Went to jail today. Didn’t rob a bank or evade taxes. Didn’t pass go or collect a hundred dollars. I went to pay a visit to my friend, Kathy. It was long overdue.
I’ve thought about her often the past two months, wondering what happened regarding her recent legal problem. Perhaps she was home and had put aside her interest in learning to read. Then again, she may still be incarcerated, in which case the idea of learning to read may be low on her priority list, trailing behind other more imperative survival quests.
I’m not one to drop a project I care about. I’m like a badger, when I take a bite of something that tastes “right”, no one can unclench my jaws. I only let loose when personal reasons make me chose to do so. But contrary to this, I haven’t pursued Kathy and our reading project because I’ve been distracted by my father-in-law’s cancer. Nevertheless, I haven’t forgotten her. The call from the Toccoa Technical College soliciting my help to write articles about their student’s success stories triggered some measure of guilt inside. I started thinking about how my particular student, Kathy, was not a “success story”, but one of the failures. And that just didn’t sit well with me at all.
So, I called Kathy’s husband to find out how she was doing. At first, he was evasive. He asked who I was and why I wanted to know about his wife. I re-introduced myself as her reading teacher and told him I’d been wondering about how things were going for her. Last time we talked, he told me she’d been arrested and she would call when she was released. Since I haven’t heard from her since, I wanted to check in.
I guess a reading teacher isn’t much of a threat because he softened immediately. He told me she was still in jail and they didn’t know how much longer she would be there. “Thursday, she might have a court date determining her fate”, he said, “We don’t know for sure. It’s a day by day thing.”
I told him I’d been thinking about Kathy and wondered if she was still interested in learning to read. I was willing to help still, in jail or out. I asked if I could see her. He explained that visitation is on Saturday and Sunday, but I’d have to call to set up an appointment in advance. It was already six on a Friday, but I called the correctional facility anyway. They told me to call back at 7am the next morning to make an appointment. So I got up early and called on Saturday. Then, I was told I could only make appointments on Fridays. I would have to wait a week.
I’m not exactly a patient person. I didn’t want to wait. So, I pleaded my case, explaining that I was Kathy’s reading tutor assigned by the Georgia Literacy Commission (sounded official) and that the college suggested I make arrangements to visit with her to determine whether or not we should continue the program. This is not exactly true, but it was close enough that I could talk about the importance of the meeting with enough conviction to sound believable. The officer on the phone suggested I come at 9:30. Kathy was scheduled to see her husband and son at that time and I could “share” their time.
I certainly wouldn’t presume to take any of the precious time allotted the family for myself, but I did decide to go at 9:30, just to evaluate the situation and see if I could figure out what was going on.
I have never had occasion to visit a jail before. I’ve never bailed out a friend who might have had one too many, causing them to dance naked in public, or baked a cake with a nail file in it for a bad boy I had a thing for. Convicts simply aren’t a part of my social circle, so to say I was out of my comfort zone is an understatement. I entered the lobby of the Blue Ridge correctional facility with feigned confidence, my steps forced forward to enter the cold, stark room with a single row of black leather chairs standing center for waiting guests. The atmosphere was harsh, the very aura of the space making me feel as if I was in trouble, like when a police officer is following your car. It doesn’t matter that his lights aren’t on or that you are going the speed limit. You still feel circumspect.
No one was manning the reception window. I stood politely at the front desk for over ten minutes but didn’t see a soul.
The visiting room was only a few feet away. Inside, I could see people talking on phones to orange jumpered inmates seated in small, square concrete booths behind a protective glass window. There were five stations. I figured Kathy must be in one of them. I looked for a nine-year-old boy, assuming her son would be present for visitation, but I couldn’t make out any youths. A small three year old was toddling around and I heard a woman urge her to say hello to her mother. It made me sad. A large, bold sign stated that only family members qualified as visitors. No others were allowed to speak to the inmates. This might deter another woman, but I didn’t budge.
No one was around to tell me about procedure or how to go about arranging a visit. There were no pamphlets or signs to explain the rules. I considered walking into the visitation area unannounced, just looking for Kathy and waving, but deemed it a mistake. No reason to do anything that might harm my chances of building a respectful report with the administration, considering I am not a family member and have no right to be here. So I stood around another five minutes feeling conspicuous.
I was now getting annoyed. I figured the jail is manned by public servants whose salaries are paid for by my taxes. After years of supporting the system, today I wanted to cash in. I’m the public and I wanted to be served. Where was everyone?
Finally, I decided to poke around to get help. I entered a small hallway with a sign that that said, “No entry”. I decided that if someone stopped me, I could play ignorant. (Well, I wouldn’t be playing) I found a man sitting in front of a slew of monitors, his feet propped up on the desk like the bored guards you see in every B movie that features a small town jail and it’s lazy sheriff. I asked him if anyone was expected at the front desk because I’d been waiting in the lobby for over fifteen minutes. The guard quickly straightened up and came out to help me.
I explained who I was, turning on my authoritative air and acting as if my visit was condoned by the college, the literacy commission and God himself. He listened carefully to my diatribe about Kathy being illiterate and the importance of our work together. I explained that everyone involved (um. . .that would be me, but I didn’t point that out) was concerned about losing ground in the progress she’d made. I told him I could get permission to continue working with her in the facility, but I wanted to discuss it with her before making arrangements to determine whether or not she was still interested.
He looked at me as if trying to figure me out, then said, “What is wrong with her that she can’t read?”
“She just never learned.”
“Didn’t she go to school?”
“She went for nine years.”
He shook his head. It was unclear to me whether this condemning gesture was for the school’s failure, Kathy’s, or for me, getting involved with something that he considered a lost cause. I just blinked at him innocently. Waiting.
“I don’t suppose you can tell me what she did or how long she’ll be here?” I asked. “I’m not prying, but I don’t want to go to the trouble of arranging meetings here if she is going to be released soon. And if she’s likely to be sentenced for some kind of crime, it would help to know if she’ll be sent elsewhere, or will remain in this area so I can arrange on-going tutorial visits.”
He told me to hold on, and went to look at her file. When he returned, he said, “You should count on her being here a long, long time.”
I was disheartened and wondered if Kathy had any clue about the severity of her case. Then again, perhaps this man was cynical and thought the worst of people involved with drugs. Perhaps Kathy rotting in the community correctional facility was his idea of fair justice, but a judge with all the facts might be more lenient. Without knowing Kathy’s crime or history, I had no way of predicting her future.
“If you’re willing to wait fifteen minutes I’ll clear everyone out and you can have a few minutes alone with her,” he said, at least showing respect for my good intentions.
I let him know I’d be deeply appreciative and sat down to wait. Fifteen minutes and he would bend the rules for me? I would have waited all day if necessary.
Right on cue, everyone filed out of the visitation room. Two men were in the crowd, one a clean cut, graying gentleman in a uniform holding the door for everyone else, and the other, your typical country renegade with unwashed hair hanging in unruly strands to his waist. This man had bad teeth, an untrimmed beard and wore a t-shirt with a rock band logo blazed across the chest.
This is where it becomes obvious I’m guilty of a touch of prejudice towards those who skirt the law. I turned to the long haired fellow and said, “You must be Mr. Smith, I’m Ginny. We talked on the phone.”
“I’m not Smith,” the fellow said, looking me up and down with the kind of smile the wolf gives little red riding hood.
“I’m Mr. Smith,” said the clean cut man in the uniform.
I was relieved. Surprised. Embarrassed. The logo on the pocket of his uniform was for a company that cleans septic tanks. Of course, this was Kathy’s husband. I then noticed a nine year old standing a few feet away, staring with shy curiosity.
I introduced myself.
“I told Kathy you called last night. She was tickled pink. I’ve been trying to keep her spirits up. This helps. Thanks for showing up,” he said.
Over his shoulder, I could see Kathy’s beaming face behind the glare of the glass. She was motioning me into the visitor’s area. I entered tentatively, amazed that suddenly, I was afforded not only her audience, but privacy for our meeting.
I slid into the plastic chair and picked up the phone. “Hi.”
“Hi,” she said. She looked the same, silky hair pulled up in a neat ponytail, make-up carefully applied. She was right before me, but her voice sounded distant. I wondered how old the phones were. My cell phone gets better reception.
“I’m sorry it took me so long to come see you. I thought you’d be home by now,” I said.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?”
“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you when I get out,” she said, waving her hand as if she was tired of recapping the details.
I didn’t think it appropriate to point out that my hearing the story might still be a long way off. But I could wait.
“I’m guessing you just made a stupid mistake,” I said, wanting to assure her I was still a friend, and not here to pass judgment.
She nodded. “One mistake in four years. Of course, I got caught. My luck.”
“You know my opinion. It probably is lucky you got caught. Keeps you from sliding deeper into trouble.”
She nodded, but didn’t look convinced.
“How are things in there?”
“Not bad. The food sucks. They have vending machines in here but I haven’t had any money . My husband is going to try to get me some today before he goes to work.”
She did look thin. Pale.
She went on to explain that the women inside are all nice. Her roommate has children too so, mostly, they talk about their families.
Picking up this theme, I said, “I bet you miss your son.”
Her eyes welled with tears, unable to control the knee jerk reaction to the question. Dabbing them with her sleeve, she rolled her eyes as if I must think her outburst silly. But all along, I’ve known Kathy is devoted to her son. He’s the reason she wants to change her life and learn to read. So, while it was sad to see her depressed, I was glad to see evidence of her guilt. I consider it the motivation she needs to stay on track.
I asked her what she thought was going to happen now and she told me she would know more on Thursday. She’s hoping for a diminished sentence, probation with a curfew so she can go home and care for her family. “I volunteered for rehabilitation,” she said. “It’s a year long program, which I think that would be good for me. At first, my parole officer thought it would be the best thing too, but it turns out I don’t qualify because I can’t read and write. I guess there’s some schoolwork involved. Obviously, I can’t do it.” She made a frustrated gesture, as if she was exhausted by the shadow of her problem tailing her relentlessly.
“All the more reason we should continue teaching you to read, don’t you think?”
She nodded solemnly. “I meant what I said before. I’m determined to do it this time and change my life. I thought after this you wouldn’t be around to help me, but here you are. It means a lot to me that you’re here. I’m thinking some of the girls inside could help me with the flash cards and stuff if we continue.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do.”
My mind raced over the new obstacles we’d face if we have to continuing our sessions in jail. My lofty ambitions to use recipes and cooking projects as lesson plans would have to give way to less creative methods. We’ll probably be limited to flashcards and pen and paper. For that matter, I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to leave Kathy study materials or books at all. My brother once had an acquaintance in jail and he said that if he wanted to send books, he had to order them through Amazon. Nothing deemed direct contact with others was allowed “inside”. Would they bend the rules in the interest of literacy? Should they?
I told Kathy I’d wait until Thursday to find out what the future had in store for her, then I would make arrangements for us to start working together again. I told her to keep her spirits up.
“They have church services here and I’ve been going,” she said. “It helps.”
“I thought you weren’t a church going gal,” I said, remembering our previous talk about religion.
She leaned close to the glass, as if sharing a secret with me. “He lives here,” she said, holding her heart. “I’m not alone and he’s helping me with all this.”
The fact that I was sitting in jail on a Saturday morning, forgoing my plans to join my family at a spring festival, was evidence enough for me to assume she might be correct. Who’s to say a higher order isn’t pulling the puppet strings that force me into action.
I left the visitation room and paused to talk to the guard again. I asked if I could leave Kathy money for the snack machines and he said, “Why?”
“I want her to be comfortable,” I said.
“There’s a procedure.”
“Can you walk me through it, please,” I said. If I was going to start hanging around this dismal concrete hole, I wanted to learn how things worked. I filled out a form and left Kathy twenty-five dollars.
As I escaped to the open space outdoors, I saw Kathy’s husband. He was waiting to speak to me. It was raining, so his son was in the car, but he stood leaning against the rail, shifting his weight from foot to foot uncomfortably. He thanked me for coming. I told him I had left her money, so he didn’t have to worry about that right away.
“That was kind of you. I’ll get that back to you soon as I can.”
“It’s a gift, don’t worry about it, ” I said. I was actually worried about my hair being ruined by the rain, and then, I felt shallow for thinking wet hair is a problem when others have real concerns to deal with. The mind is funny, how it rambles.
I told him I was going to wait until Thursday, and once we knew where she would be, we’d work together on her reading again. “I would appreciate a call if you hear any news. I hope things turn out well for your family,” I said.
“I appreciate that,” he said. Then he sighed. “It’s all my fault.”
My prejudice flared again. I wondered just what that statement implied. Did he introduce his wife to drugs? Support her problem? Is he as guilty as she (of whatever she has done), but somehow he avoided being caught?
“I work too damn much,” he explained. “I work between 100 and 120 hours a week. I do it so she doesn’t have to work. But it means she is alone too much and I’m not around to watch out for her. She’s lonely. Sad. That’s how she got into trouble again. I’m sure of it.”
My heart went out to him, because he’s probably right, at least partially. But who can fault a man who spends a hundred hours a week in septic tanks trying to do right by his family? Or pass judgment on a woman who drowns her depression in illegal substance when life seems a endless hill of obstacles she can’t climb because she can’t read the signs along the way? And whose fault is it that she can’t read, or that he must work so hard at menial jobs because of his own limited education? Society’s fault? There own? Certainly, it’s not mine.
It has occurred to me that I might be volunteering my time to someone who may not necessarily deserve it. I’m a busy person and there are many causes I could apply my personal effort towards. In light of Kathy’s recent legal trouble and my failure to learn the facts of her incarceration, I can’t be sure Kathy is earnest or deserving of my attention. But I’m choosing to assume she is. It feels right when I look into her eyes, and my gut tells me I can make a difference here. I guess this is what you would call a literacy leap of faith.
My aspirations to teach Kathy to read may fail, but if so, it’s fair to assume lessons will be learned in the process.
For Kathy, this will mean reading at least a few words and sentences better. For me, it will be a matter of learning to read people better.
Hopefully, in the end, this project will prove we both have the ability to read well.