The Ripple Effect

The Ripple Effect

For too many years of my life I assumed my actions affected me and only me. So what if I chose to drink away my pain? So what if I messed up, got arrested, and got sentenced to many years in prison: I’m the one doing the time, or so I thought. I couldn’t see beyond myself and the consequences I’d reaped to see the pain in the faces others who love me — not to mention in all the victims I created while living my life of crime and addiction.

My parents did the very best they could to raise my brother, two sisters, and me. They worked hard, bought us presents for every birthday and Christmases and spent quality time with all of us on a daily basis. We were never considered middle class from a financial standpoint, but I never felt as though I lacked anything that my middle-class friends had.

I added this context to show how my actions were strictly of my own volition — my parents raised us with values. So, when I came to prison at 19, my parents should have felt no guilt for my predicament; but what do you think actually happened? Naturally, any parent is going to question why their son (or daughter) went wayward, what they think they could have done differently to change the path I’d taken. My decisions tortured them, kept them up many a night, and brought them to experience agony they did not deserve. 

They were now put in the unfortunate position of visiting their son in this god-forsaken place, often times being treated like a criminal themselves when they came to visit. They were compelled to now support me, not by giving me money for a birthday or Christmas but helping me buy commissary, hygiene products, and paying for phone calls. They did not deserve this — they never did. Now, they are both gone, and this is the last place they were able to hug their son.

My twin brother, sisters, nieces and nephew have likewise had to come into prison for 15 years (plus three more on a previous prison stint) if they wanted to see me. They are forced to celebrate my birthdays by sending a card — not taking me out to dinner or otherwise. If they want to talk, they have to pay $4.80 for 30 minutes. My nieces and nephew have not had their uncle at birthdays, Christmases, graduations, and so much more. I have been forced to watch them grow up through pictures. My family has been nothing but law-abiding citizens their entire lives and by no means deserve to be subjected to this situation. But because they love me, they would never abandon me. They do not deserve what my actions have put them through.

My victims and their families did not ask to have their lives shattered by the tragedy that I solely produced 15 years ago. Their lives were cut short, never able to reach the full potential they possessed. Future generations of their families will never meet them and come to know the beautiful souls they had. My addiction, recklessness, and complete selfishness severely altered their lives forever. They were doing everything right; I was doing everything wrong, and now they are not here but I am. How is that fair? I obviously cannot answer that, but what I can say with absolute certainty is they — none of them — deserved what I did to them.

For many of us in prison, because we are the ones physically secluded from society and deprived of any semblance of freedom, we equate this with the notion that we’re the only ones affected by our bad decisions. But as I have outlined here, this is simply a misguided, narrow-minded viewpoint. Not only our victims, but also our families, significant others, friends, and many others are affected by the costly decisions we made. Coming to prison is a burden to so many people who didn’t deserve it. The sooner I was able to realize this truth, the sooner I was able to start to rehabilitate. Cognitive classes, church, and educational courses are all positive ways to spend one’s time in prison, but without coming to terms with the massive ripple effect left in the wake of our crime and subsequent prison stay, true rehabilitation and accountability will be impeded.

Prisoners and the Importance of Positive Human Touch by Natalie Korman

Prisoners and the Importance of Positive Human Touch by Natalie Korman

Research has shown that physical human touch, particularly positive and supportive touch, is necessary for a healthy emotional state. While many people may be familiar with babies needing to be held and cuddled to develop healthily, humans in general must also receive and give positive physical contact to maintain a healthy emotional state.

Many adults, even those with numerous family and friends may be lacking in positive physical contact. However, incarcerated people are not just among the most socially isolated in our society, they are physically isolated — specifically, isolated from positive human touch.

While it may be common knowledge that violence — including sexual violence — occurs in prison, the gravity of the issue may not be as widely considered. Whether at the hands of their fellow inmates or of prison staff, incarcerated people may only know for years what it’s like to be touched by people who either have no interest in their wellbeing or outright wish them harm or death.

Some prisoners may be lucky enough to enjoy the spontaneous, positive touch of fellow inmates who are also friends. However, when some nonviolent touch occurs  it may be calculated and particular. Friends or allies may shake hands or even embrace. But every moment of physical contact may be measured in some way to initiate or preserve alliances, or break them, in order to maintain the inmate’s status or survival in prison. And if inmates do engage in nonviolent, consensual sexual activities with each other, it is always illicit, per prison rules.

Incarcerated people are, of course, also denied the ability to touch their loved ones: their family and friends. While some prisoners can touch visitors, if they have visitors at all, some are separated by thick glass. Others still might find visiting hours cruelly unaccommodating. Additionally, highly invasive strip searches are standard procedure before and after a prisoner receives a vist. Millions of opportunities for positive physical contact are poisoned or vanish altogether as soon as a person enters prison.

Shrinking visiting hours and poor opportunities for communication plague inmates and their families. Private companies provide prisons with services for phone calls, video calls, and email (at a profit) and there is growing concern that these extremely expensive digital and phone connections are replacing in-person visiting at some facilities, further distancing prisoners from positive human touch.

While many prisoners may have the dogged support from and frequent contact with family and friends, there are many who do not. Some prisoners, for a variety of reasons, receive few or no letters, phone calls or visits. This can have a devastating effect on the person in prison.

Solving the issue of the lack of positive human touch and supportive human contact for people incarcerated in the United States is a matter of a greater scope than this post can address. But there are ways individuals and institutions can support prisoners within the current context of incarceration even as organizers and activists resist against a system that so thoroughly dehumanizes millions of people.

Writing to a prisoner, for example, is one of the easiest ways to give support. Receiving their calls, sending supplies and books, or visiting them in person is vital to any given prisoner, too. But a letter is usually the easiest way for someone on the outside to reach in. And while letters cannot replace face-to-face contact or ease the lack of positive touch prisoners face, letters can provide an emotional lifeline to someone in dire need of one.

Adopt an Inmate facilitates the connection between incarcerated individuals and the people who wish to lend their support. AI is always looking for compassionate people who want to be there for someone who may have no one else on the outside. Submit this form to start the process.

Natalie Korman is a poet, writer, and editor living in Northern California. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Heliotropics (dancing girl press). In 2017, after being introduced to Adopt an Inmate by a former classmate, Natalie began correspondences with two people through the organization; both are now meaningful friendships. In the spirit of Adopt an Inmate, Natalie believes ongoing healing from institutional and interpersonal harm is a necessary part of the struggle for a more just and peaceful world.

Help Us Help April Barber

Help Us Help April Barber

I get calls from inmates all over the country, all day long. Many of them are collect calls, and as much as I wish I could, I can’t accept them – we’ve no budget for it. Each state’s prison phone system has its particular recording, typically announcing whether it is pre-paid or collect, sometimes including the inmate’s spoken name, as is the case with Sean in Illinois. Several times a month, I answer the phone to hear the following:

“You are receiving a collect call from: <in Sean’s voice> Sean,” followed by instructions to set up a pre-paid phone account to receive collect calls. I knew in my heart he kept calling just so someone would hear his name. Eventually, Sean wrote to me, and finally I knew his last name and location. I looked him up and, as Illinois is one of the states that provides pictures, saw a young face staring back. He had been barely of legal age at the time of his crime — now 20 years into a long sentence. What happened, Sean? How did you end up there?

I wrote him back. He responded, “I got mad respect for you, Melissa,” and that he would continue with the unanswerable calls, so that I would know he is alive. Each time, I listen to his now-familiar voice uttering a one-syllable word, his name, and pour every ounce of love and peace I can muster through the line hoping he feels it. I hear you, Sean.

Illinois state inmates occasionally receive a free 20-second call, and we use those rare 20 second opportunities to quickly say hello. He was adopted by one of our volunteers a few months ago, and used his next 20 second call to tell me he had heard from his adopter. Now someone else knows his name, too.

Lesson: There is always a soul behind the call.

A few weeks ago I answered a pre-paid call from April, an inmate in North Carolina.

The conversation began as most do, an inmate who — after seeing our ad in one of several prisoner resource lists — inquires about our services and how to participate. I explain that we are currently taking a hiatus from new inmate requests, while we focus on catching up with a huge backlog, and to wait a few months before checking in again.

April’s voice is young, but thoughtful and determined, and exudes warmth. She shares a little about her story with me. Now 42, she has been in prison for 26 years – more than half her life. Quickly doing the math in my head, I ask if she was a juvenile charged as an adult. With a barely audible sigh in her voice, she confirms my suspicion. April was born to teenage parents who were in and out of prison themselves, and unable to properly care for her. Her grandparents adopted her in their sixties, when she was still a baby.

Fifteen years old and pregnant, under the influence of a man twice her age, April made a terrible decision that resulted in the death of her grandparents. They had given her an ultimatum: abort the child, or her boyfriend would face statutory rape charges. “I always grew up feeling unwanted because I knew my mother had given me up for adoption. I didn’t want that for any child. It was never a matter of us wanting to kill them, it was just like ‘gosh, what can we do to scare them, to just get them off our back,'” recalled Barber. April received two consecutive life sentences. An article b

April with her son Colt

She gave birth to her son, Colt, in prison. He is now 26, and attends Appalachian State University.

“April,” I stop her, “forget what I said about waiting. You have a story that needs to be told.”

I ask about her eligibility for resentencing, based on Miller vs. Alabama (which applies retroactively). In the decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that imposing mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The law invites the defendant to submit mitigating circumstances to the court related to the defendant’s age, immaturity, exposure to familial or peer pressure, and other potential mitigators. An attorney is working on her case, but as those who follow such things know, it’s a very slow process.

“I believe in giving back,” April tells me. The irony in her statement struck me. “If my story helps others from going down the same dark path that I walked, then my journey has not been in vain.”

April has completed every educational opportunity available. She has a handful of certificates and diplomas — is a certified personal trainer, nutritional specialist, and licensed cosmetologist. She is 13 credits shy of a BA in interdisciplinary studies, and a semester away from an AA in business administration. Due to budget cuts, she is unable to finish either degree.

As an alternative, she hopes to find a sponsor for an accredited Paralegal Certificate Program offered as a correspondence course. The total cost is $826 – or about $30 a month.

Education is a critical factor in success for incarcerated men and women — before and after release — and is proven to reduce recidivism. 1 2 3

I may never know Sean’s story — but I do know April’s.

Please consider sponsoring April for one or more months of education. Click the donate button in the sidebar. Share this post with your social networks. I’d love to give her some good news the next time she calls.