Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Some names in this piece have been changed to protect privacy.
I had come to visit my sister at the South Boise Women’s Correctional Center, a compound of dun-colored buildings surrounded by concertina wire and sagebrush. It was August 2018. I’d been coming regularly for three months, and Joan was scheduled to be released soon after having served a two-year fixed sentence. I did not enjoy these visits, but because I was my sister’s only visitor, guilt and something akin to duty prodded me to come. My sister had been incarcerated at least eight times and behind bars or on parole for nearly twenty years. The first time I’d visited Joan in prison, I was twenty-four, and she was twenty-five. Now I was fifty-two.
Inside, a guard in a glass booth asked which inmate I was there to see. She took my keys and ID and directed me to another guard, who moved her metal-detector wand up and down my front and sides, back and legs. Once I was declared metal-free, a buzzer sounded, a door opened, and I went in.
I took a seat at an empty table in the large visiting room. Inmates filtered in. I saw Joan and waved. Her once-brown hair had turned mostly salt-and-pepper, and she’d cut it short. She wore black, square-framed glasses that gave her a no-nonsense look, which felt like a disguise. Joan was always either energetically popping or subdued. Today she was subdued. She hugged me and sat down.
I asked about the classes she was taking and gave her the handful of quarters I’d brought, which she used to get a Coke from the vending machine. Back at the table she took a long drink and asked if I would deposit forty dollars in her prison account for a pair of shoes. I dreaded these requests and usually said no, but the shoes were required for her to get a prison job, and I thought it might prepare her for release.
At the mention of her release, Joan’s eyes welled with tears. “I’m so scared,” she said. “Will you help me?”
I knew what she wanted to hear, but I could not make my mouth form the words. Instead I said, “You have to believe in yourself, Joan. You have to rely on you.”
Her brow furrowed. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
She reached across the table and clasped my hand.
Two years earlier Joan had been living with a boyfriend in his beat-up van when the van broke down on a busy street and the police pulled up. The officer asked to look inside my sister’s purse. She gave it to him, and he found a rolled joint. This gave him probable cause to look inside the van, where he found a meth pipe.
“Whose is this?” he asked.
My sister looked at her boyfriend. They’d both smoked the pipe. She didn’t remember who had bought the drugs. They shared what little they had.
“Mine,” my sister said.
Joan and I and our younger sister grew up on a small farm in southern Idaho. Along with three girls, our mother raised two vegetable gardens, a strawberry bed, and raspberry bushes on our high-desert land. While our father worked tirelessly in the field, she picked, canned, and froze much of our food and made her clothes and ours. She taught us how to sew a five-eighths-inch seam, knead bread dough, and drive a car. She carted us to piano and swimming lessons and 4-H meetings all summer. We attended church and Sunday school every week — twice a week during Lent. Members of our congregation were mostly descendants of German Lutheran immigrants, like our grandparents.
This was our beginning. And if you had told me then that the oldest of us — the shy, tender one — would end up in prison or on the streets, I would not have believed it.
When Joan was released from prison, I didn’t offer to give her a ride. A pastor who’d befriended her arranged her transportation. I met her the next day in the parking lot of a strip mall. She greeted me with an enormous grin and hugged me as soon as I opened the car door.
She had on a white coat three sizes too big and had walked there from a group home, which was run by an organization whose motto was “Safe and sober housing in a therapeutic environment.”
Joan limped around the hood of my car and settled into the passenger seat.
“How’s your foot?” I asked. I knew she’d had to quit her prison job because she’d injured it somehow.
“It hurts,” she said, still grinning.
She was wearing a pair of slippers that, together with the baggy coat, made her look as if she’d ventured out in her pajamas.
“Where are your shoes?”
“Someone stole them.”
She shrugged. “It happened before I got out.”
To buy those shoes, I’d had to create an online account and give my credit-card information to the for-profit company that ran the prison commissary. I felt anger roiling beneath my sternum, the same caustic resentment I had felt toward her since we were teenagers. It was hard to say what upset me more: that her shoes had been stolen, or that she didn’t seem to care.
The purpose of our outing that day was to buy her a phone and go to lunch. She was talking about the great deals at the discount phone store in the strip mall when I said, “I’m not ready to buy you a phone today.”
Her face lost a little of its animation. “OK.”
“I’ll do some research of my own, but I’m not going to buy a phone in there.” I gestured to the store.
“OK,” she said again.
I took a deep breath and said that I wanted to help her, but if she asked for money every time we met, I would resent her for it.
She looked at me, unblinking. “I understand,” she said.
I felt like a jerk. I felt relieved.
My childhood memories of Joan are of her collapsing in tears on the playground because she’d lost a game of marbles; Joan getting bullied on the bus; Joan screaming in the dentist’s chair; Joan hiding behind our mother at the sight of a doctor’s needle.
Then she reached puberty and developed an insatiable desire for thrills. She warmed up fast to strangers and constantly ran away, disappearing for days. This wasn’t normal teenage rebellion. Joan took risks that might have gotten her raped or killed. I pleaded with her: Why did she put herself in such danger?
On Thanksgiving Day 1980, when Joan was fifteen, she swore she had a job in town, so our parents let her stay home while the rest of us traveled to see my aunt a hundred miles away. We returned that night to find our dead-end country lane filled with cars and every window of the house lit up. Kids began streaming out as soon as they saw our headlights. Joan ran, too, and for once our parents didn’t try to stop her. They moved about the house in silence, taking in the bashed refrigerator door, the pried-open lockbox from their closet. It held mostly savings passbooks and birth certificates, but Joan and her friends had stolen my father’s coin collection, the silver dollars he’d kept for forty years.
When she was sixteen, Joan ran away again. We had gone to the county fair that day as a family. While our parents helped my younger sister and me with our 4-H animals, Joan hung out with the hawkers and carnies of the midway, and later she stole the family car to meet up with them in the next city. Our parents found the car, but not Joan. She stayed gone for four months, returning home only when the fair season ended. In a matter of weeks she had run away once more, stealing our father’s pickup and the family camper this time. Upon her return, our mother drove Joan to the sheriff’s office and told the deputy she could not control her daughter. Joan walked willingly into a cell.
By then I had given up pleading with my older sister. I lived my life as if she did not exist.
After our discussion about the phone, I asked Joan where she wanted to go for lunch.
“McDonald’s. I’ve been hankering for a Big Mac for two years.”
We found a table away from the other diners, in a corner where an employee dragged a mop across the floor. My sister said a group of “church ladies” had agreed to help her with transportation. It was one of them who had picked her up from prison, and another had taken her to sign up for food stamps. It was a long wait at the government agency — nearly three hours — but the church lady never complained.
“She had a brand-new SUV,” Joan said, dipping a french fry into ketchup, “but she’d never programmed the GPS.”
“Oh?” I examined my breakfast sandwich.
Joan took a few bites of her Big Mac. She had to eat slowly because she had dentures on top but none on the bottom. Meth had worn away her jawbone so badly that no dentures would fit. Her lips jutted forward as she chewed.
“I programmed it for her,” Joan said. “It only took a minute. She said she never would have figured it out.”
My heart defrosted a bit. My sister had tried to repay this woman’s kindness. “That’s awesome. Do you think she’ll remember how to do it?”
“No way!” She laughed.
I laughed, too. My sister could be funny. And kind.
I asked if she planned to look for a job at McDonald’s. She had worked there in the past.
Joan shook her head. She wanted to get a nursing-assistant certificate. She said the pay and hours were a lot better at nursing homes.
I thought the odds were against a convicted drug felon getting a job in nursing, but I had already squashed her hopes of getting a phone that day, so instead I asked about the other women at the halfway house where she was living. She described her roommate, the house mother, and some of the other “girls.” I knew the subsidized rent was more than my sister could hope to make at a minimum-wage job. Plus she had to pay for a parole officer to keep tabs on her — what the state calls “cost of supervision.”
Joan stopped eating her hamburger and looked around as if she was ready to go. We’d been at McDonald’s for more than an hour. I told her I’d get her a prepaid phone later that week.
“That’d be great,” she said. “Thank you.”
Sunlight streamed through the windows onto the newly mopped floor. I realized, against expectation, that I enjoyed spending time with Joan. I missed her.
My sister is indigent in part because she’s always had difficulty keeping a job and holding on to money, but also because, with each incarceration, she loses all her possessions. Sometimes a friend will promise to keep her belongings until she gets out, but then the friend will move away, or die, or go to prison, too.
In prison there are charges for everything: Shoes. Phone calls. E-mails. Texts. Even shampoo. My sister once asked me to give her money to buy deodorant so the other inmates wouldn’t shun her. All of a prisoner’s money is channeled through a private corporation that charges a fee.
But my sister has a few things going for her: She is resourceful. And she knows the system. After all, she’s been in it much of her adult life.
Joan came of age in the seventies and eighties, in a time and place where mental health was not a common topic of conversation. The adults in Joan’s life did not know that an imbalance of neurotransmitters could cause a person to sink into despair or cozy up to strangers. Our mother reached out to counselors. She begged the school for help. The consensus was that Joan was a bad egg, intent on ruining her life due to some moral deficiency.
Joan started taking cocaine and meth in her early twenties. She was married to a drug user at the time, and together they had three children and sold drugs to support their habit. Joan was twenty-two the first time she went to prison for a drug-related offense. Her husband went to prison, too, and their children — ages four, two, and less than a year — went into foster care. It was hard to imagine my sister’s situation could get any worse.
Joan and I continued to meet for lunch every few weeks. Once, she asked me to take her to a superstore where she had a voucher to buy clothes. It was January. By then she’d been out of prison four months. The nursing-assistant job hadn’t panned out, and she’d gone to work at McDonald’s after all.
At the store I realized that, unlike most sisters, Joan and I had never shopped together.
We selected clothes from the racks until we had a pile of sweaters and blouses draped across our arms. Then we found ourselves beside the skinny jeans.
“They won’t have my size,” Joan said.
But I had already found it. “Just try them on,” I said.
I stood outside the dressing room to give her space. Thankfully no salesclerk hovered. After a few minutes Joan stepped out but avoided the mirror. She had on a soft pink chenille sweater and jeans that hugged her slim thighs and calves.
“You look amazing,” I said.
Since we were kids I’d only seen her in faded T-shirts or the heavy cotton of prison garb. I could tell she wasn’t used to the feel of the new clothes, because she moved stiffly in them.
“Really?” she asked. Her hands nervously smoothed the sweater. “OK. I’ll get it.”
She chose two outfits: the pink chenille sweater and skinny jeans, and a second pair of jeans with a peasant-style blouse. I added up the price tags to be sure she had enough. Then Joan said she wanted to check out the shoes.
In the shoe department she went straight for a pair of knee-high brown suede boots with wedge heels. I pointed out the impracticality of suede in Idaho winters and the precarious heel, but she zipped them on, ran her hand lovingly over the suede, and laughed. “I’m going to get these, too,” she said, cramming the boots back into their box.
Outside, darkness had settled over the parking lot. The night was peaceful but bitterly cold. We climbed into my car, and I turned on the heat to warm us. I couldn’t believe how smoothly the outing had gone, or how much I’d enjoyed it.
On the short drive back to the group home, Joan told me her big news: she’d gotten a second job as a house mother at another halfway house. It meant she had to move, but from now on her rent would be free.
“I’m proud of you,” I told her.
“I’m proud of me, too,” she said. “I’ve never done this well before.”
In her thirties Joan got picked up on a parole violation and landed back in jail. After she cried for three days straight, the guard reported her as a suicide risk. This led to a full psychiatric evaluation and a diagnosis, at last, of major depression. From there my sister went to a state hospital, where her condition was treated with legal drugs — twenty years after she first showed symptoms.
But depression did not explain the risks Joan took when we were teenagers, or the mood swings that marked her adolescence. Her diagnosis changed as new symptoms emerged and others waned. Her thinking can be erratic, her speech frenzied, and I often have to ask her to repeat herself. She hears a voice that berates her and tells her what to do. For a while, her diagnosis was bipolar disorder with schizophrenic tendencies. Now it is schizoaffective disorder. When I talk to friends about my sister’s struggles, I don’t find it helpful to put a name to her disorder. It’s too simple an explanation for something that feels impossible to explain.
No matter what her diagnosis, the clinical description notes that co-occurring drug abuse can be a complicating factor — a breathtaking understatement.
Last year around 1,600 people were sent to Idaho prisons for drug possession. Idaho law defines possession of certain amounts as “trafficking,” and many people who are dependent on drugs, like my sister, develop a high tolerance and wind up in prison for amounts they intended to use themselves. It used to be that two grams of heroin — about half a teaspoon — got you three years; seven or more got you ten. But tolerance levels kept going up, so the Idaho legislature raised the qualifying amounts. The whole debate, reformers said, missed the point. Instead of being forced to hand out mandatory-minimum sentences, judges should be trusted to discern between a down-and-out addict and a member of a drug cartel.
The sentiment behind locking people away is not unlike pretending they don’t exist, which is what I once did with Joan. Other members of our family broke contact with her, too, after countless disappointments. But the more I understood about Joan’s illness, the more I felt it wasn’t a moral deficiency that made her act the way she did but a chemical one. And something else urged me to visit her, too, and try to repair our relationship — the nagging sense that it could just as easily have been me who’d been born with a genetic mutation, or fallen victim to an environmental trigger growing up. I could have been the person dressed in prison scrubs.
The outside of Joan’s new halfway house on Thatcher Street could have used a paint job, and the yard needed a good weeding. I saw her on the porch, and she waved and stubbed out her cigarette, then led me in through a side door.
The house was a maze of small rooms smelling of cigarettes. We walked through a narrow kitchen.
“Do you ever cook?” I asked.
“Yeah, sometimes,” she said. “The girls say I’m good at it.”
I followed her up a steep staircase. At the top she showed me a room the size of a small college dorm room, but darker and mustier. On the narrow bed was a green-and-peach-colored afghan Joan had made with yarn I’d once sent her while she was in jail. There was a dresser and a nightstand. She’d bought a TV with the money she’d earned at McDonald’s. Pictures of her children were carefully placed.
After Joan got out of prison the first time, she couldn’t seem to keep a job or a place to live, and the children’s father had abandoned them. So our parents adopted Joan’s kids. Our mother was fifty-five and our father seventy when they became parents all over again. Joan was in and out of her children’s lives through the years but was never a reliable presence. Once they became adults, they no longer wanted to see her.
Standing next to me in the cramped room, Joan was practically levitating with pride. Over the years she had lived in jails, prisons, shelters, work-release centers, and the homes of men. Not since high school had she had a place to call her own. This small, drab room was hers and hers alone, and she planned to stay.
Idaho is a three-strikes state, meaning that the third time you are convicted of the same felony, it’s a mandatory five-year sentence, no time off for good behavior. Inmates must serve 100 percent of their fixed terms. The law requires judges to sentence people to prison if they think it’s likely they will commit the same crime. And if you’re a drug addict charged with possession, it’s a safe bet you’ll do it again.
Over the past twenty-five years Idaho’s prison budget has risen 200 percent, making it among the top ten fastest-growing in the nation. Our prisons are so overcrowded, the state pays county jails to house inmates. My sister did time in the Ada, Adams, and Gem County Jails while waiting for a spot to open up in prison. Our state’s taxpayers will spend over $300 million this year to keep people behind bars.
Last year there was a line item in the governor’s education budget: he wanted $1 million to train teachers to recognize the signs of mental illness in students. Some of our legislators were not too keen to approve the money. One said that, back in the day, kids could just be taken behind the woodshed. Three others walked out during the presentation.
My sister once told me she’d give anything to go back to before her life spiraled out of control.
“Imagine if we’d known,” I said. “If you’d had a diagnosis, you could have been given lithium or something to help you.”
Joan lifted her hands to her face and sobbed.
A month after Joan moved into the Thatcher Street house, she called me to complain about an incident at McDonald’s: “I’m going to quit if they don’t do something! I know how to do my job!”
I gleaned that a coworker had pushed Joan aside at the cash register and taken over in the middle of a transaction, telling Joan she was doing it wrong. Joan had complained to the manager, but the manager had bigger things to worry about.
I tried to reason with her. I listed all the appropriate ways she might respond. Privately I was amazed something so small had upset her so much. My sister had survived life on the streets, abusive relationships, and multiple incarcerations. A coworker’s slight was nothing by comparison.
“Besides,” I said, as if she needed a reminder, “you can’t quit.”
March arrived, and my husband and I left town for vacation. When we returned, I texted Joan to see if she wanted to go to lunch, but she didn’t respond. I got busy and didn’t call my sister again that spring. Then I left for a monthlong writing residency at a Benedictine monastery with no cell service. When I got back, it was midsummer, and Joan still wasn’t replying to my texts or picking up my calls. I was worried about what might be going on with her, and, truth be told, I was afraid to know.
On a scorching August afternoon Joan finally texted me back to ask a favor. I learned that she had quit both her jobs. She was homeless and shuttling between shelters and an old boyfriend’s apartment — the same boyfriend she’d been living out of a van with when she’d last gotten arrested. I was devastated. And angry.
Joan needed a ride from the free clinic back to the shelter, explaining she had to be in line by a certain time or she wouldn’t get a bed. I agreed, though I had no desire to be helpful. As soon as she got in my car, I began berating her.
“How could you throw it all away?” I demanded.
I had turned the engine and AC off, and the interior was sweltering. My sister had on a clean white top and shorts. Her hair was combed and neat, and she looked tan, like she’d been on a beach vacation.
“I don’t want to get into it,” she said calmly. “They asked me to do unconscionable things, so I quit.”
Unconscionable things. What could be so unconscionable she would make herself homeless?
Joan had stopped taking her meds because, she explained, she’d been doing so well. Then she’d sent an e-mail to her employer while upset, and she’d lost her job at the halfway house, which meant she’d also lost her home and any semblance of security. And she’d injured her leg again and couldn’t stand for long hours, so she wasn’t working at McDonald’s either.
“I didn’t think it through,” she said, staring at her hands in her lap. There was nothing left of her fragile self-confidence.
She missed the deadline for the shelter that day, so I dropped her off at the boyfriend’s apartment instead. She asked if I wanted to meet him. I said no.
As she got out, I felt a sudden urge to leave her with something besides my disapproval.
“You look nice,” I said. “You’re really tan.”
She gave a small laugh. “That’s easy when you’re homeless.”
I didn’t see Joan that fall, but just before Christmas we agreed to meet. She asked me to bring two items I was storing for her in my garage. I met her at a fast-food restaurant — not McDonald’s. Her skin looked gray.
She had traveled out of Idaho recently for reasons that were unclear to me: something about a doctor recommending a hospital in Oregon, but it hadn’t worked out. I didn’t know what to believe. The point was she was on probation and had left the state without permission, so now there was a warrant for her arrest.
“Did you bring the stuff?” she asked.
She followed me to my car, where I handed her the afghan she’d made and the brown suede boots she’d bought on our shopping trip a year earlier. They were still in their box. I asked what she was going to do with them.
“The afghan’s for our bed.” She had moved in full-time with her boyfriend. “And I’m going to sell the boots.”
As I handed her the box, I remembered how much she had loved the soft feel of the suede and the new-leather smell; how it had made her laugh to see herself in them.
A week later the police showed up at the boyfriend’s apartment and arrested my sister. I wished then I had paid her whatever she’d wanted for the brown suede boots — the only thing she owned that she felt was valuable enough to exchange for cash.
In his book Tattoos on the Heart, Father Gregory Boyle writes about working with gang members in some of the poorest, most violent neighborhoods of Los Angeles. He notes that the principal suffering of the poor is not a lack of money. It’s a “toxic shame — a global sense of failure of the whole self.”
I recognize this shame in my sister. She believes her life has no value, that she is worthless. It’s a perception reinforced by our justice system, and one I have contributed to over the years. Where she is concerned, I’ve developed calluses that keep me from seeing her — actually seeing her. Like that day she sat in the sweltering car, sweating through a clean white blouse, hanging on to her dignity while I vented.
Boyle notes that the stories in his book pose a challenge. They ask us “to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.”
But this is more than a suspicion in this country. It is our dearly held belief. We write laws to codify it. We allow prison companies to profit from it. And we are willing to pay millions of dollars to keep people locked up so we can avoid confronting the possibility we might be wrong.
I used to think my sister could change her life if she really wanted to. Now I’m trying to change the way I see her. What if, instead of defining her by her failures, I defined her by her kindness to others? Her quirky gallows humor? Her sense of justice that insists on fair treatment for herself and others?
What if the policeman who asked to look inside my sister’s purse years ago, then dug around inside that broken-down van until he found an empty meth pipe, had seen Joan as a person with an illness instead of just a druggie? What if he had taken her someplace where she could get medicine and housing? What if there were such a place, besides prison?
In spring 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, my sister got paroled again. The Idaho parole board had decided to “utilize maximum discretion” for eligible inmates, though they denied it had anything to do with the coronavirus outbreak. As the rest of the country locked down, Joan once more gained her shaky freedom.
I now see her once a month or so. Today I pick her up at that same boyfriend’s house, and we head to a park, where I spread a picnic blanket at the base of a tree. We eat takeout food and talk. She is coping, like the rest of us, during quarantine. She talks to her parole officer over the phone. The psychiatrist who treated her at the free clinic has left, and the staff won’t tell her where to find him. She and her boyfriend have adopted a kitten and dubbed it Monster.
Weeks ago she told me she and her boyfriend were breaking up. She was ready to move out. He rants at her and sometimes pushes her. But my sister has nowhere to go. She cannot afford the rent even at a halfway house. The money from her stimulus check is long gone, blown on cheap furniture and expensive shipping. She has no options. So she stays.
As we eat our picnic, she leans back on her hands. She wears cutoff jeans, flip-flops, and a black T-shirt with an image of Jerry Garcia. Her shoulder-length hair is pulled back from her face, the way we both wore our hair when we were kids. The afternoon is warm but not too warm, and she relaxes in the sunshine, letting it linger on her skin. In this moment she is content. She is not worried about arguing with her boyfriend. She is not tending to the tiny kitten. She is out on parole, but no one is checking up on her. She has put down her phone. We are just two sisters enjoying a meal on a lawn in a park. I take a cue from her and lean back, too. I don’t lecture her that she wasted her money or that she needs to get a job. I am beginning to understand her limits — and mine.
My sister’s life will always be precarious. But once in a while, on a day like today, I can get together with her to talk and to listen.
S.B. Rowe’s essay “Precarious” [March 2021] nearly moved me to tears. For the last three decades my family has supported my brother-in-law, who has been in and out of prison. We’ve witnessed the injustice of incarcerating — instead of giving medical attention to — the mentally ill.
Our brother-in-law was maliciously beaten by his father his entire childhood. To get him away from the beatings, his oldest brother often took him along everywhere he went. His intentions were admirable, but many of the situations (parties, etc.) were not in his younger sibling’s best interest.
My brother-in-law began drinking at a young age and has been an alcoholic and drug abuser for most of his life. He would call us, crying and drunk, to rehash his childhood trauma. While incarcerated, he was beaten, stabbed, and sexually abused. We’ve supported him as best we can.
Recently he called to say he is terminally ill. If he had gotten the help he needed many years ago, perhaps he could have been saved from so much torment.