In the Shadow of the Prison

By Nell Bernstein

Phillip Gaines was on the phone with his mother when the call waiting sounded.

"Have you seen President Clinton's press conference?" his mother's attorney asked him. "Your mom's getting out."

Dorothy Gaines was in the Federal Correctional Institute in Tallahassee, Florida, six years into a 19-year term for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Phillip was 250 miles away in Mobile, Alabama, where he lived with his sisters Chara and Natasha, and Natasha's husband and three children. Clinton had included Dorothy in a group of prisoners—most, like her, women doing long sentences on shaky drug conspiracy convictions—to whom he had granted clemency as his second term came to a close.

"When the news came in that she was on her way home, I can't even explain how it felt," Phillip told me three years later, as we sat on the glass-enclosed sun porch of the Gaines' home in Mobile. "I can see myself now, jumping around. It's exciting just to think back on it."

Rain lashed the windows as Phillip sat in a T-shirt in the cold, smoking a cigarette that was not permitted inside the house. Phillip was 19 by then, a burly young man with a green scorpion tattooed on his neck. Scattered gold teeth brightened a sweet, rare smile that emerged only when he reminisced about the past—the years before his mother was arrested, and that shining moment right after she was freed and before their new reality coalesced.

Dorothy's clemency was announced on the morning of December 22, 2000. Natasha and her husband picked her up, meeting her at the gate as dozens of other inmates waved and shouted. She was home by nine that night.

Phillip remembers rubbing his eyes as Dorothy emerged from the car, unsure it was really his mother stepping onto the curb. Chara rushed to embrace her. Phillip hung back, taking his time. He had stopped visiting his mother because the departures were too painful, and had not seen her in over a year. "Are my eyes playing tricks on me?" he wondered. "Is that my mom?"

Three years later, Phillip was still asking that question. Dorothy's homecoming has been more difficult than anyone expected, for her and for her children—especially Phillip, her youngest. Phillip had cherished the memory of the mother Dorothy was before prison: a hard-working nurse technician who always provided what her children needed; who was there in the stands at each of his football games; who went to church each Sunday, then came home and spent the afternoon cooking. The woman who returned to him was homeless, jobless, and—as her efforts to re-establish herself were repeatedly stymied—increasingly defeated.

For her part, Dorothy had left behind a nine-year old son who was a Boy Scout, an honor roll student, a mama's boy who clung to her like a barnacle and lived to make her proud. She came home to a sullen, embittered teenager who had flunked the eighth grade three years in a row; who flouted her authority and stayed out all night getting high with his friends.

In 2004, nearly 650,000 Americans were released from prison. Seven million more left local jails. Most faced tremendous obstacles, both practical and emotional, as they tried to rebuild lives and families disrupted by their forced absence.

"People think that you can just come out and jump back in; that life has left a space open for you," Natasha told me. "There is not a space open for my mother. There is not a place for her."

Children experience a re-entry process of their own when parents come home from prison—one less remarked, but no less difficult, than that their parents face. Anger they may have suppressed during brief and precious visits or phone calls boils to the surface. Children who have grown into adolescents chafe under the authority of parents eager to re-establish themselves at the helm of the family, and struggle with the changes prison has wrought in now-unfamiliar mothers and fathers. The realization that things will never be as they were—that lost time cannot be made up—can be overwhelming.

A few weeks after Dorothy came home from prison, Phillip tried to hang himself from a tree outside his sister's home. The attempt was symbolic—he fashioned a noose and placed it around his neck but kept his feet on the ground, tilted his head at an ugly angle and waited for his mother to rescue him. When Dorothy caught sight of him, she rushed outside and took the rope from around her son's neck. Three years later, both of them were still waiting to be rescued from what Dorothy called "a prison after prison."

Phillip staged the suicide attempt for attention, he told me, struggling to describe the lack he felt almost as acutely in his mother's presence as he had in her absence.

"I know I can't be nine again, but I wanted my mom," he said, the corners of his mouth turning down. "She was there physically, but mentally she wasn't. She's been out for three years, but it's like she's still incarcerated. Her mind is somewhere else, like she's still confined."

"A single traumatic event can occur almost anywhere," psychologist Judith Herman has written. "Prolonged, repeated trauma, by contrast, occurs only in circumstances of captivity." One of the most intractable after-effects of this kind of prolonged trauma, according to Herman, is helplessness, or learned passivity.

Herman quotes a Latin American dissident who returned home to his family after many years' imprisonment:

Once we got out, we were suddenly confronted with all these problems…Ridiculous problems—doorknobs, for instance. I had no reflex any longer to reach for the knobs of doors. I hadn't had to—hadn't been allowed to—for over 13 years. I'd come to a closed door and find myself momentarily stymied—I couldn't remember what to do next. Or how to make a dark room light. How to work, pay bills, shop, visit friends, answer questions. My daughter tells me to do this or that, and one problem I can handle, two I can handle, but when the third request comes I can hear her voice but my head is lost in the clouds.

Says Phillip, "Before she went to prison, my mom could go to the store, pick up a pack of hamburger meat, and just—without our consent—come home and cook it. Now she'll go to the store and she don't know what to cook. She'll bring groceries back and say, ‘I hope y'all like this. I hope y'all like that.' It's a small thing, but it puts a hole in my heart. Just makes it so heavy."

When his mother was gone, Phillip said, he felt "confined within myself. Now she's back, but I'm still in that box. No matter what I do, it's just not right, ‘cause I don't feel right with myself no more."

To say that Dorothy's sentence came as a surprise to her family is more than an understatement. None of the Gaines children had ever known their mother, who supported them by working long shifts at the hospital, to go anywhere near drugs. When she learned that her boyfriend was using, she hustled him off to rehab, then ended the relationship when the treatment didn't stick.

Almost a year passed before she and he were both arrested, accused of playing roles in a local drug ring. He testified that Dorothy had known nothing of any drug-selling enterprise. The state of Alabama determined that the evidence against her was too thin to prosecute, but federal prosecutors stepped in and went after her anyway. Dorothy maintained that she had no knowledge of any drug conspiracy, and so was unable to offer testimony in exchange for a deal. She was convicted in federal court solely on the word of witnesses who received sentence reductions in return for their testimony.

Dorothy's former boyfriend told the judge that he had heard his co-defendants—who were all kept in the same jail cell—"trying to get their stories straight" regarding Dorothy's supposed involvement. Ultimately, they testified that she had kept crack at her house and delivered it when told. No drugs or drug paraphernalia were found in her home or her possession. U.S. District Judge Alex Howard declared at sentencing that Dorothy "was not one of the leaders or organizers of the conspiracy." Then he sentenced her to 19 years and seven months in prison, as dictated by federal mandatory sentencing laws.

Under the conspiracy provisions that were tacked on to the mandatory sentencing laws of the 1980s, this kind of scenario is all too common. People who don't sell drugs—who merely have the bad fortune, or judgment, to be associated with those who do—can wind up being held responsible for large quantities of drugs they may never have seen, much less sold. For a woman whose husband or boyfriend is involved in the drug trade, "conspiracy" may consist simply of having drugs in the house; driving him to the bank, where he deposits ill-gotten gains; or taking phone messages from drug associates. In some cases, prosecutors have not even been required to prove that a "conspirator" knew she was committing any of these acts; a finding that she should have known what her man was up to has been sufficient to secure a conviction. If the same standard were applied to crimes that did not involve drugs, we might see wives whose husbands were implicated in the corporate scandals of recent years doing time for conspiring with caterers to host suspect dinner parties.

Phillip remembers clowning around with Chara in the back of the courtroom during his mother's trial—play-fighting, or ducking under the benches. He was too young to understand most of the proceedings, but his mother's face when the judge read her sentence—235 months—told him all he needed to know. As marshals escorted Dorothy from the courtroom, Phillip charged to the front of the room and flung himself at the judge, clinging to his leg. "My father died when I was two years old," he shouted. "My mama's all I got. Don't take her away!"

"Get back, son," Phillip remembers the district attorney instructing him. "Do you want to get locked up?" It took several marshals—one in tears—to pull Phillip away.

Phillip was vomiting as Natasha led him from the courtroom. "Where's my mom going?" he asked the 19-year-old college freshman who had just become his sole caretaker. "What's all them months the judge said? How many years she got?"

"You and your sister are going to be staying with me for a while," Natasha told Phillip. "Mom's not going to be here."

"As soon as she told me that," Phillip remembers, "my mind went all the way up. I'm still sitting here listening to her, but my mind's in another place."

During her years in prison, Dorothy fought hard for her freedom. She wrote so many letters—to lawyers, advocacy groups, reporters—that prison staff joked that she'd used more stamps than anyone in the history of the institution. Phillip, too, battled his despair by fighting for his mother. He and Chara stood on the corner with a sign with Dorothy's picture on it, collecting signatures on a hand-written petition for her release. Phillip wrote letters—to the judge, the president, anyone he could think of—declaring his mother's innocence and pleading for her return.

"Dear Judge," he wrote shortly after his mother was sentenced, "I need my mom. Would you help my mom? I have no dad and my grandmom have cancer I don't have innyone to take care of me and my sisters and my niece and nephew and my birthday's coming up in October the 25 and I need my mom to be here on the 25 and for the rest of my life. I will cut your grass and wash your car everyday just don't send my mom off. Please Please Please don't!!!" Phillip included his phone number in case the judge decided to take him up on his offer.

When the phone didn't ring, Phillip moved on. "Dear President Clinton," he wrote in March of 1995. "I hope you can free my mom. I need her. Because I am just a little boy! I am ten year old. I need my mom very much. Please get her out I need her."

Before her arrest, Dorothy and her kids had kept busy together. Dorothy was on the PTA, chaperoned field trips, sent Chara and Phillip to Girl and Boy Scouts, attended their sporting events. Natasha was 19 when she became a parent to two bereft pre-teens in addition to her own two small children (Natasha married and had a third child while Dorothy was in prison). Scout meetings and football games soon fell by the wayside. Phillip stopped going to school and landed in juvenile hall for truancy and shoplifting. His goal, he told Dorothy, was to be locked up like her. He was proud of his mother's fortitude behind bars; of the stoic way she "handled" her sentence. If she could do it, he could too.

Some young people cut themselves as a way of making their emotional pain literal, and thus somehow manageable. Phillip took comfort in making his psychological prison—"that box"—physically manifest. Inside a cell, the rage that dogged him lifted, but this incongruous peace came at a price. As with his mother's, Phillip's "re-entry" process is now stymied by practical as well as psychological barriers: He is entering his adult life with a criminal record and minimal education.

"I'm 19 and I stopped school in the ninth grade," he said. "Now my mom's out, but I lost more than she lost."

I first met Dorothy Gaines in the summer of 2001, in the lobby of the Embassy Suites Hotel in South San Francisco. She had been out of prison just seven months and was still something of a celebrity; an advocacy group had flown her out from Mobile to speak against the drug war. She was self-possessed, almost stately, in a purple silk blouse, her braids pulled back in a neat bun.

More than two years passed before I spoke with Dorothy again. The voice on the phone was unrecognizable. "It's a suffering time," she told me flatly. "So many doors close in your face."

Dorothy's path had not been easy before she went to prison—she was a single mother of three who'd had her first child as a teenager —but she had managed to assemble a life that worked for her and her family. With a felony conviction, all that was foreclosed to her. Not a single piece of her prior life was within her reach, much less as she left it.

"God didn't bring me out of prison to be like this," she said, "begging and borrowing. No."

As criminal penalties have escalated in recent decades, so have the civil consequences of a criminal conviction. Under the 1996 federal welfare reform law, anyone with a felony drug conviction is barred for life from receiving TANF or food stamps, unless their state has opted out of the ban. Drug offenders comprise a third of all released prisoners.

It is worth noting that families affected by the welfare ban lose only the mother's share of benefits; they may remain eligible for the "child only" portion of the grant. As Senator Phil Gramm, the sponsor of the provision, explained, "[w]hat an individual does does not affect the eligibility of that individual's children or other family members." Gramm's locution reveals a central misconception underpinning our policy of post-prison punishment: that parents and children do not eat from the same pot; that the doors we close to "an individual" do not also slam shut on her children.

Public housing is closed to most ex-offenders, and family members who allow an ex-offender to stay even briefly may face eviction themselves. In 1998, Congress cut off financial aid to students who have been convicted of drug possession or sale. Another federal law requires states to suspend drug offenders' driver's licenses or lose federal highway funds.

More than 47 million Americans, or a fourth of the adult population, have criminal records. Thirteen million, or six percent of the population, have felony convictions. The array of restrictions and barriers this group of people faces amounts to the establishment of a criminal caste, subject to all the obligations of citizenship, but denied fundamental rights and opportunities.

One might expect a presidential decree to have some solvent power. That has not been Dorothy's experience. She went back to the hospital where she had previously worked, but was told her conviction barred her from returning to the health care field. She visited the employment office and told a counselor she was interested in working with young people. He informed her that her conviction made her ineligible. She has thought about going back to school and pursuing a degree in counseling, but her conviction makes her ineligible for financial aid. She is barred from public assistance as well.

Employment bans affecting ex-offenders vary from state to state, but can cover a wide range of jobs, including health care, education, even working as a plumber. The old saw, "There's always work at the Post Office" doesn't apply to those who have done time; some states—including Alabama—bar ex-offenders from any public employment. Some extend the ban to any field, such as real estate, that requires a state license. Post-9/11 security measures have expanded felony restrictions even further: airport baggage handlers and shoeshine stand attendants lost their jobs, as did truck drivers who transported hazardous material.

Most states allow private employers to deny jobs not only to ex-offenders but also to people who were arrested for a crime, even if they were not convicted. With information about criminal records now often available on the Internet, employers are finding it increasingly convenient to exercise this option.

The results of all this are predictable. While two-thirds of incarcerated parents were employed prior to their incarceration, one survey of California parolees found that between 70 and 90 percent were unemployed. Some studies have determined that a criminal record diminishes one's employment prospects for life. "Many inner-city families not only experience incarceration because they are poor," anthropologist Donald Braman has observed, "but they are also poor because they experience incarceration."

That Dorothy has been denied the opportunity to work has only added to her children's burden. A few months after my visit, Dorothy lost her house and moved into Natasha's already-crowded home, where she shared a bedroom with Natasha's three children. "I thought she would come home and everything would be OK," Chara said, "but she can barely take care of herself."

Both Chara and Phillip have traded the fantasy of being cared for by their mother for one in which they are able to provide for her. Chara hopes one day to help her mother build her dream house "from the ground up." Phillip dreams of being Donald Trump; of earning enough money that Dorothy would not have to "do anything except be my mom."

By the time I met Phillip, however, he still had not made it past the ninth grade.

"I feel like my mother owes me for what I been through, but she don't," Phillip said, in a confused jumble of past and present tense. "That's why I'd get mad about any little thing, ‘cause I felt like she owed me something…. Like when she went to prison, she took my life. And she get back home and she wants her life, but my life's still stuck, so I feel like she owes me a lot."