Prison is Hard on Prison Families
Thomas Ross is a fellow prisoner who serves time with me here at Taft Camp. Like millions of American families, his wife and children struggle through these challenging economic times. As a federal prisoner, however, Thomas does not perceive any mechanisms through which he can contribute. The helplessness that comes with confinement really complicates his adjustment.
Thomas began serving a 20-year sentence in 1998. He had grown up in East Palo Alto, a city on the outskirts of Oakland. While growing up, he had been the star athlete of his community. Like many young American males, he hoped for a professional career in baseball or football. During his first semester of college, an injury put an end to those dreams.
With an eagerness to begin a new life, Thomas volunteered for the army. He felt that he needed to get away, and the best opportunity available to him was to serve in the U.S. military. Had he been able, Thomas would have become a career military man. While stationed in Germany, he was trained as a mechanic and also earned certification as a hazardous materials technician. The military issued Thomas an honorable discharge after only three years, however, when he sustained a severe case of frostbite.
Upon his return to the Bay area, Thomas accepted a job as a hazardous material technician with a large pharmaceutical company. Throughout the 1990s, Thomas was responsible for coordinating the removal of the company’s hazardous waste materials. After more than a decade of service, Thomas felt as if he were living the American dream. As a supervisor, he was earning a high five-figure income, he had full insurance and retirement benefits, and he had purchased a brand new home in an upscale subdivision. Then disaster struck.
One of Thomas’ subordinates was arrested in a sting operation by the DEA. The subordinate had been caught stealing chemicals from the pharmaceutical company. Those chemicals were being used criminally to manufacture methamphetamine. As the supervisor, Thomas was charged with knowledge of the conspiracy and for authorizing it to proceed.
Not knowing anything about criminal law, Thomas put his fate in the hands of an attorney who had impressed him. To retain the lawyer, his family scrambled to raise $50,000. That sum required his parents to take a mortgage on their home and devoured all of Thomas’ savings. He was willing to pay whatever costs were required to vindicate himself from the charges that he insisted were unjustified.
The lawyer that Thomas had retained, however, was a con man. The state of California had disbarred the lawyer before. Thomas was oblivious to the phony lawyer’s troubles, and he moved forward through a criminal trial. Before the trial proceedings had concluded, the trial attorney abandoned Thomas, absconding with the $50,000 retainer Thomas and his family had provided.
Despite Thomas’ having been tried without a licensed attorney, the judge allowed a guilty verdict to stand. He sanctioned Thomas to serve a 20-year sentence. Thomas’ family clung to hopes for a reversal of the criminal conviction on appeal, but as Thomas was hauled into custody, he began to lose his will to live.
Thomas felt as if forces of injustice were conspiring against him. He had been in a committed relationship with Angela. They had children together. As he languished in jail, awaiting his transfer to prison, he contemplated suicide. Angela’s love nursed him through. After administrators transferred Thomas to Lompoc, and locked him inside the fences, he wanted to give up. He could not shake the feeling of having lost so much. Despite the service he had rendered as a soldier, the career he had built, and the family he had nurtured, he felt as if he had been wrongfully charged and incarcerated. He did not even have representation from a bona fide attorney through trial. Thomas felt railroaded.
He tried to abandon his relationship with Angela, thinking that he could make her life easier by encouraging Angela to move on without him. Prison regulations were not family friendly, and Thomas did not want to expose Angela to the hardship through which he was struggling. She would not have any of Thomas’ excuses. Angela was determined to serve Thomas’ sentence alongside him, to persevere through whatever challenges came.
Without Thomas’ consent, Angela moved to the town of Lompoc in order to sustain their prison family. Visiting and phone privileges were limited, and Angela was determined to live as close to Thomas as possible in order to support him and spend all the time together that rules would allow. Together they hoped for relief on appeal. After five years of imprisonment, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals published its decision in volume 338 of the F.3d Federal Reporter on page 338. Despite Thomas’ having proceeded blindly through the justice system without an official attorney, the judges affirmed his conviction. He felt his spirits sinking.
Angela refused to give up. They married in the Lompoc visiting room. Some of the racist guards objected to the mixed marriage. They harassed Thomas, telling him that they couldn’t understand why a white woman would show such devotion to him. They did not see Thomas as a former military man, a family man, a man who had devoted himself to rising from the challenges of an inner-city youth to building an honorable career. To those guards, Thomas was a black prisoner, unworthy of the love and hope that binds our society together. They trumped up disciplinary charges against him and suspended his visiting privileges for a year; it was a transparent effort to break up his family.
In 2007, administrators transferred Thomas from Lompoc to the camp in Taft. We speak frequently. My wife and I met his family in the prison visiting room. As Carole has been doing for so many years, I knew that Angela was serving her own sentence along with her husband. When I spoke with Thomas in the spring of 2009, his spirits were especially low. He had been incarcerated for more than 11 years. A lawyer was making legal maneuvers that offered a glimmer of hope for justice, but Thomas was feeling the burdens that his confinement had brought to so many. His parents had lost their home to foreclosure. Recently, Angela’s job became a casualty of the economic crisis. He felt helpless to contribute, and thought the best option would be to request a transfer to a far-away prison. That way loved ones could move on with their lives and forget about obligations to support him.
As a long-term prisoner, I feel as if I have a duty, and a responsibility to bolster the spirits of my fellow prisoners. This system makes it tremendously difficult for men to keep hope alive, and we need to rely on each other. We must work to find activities that will add meaning to our lives. Even if we cannot find opportunities to make financial contributions to our family members from prison, we have a responsibility to muster the strength necessary to power through.
The Pew Report recently published findings that show 1 in 31 Americans is under criminal justice supervision. For racial and ethnic minorities, those numbers are much more troubling. The Dollars and Sense blog published that 7.3 million people live under the U.S. system of corrections. It is a dismal system under which Thomas and I serve time, and which punishes the women who love us. Prison is hard on prison families, especially during these difficult economic times.