to California to be there for him; to help him through this excruciating experience in any way I could for as long as necessary. So my first reaction was anger; anger at myself for having put myself in a situation where I could not act on my instinct to go to my brother; anger at the Bureau of Prisons for refusing my request for spurious reasons. Thanks to them, I would never see my brother again.
I write these words at 9:19 pm on Friday, September 28, 2012. Less than ninety minutes ago, I was informed that my brother had died at 4:45 this morning. My nephew had called the chaplain’s office at 10 am, only to be told that the chaplain was “in a meeting.” He called again at noon and was told that the chaplain was still unavailable. My nephew asked that he be permitted to leave a message for me. I got the message eight hours later.
I am raw. I am distraught. I am profoundly angry. But I have no place to put that anger except on these pages.
When I knew the end was near, I wrote some words for my nephew to read at his father’s service because the federal prison system does not allow us to attend the funerals of our loved ones. I called my brother six days ago and read my words to him. Since they were written to him, I thought it fitting that I share them with him while he was still able to hear them and so I did. He thanked me and we shared an emotion-filled moment together. It turned out to be the last time I would get to spend with him. I don’t think he would mind if I shared those words with you here:
TO MY BROTHER
It seems impossible that you are no longer there. You’ve always been there. From the first second I slipped into this world, you were there – my big brother. When I travelled a winding and often dark road as a child, you were right there with me, sharing both the laughter and the sorrow; the smiles and the tears; the triumphs and the pain.
Even when time and distance separated us, you were still my brother and the bonds that were forged early in our lives held us fast.
What I will carry with me always is that you were a good and decent man. In my estimation, there is no better thing in this world that anyone can be.
No one in this life makes all the right choices, but you always aimed for that lofty goal. When, as a single dad, you found yourself unable to provide your sons with the level of care and structure you wanted for them, you made certain that they were cared for by someone who loved them every bit as much as you did. The fact that it was the right decision is borne out of the reality that they grew to manhood with the same qualities of gentle kindness and innate decency that you carried throughout your life.
It is one of the great regrets of my life that I cannot be there today with the rest of those who have loved you, sharing in the celebration of your life and the grief over your passing. And so I send these words in the hope that you are present in the spirit and bearing witness to the outpouring of love for you that is well earned and deserved.
I believe that the life energy that inhabits us all and that leaves us at life’s end is recyclable. If I’m right, you’ll be back – and so will I and so will everyone here today. It will be a whole new party and we’re all invited. Until that time, rest well, my dear brother. I love you – now and always.