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My Little Brother
"Can I have the name of the person you’re here to see?”
“Are you on the visitor’s list?”
“Yes, I’m his sister.”
“Can I see some identification?” I handed over my license. “Go down the hill, third building on the left. The guard will take you from there. Before you go, I’ll need to check your bags.”
That was the first time I had visited my brother without my mother by my side. I noticed how much the grounds resembled a college campus. The grass was well kept and the buildings had ivy growing up the sides. If there hadn’t been bars on every window and a security fence around the area, I’d have felt like I was visiting my little brother at school.
The second I walked through the heavy steel doors, I felt a chill run up my spine. What am I doing here? As much as I missed my brother, I never wanted to go visit him. The place made me feel sick. The bag of fast food I had brought for my brother was checked before I walked through the metal detector.
“Go to the end of the corridor and ring the bell. The guard will show you where you can see him.” The door knob was very cold; the long hallway empty. Even through the thick door, I could hear the familiar sound of the guard’s keys as he walked toward the door. “I’m here to see Johnny Smith.”
“Wait in here. I’ll get him.” So this was where Johnny eats his three meals. I was waiting in a small room, not even the size of a classroom. There were three aluminum tables fastened to the floor with stool-like seats. The metal was extremely cold. The seating chart for the lunch shifts was posted on the wall. I was sitting in my brother’s seat. Next to the chart hung a long list of rules:
1. No talking in the dining area.
2. If there is a problem, raise your hand and wait for one of the guards to address your question.
3. If “group” is requested of you more than two times in one week, you will be dismissed from meal time for a week.
4. If you are caught trading food or stealing others’ food, you will be removed from the dining area and sent back to your cell. And so on.
“Johnny! Mommy couldn’t come today; she had to work.”
“What did you bring me to eat? I skipped lunch today hoping you or Mom were coming. I almost thought you weren’t gonna show.” His face was thin and full of scrubby facial hair and a trace of acne. His hair looked like it hadn’t been washed in a month, and was past his chin. He looked like Hell. I wanted to take him out of there and take care of him. The one piece blue jumper and worn-out slippers were not Johnny’s usual attire. I couldn’t stand to look at him.
“What do you do in here all day?” “Read” and “workout” were the answers I got. I didn’t know what else to talk about. “Has anybody, you know, tried anything on you?” It was a legitimate question. Johnny got that disgusted look on his face; “Not over my dead body.” I prayed he was telling the truth.
A girl about my age came into the room with a lady who appeared to be her mother. The girl was wearing the same dirty blue jumper. Hers fit her a little differently – she was seven months pregnant. The ratio of females to males in the facility was about 1 to 10. What was a young, pretty girl doing in jail? What was my little brother doing in jail?
He had gotten himself in trouble with the police many times since he was 12; he just didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut
or his hands to himself. He had just turned 15 – in jail. Drinking and smoking pot didn’t help his temper. After being placed in a rehab building instead of being sent to jail, he broke out and stole a car. “I just wanted to come home” was all he had said.
I wanted to hug him and tell him I loved him. But if the guards see us getting close, they do a full body search of him. I couldn’t help it; I had to hug my brother.
The guard allowed him to walk to the first doorway. We passed his cell on the way. I stopped and peeked into the window. The room was no larger than your average school bathroom. There was a small cot bolted to the floor, a mirror-like metal bolted to the wall, and a sink with a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste on it. No window, no fresh air. The average stay, and Johnny’s sentenced time, was 18 months. “This is where you sleep?”
“This is where I live.”
The ride home was the longest hour of my life. There was no getting used to visiting my brother in jail.
Johnny was released on probation just before Christmas. We were not expecting him home for another seven months, and getting used to having him around has been a process in itself. Occasionally, he had been allowed home on weekend passes, but he would always be gone again by Sunday at 3 o’clock. The ups and downs of having a loved one in trouble with the law and going to jail and through probation is very tough.
The most frequently asked questions are “Did it work? Did he straighten himself out?” Well, if not hitting someone only because you don’t want to go back to jail means you’re rehabilitated, then I suppose you could say it worked.
After having seen Johnny in jail and watching my mom cry, desperately trying to figure out where she went wrong, I’ll never look at jail the same way. It’s just not funny once you’ve seen what happens when the cops stop slapping you on the wrist, and start taking things seriously.