Wendi’s son was arrested and spent 10 years in prison. She shares her story about what it was like when her son was arrested, the court sentence, driving him to prison to serve his sentence and the things she learned during the 10 years he spent in prison. She also shares the joy of what it was like the day he was released from prison.
(Edited for ease of reading)
“I have no idea what it was like for him, 10 years later to know: I am free…I know as a mom, I felt like that day the shackles came off me, too. I was free, I was free.”
Wendi, how did you find out that your son was arrested?
I found out he had been arrested by the friend he was living with. I hadn’t talked to him in several days so I went over to his friend’s house just to find out if everything was okay. She came out and told me that he had been arrested. That’s how I found out so it was very shocking. I think his father and I called the county jail just to see what we could find out. We had no idea what he was arrested for. It’s been a while so I don’t remember if they were able to tell us anything or if we had to wait for him to call.
Have you had any experience before this? Did you ask anybody what you’re supposed to do?
I had never known anyone who had been in jail or arrested. Instinct took over and we just called the county jail.
When were you able to see him?
We were able to actually see him that night. We went to the Detention Center which is downtown and we were able to see him. I remember waiting in line, we had to have our ID and I remember talking to a guard. The first time we saw him it was on the computer screen. We were just looking at the computer screen and we could see him and I think we were talking on the phone. It was really strange because he’s talking and I only see the top of his head. I tell him, “son look up here at me.” So it was strange. You don’t think that you’d be going in and talking to somebody through a computer screen because you watch movies and people are face to face. So it is interesting that when a loved one is arrested and you go to see them that each facility is little bit different. Now that was just the first time I saw him. The next time I visited him, it was actually what you see in movies. It was through the glass partition and then we talked on the telephone.
How long was he in there before the court appearance?
He was in there may be a month. I know he wasn’t in there for very long before he got sent to prison.
Could you explain what it was like when you and his dad, and any other family members, went to see him in court?
It was in the courthouse when he was being sentenced. How I remember, it was horrible. Anyone is allowed in these Court hearings. On the left side you see all these inmates in orange jumpsuits and they’re all handcuffed. There’s family members or whoever in the audience. Then they call the names and the attorneys come up right then and there and they talk to the judge. My son took a plea deal. I think the Judge asked him if there was anything he wanted to say. I don’t really want to say exactly what he said other than that he was sorry. He didn’t really go into any details – he was sorry. Then the Judge gave his sentence. The Judge did change it somewhat from what the parole probation people had originally said. So right then and there he was he was taken into custody.
Once the Judge gave the sentencing and he was taken into custody where did you go to get information?
I probably just called the prison. They did tell me that it was up to him to send me the paperwork to start the process. It wasn’t something I could do. I’m sure there was a list of do’s and don’ts, what you’re allowed to wear, how much money you’re allowed to bring in, and the details of the visiting. That was for the first facility.
Once you filed everything do you remember how long it took to be approved to visit?
It was probably about two months. For his first visit it was his dad, his grandmother, and me who went to see him. It was hard. I drove into a parking lot knowing that my 18-year-old son was here. It was incredibly hard. Then I had to stand in line and people are there joking around and they’re so jovial. That I found a be strange; you’re here visiting a loved one and nobody seems to take this serious. On the other hand, the people were very friendly. They helped us and told us where we could put our purse, they walked us through what he we had to do and where to sign in. So that part of it made me feel a little bit better. I appreciated them walking me through this, so that was nice.
I had the same experience where I couldn’t understand why everybody was so happy and joking around. I think after several visits that you get to understand.
You do, you do get to understand. Basically you accept that for right now that this is your loved one’s life and because of that it’s also our life. So over time I think I changed, too. I became the friendly one. When I would see a new person coming to visit I would walk them through the process: here is the locker, this is where the key is, you’re allowed to bring in so much money, etc. So yeah, you just kind of fill in the new people behind you.
[tweetthis]You accept that this is the life of your loved one and also your own.[/tweetthis]
Could you go through the process of what you had to go through after you sign in?
After you sign in you go to a different little waiting room where there’s benches you wait on. You wait for a certain time and that’s when the guards in that room start the actual process. I don’t think they called a name. I think they just said okay go ahead and line up. They’ll take women first or men first, whoever they’re going to check in first. You then wait in another line and then you go through the metal detector. Then you go into a little room. One guard would take women and another guard would take men in and that’s when you would go through the process to take your shoes off, and raise your arms out so they could frisk you. After that you put your shoes back on and then you actually go through the door. There is a guard in a glass area and he’s the one who’s responsible for pushing the buttons that open that door to actually have you walk up to the visiting center. It was really weird to hear for the first time that door clank blank behind you. That was very unnerving to me that I don’t think it’s something you ever forget and my son was in prison for 10 years. I don’t think it’s something you ever get used to it.
I know different prisons look different. What was the first one like?
The prison was a fairly new prison when my son went to prison. It was huge. I don’t remember the capacity, but it’s really big. The visiting center is a big room with lots of tables and vending machines. When you first walk in on the right-hand side is where two guards are usually sitting. You need to check in with the guards even though you did that when you first got there. You give them your name, name of person you are visiting, and then they assign you a table. The first thing I would usually do is buy food, because the vending machines would run out pretty quick. So if you are going to be there for three hours visiting I think that’s one of the things that you’re loved one looks forward to. “Oh, good food out of the vending machines!” We would usually have to wait for him. Like I said, we’d be assigned a table; we’d put down, if we had one, a coat (you could wear a coat in if it was cold) or something like that, or if we checked out a game from the guards we’d set that on the table. Then I would start buying food for him and go back to my table and wait for him to come in.
You said check out games, so that’s something that a lot of the facilities do have. What kinds of games?
Checkers, chess, scrabble, lots of desks of cards. I had asked them if I could donate games and they don’t allow it. A lot of these games and missing pieces, but I mean it’s something to do. There was also a little area for small children. There a TV playing cartoons and toys for the children. It’s a carpeted area and it’s painted with Disney characters. So that was a nice, because they do not want the children running around visiting room. They’re very particular about that and want you to control your children.
That makes sense and it’s nice that they have that. When he did arrive what kind of contact were you allowed to have at that facility?
I could give him a hug when I saw him and give him a kiss. That was pretty much it. Inmates in that facility sat on one side of the table and family members sat on the other side. When he left then I could give him a hug and a kiss. Other than that, that’s really pretty much the only contact we had.
In the ten years he was at different facilities. How did you know when he was moved to a different facility?
I knew because he called me; he had already been moved. I remember the first thing he said to me is “mom, don’t freak out”, and told me where he was moved to. So that’s how I knew; I wouldn’t have known had he not called me. Yeah, I did freak out. I mean it went from being a 45-minute drive to see my son, to a 7-hour drive, so it did freak me out a little bit. He was very calm, so I stayed calm. At least with him I stayed calm. When I got off the phone I’m sure I cried and was upset, but with him I was calm.
Did you know he could be moved? Did you have any idea that this could even happen?
No, no I don’t think so. With this being a totally new process for me, I just assumed he would always be there, close to home. So yeah, that was kind of hard and shocking. As a parent or a loved one you have no say in it, so that’s the way it was. I did go visit him as soon as I could at this new facility. Seven hours away. My mom would always travel with me and he has two younger brothers that would go, too. So we would turn it into a trip.
Did the facility allow all of you to visit at the same time or was there a limit to the number of people?
I believe you could have four people visit at a time, but every facility is going to be different. Once you find out where your loved one is, you want to call that facility and ask specifically how many visitors you can have at one time.
Did you have to schedule appointments to visit or was there just set visiting days that you knew about?
Again all prisons are different. Some would set days for whatever tier he was in. For example, I could go Tuesdays and Wednesdays to one prison and other prisons I had to make a call to schedule an appointment.
You said that he was moved and you would find out that he was moved after he called you. Did you ever call the prison before you went out there to make sure he there, especially when he was further away?
No, actually I didn’t.
I didn’t either, but I think that’s a good idea for our listeners.
That’s a very good idea. I was lucky, however there were times that I drove out to a prison and it was on lockdown. So I’d get out there to prison and the whole prison was shutdown. But, no, I never went to a prison and found out that, no, he’s not here anymore. That never happened to me.
When there’s a lockdown in the prison that means that nobody can come in.
So on those days that you went out there and there was a lockdown did you wait? Did they tell you that the lockdown would be for this amount of time and then you could go in or did you just have to leave?
No, we just left. Like I said it happened on a couple of different occasions at different prisons and it was pretty much the same. They were on lockdown and they couldn’t say when the lockdown would end, so we would just leave.
So even if you do call in advance to find out if your loved one is there it can still happen that you get there and the prison is in lockdown and it wasn’t at the time you called. So just be aware that even though you’re going there, there could be things that happened so that you’re not allowed to see your loved one.
Yeah and you have no control over it, so there’s nothing you can do about it when you get there and that’s happened.
Do you have any stories of when you’ve gone to visit?
One prison was nice because you got to visit outside. I still remember an incident with a female guard. She said I couldn’t visit with what I was wearing (she didn’t like the shirt). Because it was a seven-hour drive we had spent the night so I had extra clothes. There was no place to change your clothes so I had to go out and change my shirt in my car. Yeah that’s just one of the little stories.
Over the ten years that you visited I’m sure a lot of interesting things happened. Is there anything that you think could help our listeners; maybe something you went through that they need to be aware of?
Something that you always want to do is take an extra pair of clothes. Just because every prison is different and guards are different. You might go to one prison one weekend and visit and these two-inch heels are fine. Then you visit the next week and a different guard doesn’t let you in because those heels are too high. So whenever I went to visit my son, I always had extra shoes in my car. I always had extra clothes in my car and I actually have extra clothes in there for other people in case they need it. I remember one time when we went to visit my son, and I don’t know how this happened, but his younger brother was in blue jeans. You can’t wear blue jeans into the prison because this is what the inmates wear. We’ve driven three and a half hours, we’re going up to visit, and it didn’t dawn on me until we get up there that he’s got on blue jeans. Well a very nice man in the visiting room said that he had a pair of black pants my son could borrow. So here’s my son in these pants that are way too big for him, but it didn’t matter. So he’s got these black pants on and he’s able to visit. I remember the man saying that we should just keep them. I tried to pay him and he wouldn’t let me pay for them. So from then on out I always kept those black pants in my car just in case it ever happened to someone else. It would have been heartbreaking had we’ve been there and his younger brother wouldn’t have been able to go in to see him. So I always take an extra pair of clothes. I got to the point where I called them church clothes. I had one outfit, anytime I was going to visit him, just because I knew that this outfit passed. You know this one let me go through so that’s it. Just always want to be aware of what you’re allowed to wear and always have an extra change of clothes. If you have a different guard that day, that guard’s ideas might be a little bit different. So always travel with extra clothes in your car.
That’s really good advice and I’ve had to do that, too. Out of all the facilities you were talking about one facility that you thought was pretty nice. Do you want to describe that?
The facility that I liked best was where my son was for youthful offenders. Just the whole feeling there just felt different and to me it truly was for youthful offenders. Just the whole feeling there felt different to me. It truly was for youthful offenders and I felt like that prison was all about rehabilitation. This might sound crazy, but I didn’t mind him being there. I mean, I knew that he had to serve his sentence and I didn’t mind him being there. The guards knew us by name, they knew him by name and when we would come and sign it, they’d call him right up. There were lots of classes offered there. I went to graduation ceremonies there. He graduated from high school right before he went in but he graduated from a computer and an air conditioning class while in prison. It felt somewhat normal when I went there. They welcomed you. When the kids graduated they were in cap and gown. They had a luncheon for the parents. I was heartbroken when that prison ended up closing. I was really heartbroken because I felt that if he could serve the rest of his time here, I would be okay with it. Like I said I liked the guards, they knew him, he seemed to be happy there with the classes he was taking. I was heartbroken when it closed.
So that would’ve probably helped with his rehabilitation,too.
Absolutely. I don’t remember how long he was there, but then we went to other prisons and then ended up where he started.
You talked about the prison that you thought would rehabilitate him, but you also told me about another prison where they had death row inmates and that was scarier.
I remember when my son got sentenced there I actually wrote a letter to the warden. I just hated the idea of my son going somewhere, where there’s death row inmates. (Note: This prison has been closed, too.) That really bothered me. The warden sent me a response saying something like the board or whoever decided that he needed to make this move. So I appreciated the response, but they still sent him there. Luckily he wasn’t there very long and I never visited him there. Once he was moved again we started our every six-week visits.
You bring up a good point that you did write to the Warden for that one circumstance and that’s something I don’t think a lot of people know. Even though you are on the outside, you still have a voice and you can write to the Warden and other people in the system. Did you ever have any other reason to write to anybody or did anybody provide you with assistance?
I wrote an Assistant Warden. I forget exactly what the circumstances were, but I actually talked to that him because I felt that my son had been treated unfairly by his case worker; I went over the case workers head. I talked to the Assistant Warden and again I appreciated him talking to me. He assured me that there was a solution to the problem. So that did make me feel better knowing that I could call and talk to someone.
Were there any other times that you felt you needed to do that?
At a couple of the different prisons I did actually talk to the case workers about different things like what programs he could get into. They treated him like a grown up because of his crimes but I don’t think 18 years old is a grown up. So I did make phone calls just to find out information. That’s when I heard that they had so many cases, but that’s their job. I would expect something from them.
That’s really good information for people on the outside, too. Each inmate does have a caseworker and each situation will be a little different depending on the facility and whether they are overworked or what their status is. However, they are available for you to speak to along with the Warden the Assistant Warden. So it’s just good to know that.
Going back to when you found out that he was arrested, who did you tell and how did you tell them?
The only people I told were actual people who knew our family, the people who knew my son. So it’s not like I shared with my co-workers because if they weren’t really close friends then they didn’t know my son, then they didn’t know. When people would ask how many children I have, I would tell them I have three children. When they would ask what my oldest child is doing, and if they didn’t know him, I would just say he’s off finding himself. This is because I never wanted anyone to judge him. I didn’t care so much if they wanted to judge me, I know I’m a good parent, I know I’m a good mom. I just didn’t want anyone to judge him based on something he did when he was 17 years old. So I didn’t share with a lot of people, but all of our close friends knew. They were very supportive of me, so that was nice, and they were very supportive of our family. When my son got arrested all his friends, at one time or another, came over to the house and told me how sorry they were when they heard what happened. That was nice, I mean there was a lot of support there from our close friends and family.
We don’t really talk about how emotional it is and just so everybody knows and I guess you could imagine how emotional it is knowing that you’re going to see a loved one that’s been locked up and you looking forward to seeing them but there’s still a lot of pain and I know sometimes you went see him and you didn’t actually go inside.
Right that is true. I would just drive up to the prison and sit in my car in the parking lot. There’s really no way to prepare yourself to go in and visit a loved one, especially a child. I can’t speak what it would be like to visit a spouse, but to visit your child, and to me at a young age. I mean he was 18 years old. This is still a kid and he’s in an adult prison. So that was very hard. Advice I’d give to the people is don’t ever let your loved one see you cry. No need to make it harder for them because if they see you cry there’s a chance they could cry and that might cause them trouble when they go back. So like I said, you cry in the parking lot before you go and see them and when you walk out it’s ok to start crying. You don’t want to cry in front of them because there’s a chance it will make them emotional and that could cause some problems when they go back.
Having gone to visit your son over the years, are there any of the words of advice that you’d like to share with our audience?
I treat everyone with respect and some of the guards are not very respectful towards you. You have to remember they are in charge of your loved one so you have to bite your tongue a lot. I found that for 10 years you do, I had to bite my tongue a lot because there were times, even the way they would talk to my son; I would cringe. I would want to go up and say something and tell them they don’t have to be rude; we know where he is, we know he’s in prison. So go in there with a positive attitude for your loved one and treat everybody with respect. I was taking the most amount of money I could take it in. I remember this kind of a funny story: the first time I went to visit my son I didn’t know that you could take in $30 worth of change, so I took in like $10. We found out that $10 does not go very far, especially when you’re visiting someone for three hours. I was only able to buy him a few things and like I said it was kind of just funny because we’re watching everybody around us eat and I felt so bad. I told my son that I was really sorry I couldn’t buy him more stuff. So take in the maximum amount of money. Your loved one will appreciate it.
I agree. The first time you don’t really know, and I’ve had people ask me why do you need money when you go, and I explain that to them that it’s really important. It is really important. Yes, if you can do that, bring as much as you can because eating is one of the joys. It is one of the joys that they get.
Lastly let’s talk about his release.
It’s been three years.
Do you want to explain that process?
My son’s sentence maximum would’ve been 20 years and minimum 4 years; he served 10 years. He expired his sentence which means he did walk out a free person. There was no parole so he didn’t need to answer to a parole officer. So he did walk out a free man and he came home and live with me and my husband and my youngest son. His middle brother by now it’s grown; it’s been 10 years so he’s now a grown up and he’s got his own place, his own life. My son came home and lived with me and he came out with a very positive attitude. Right away he started looking for jobs. He came out with a very healthy positive attitude. So that was good. I think it also helps that he came out with an expired sentence. He didn’t have to report to anybody and there were no rules on the outside for him such as your curfew is at 9 o’clock at night, no drinking, or no whatever. So I think that made it easier for him; it was an easier transition for him.
I’d like to commend you and your family because I think that by going to visit him and maintaining a relationship with him, not only visiting but also for writing and phone calls, which we didn’t talk about.
My mother and I both wrote him on a weekly basis and he saved every single one of those letters. When he came home he had a bag of letters. I did ask him why he kept all these letters and cards and he said just in case he needs to remember, almost like the heartache that he caused our family and what he did to us as a unit. I think he kept them just to remind himself. As far as phone calls, we probably talked a couple times a week. I assured my son those 10 years he was in prison he was never ever alone, we served it with him as a family. So that is important; I can’t imagine the people who are there and don’t have anybody to talk to or to visit. I can’t imagine that kind of isolation or that loneliness. I don’t think my son ever felt alone from his family; he knew that we were always with him. So I think that’s important if you can do it, but maybe not everybody can do it, maybe health-wise you can’t maybe for your own, I don’t know, sanity you have to walk away or turn your back. I know if you could be a part of their life you maintain that relationship as much as you can.
Those 10 years he was in prison he was never alone, we served it with him as a family.
Even if it’s just writing or even a phone call whenever you can.
Absolutely, even if it’s a birthday card or a Christmas card, it’s something. Just to know that you’re loved one has something to come home to. You are their only connection to the outside world. Family and friends were it. I think it’s very important for that relationship to stay in existence.
So how did you find out that he was going to be released? Did you already know the date?
He found out the date; as soon as he knew the date he called us. They get released, they get dropped off at the bus station. He couldn’t give us what time because, I don’t know, it’s very secretive, but we had a window. So his dad, one of his brothers and me went down to the bus station and waited. We were probably there a good hour and then we saw the white van pull up. We knew what it was, it’s not marked, but we knew. My son and another person got out. I can’t even describe that feeling, just running up to him and giving him a hug and knowing he’s a free person. That we can go to breakfast now. My husband and I had bought him a car and we brought the car there for him.
So he didn’t know the date for a while, but as soon as he knew the date we were marking down the days on a calendar. I was going to be there when he got released, I didn’t care if I was waiting there for eight hours. It didn’t really matter I was going to be there. So yes, we were for like an hour sitting on the side of the street watching the buses come and go. When the white van pulled up, it was him. It was a neat feeling. I have no idea what it was like for him, 10 years later to know: I am free. I don’t know, but I know as a mom, I felt like that day the shackles came off me, too. I was free, I was free.
His dad had bought him a new shirt, because he came out wearing his blue jeans and he still had on the blue shirt that he wore in prison. So right then and there he put on this this new shirt and went to breakfast. He got biscuits and gravy.
Any last words for our audience?
I think once somebody’s been to prison, especially for a length of 10 years you can never go back. You could go forward. Like I told him, you have to leave that behind you, look forward, this is now the beginning of your life. It’s kind of like a do-over, you start from right now. I think that podcasts like this for loved ones on the outside, support groups, are needed. You need to find other people who can relate to what you’re going through because unless you’ve ever had someone in prison, you can’t talk to someone, they don’t know. Only someone who knows what you’re going through can really relate to you and tell you what to expect and to assure you that those feelings are normal. It’s okay to be angry at your loved one. The emotions are hard to explain what it’s like. Get into a support group you can share those true feelings. My son had been out for three years, but I still diligently go to the support group meeting. If I can help someone else and make it easier for them, I want to be there for them because the support group for me was there and they helped me. Like I said I want to be there for other people so any way I can help, questions or anything like that, I’m willing to help.
Wendy thank you for your time and for your sharing. When you share it really helps not only yourself but other people because it shows people that they’re not alone with what they’re going through, that there’s other people out there that are experiencing the same or similar things, or if you’re just going through this for the first time that you’ll get through it.
The preceding transcript has been edited for ease of reading.