I had been stranded on the side of the mountain highway for more than two hours before anyone stopped to help me. The snow kept falling heavily, I was soaked to the bone and my numb hands were unable to secure the snow chains on my tires.
I was terrified of driving in the snow, through the twists and turns of the Sierra. I hated taking time off work, paying for a motel and the five-hour drive in my 12-year-old car with a broken heater. But it was the only way I could see my husband since his arrest.
When you have an incarcerated loved one, you face your own kind of imprisonment. You are confined to paying exorbitant costs for phone calls, legal fees, food packages and travel for visits. You are sentenced to the same number of years as the one you love – only your prison term is served in decisions made between paying your bills and maintaining the relationship.
Your life becomes defined by what you are willing to sacrifice to maintain contact. That was what resonated with me when I read the report, released last week and led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together and Research Action Design. My heart ached with every struggle to pay for food, housing and utilities so families could hold their loved one close.
This system manipulates our desperation and fear. Despite overwhelming evidence that shows that prisoners who maintain contact with their families are less likely to return to prison, the burden of maintaining strong relationships is placed on their families, and most often, women of color like me.
When my partner Richard was arrested in Los Angeles in September 2011, I was a second-year grad student in New Jersey living on student loans and doing unpaid internships. I barely had enough money for my own food and housing, let alone the $600 to $700 a month for the phone calls to the Los Angeles County Jail, or the monthly flights to wait for three hours to visit him behind a tiny, barred glass window for 30 minutes.
When I moved back to California, Richard was transferred to the California Correctional Center in Susanville, 250 miles away from my home, and only accessible through the snowy Sierra. Each visit cost me between $250 to $300, and I visited him twice a month.
The report found that more than 1 in 3 families go into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone. I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Richard without losing housing or going into debt, but I was not able to save any money during the first few years of his incarceration. With my partner locked in a cage and legally barred from earning an income, I wondered: How does any family survive this way?
The answer is that we’re not meant to. Prisons separate families and devastate communities under the guise of protecting public safety. The report reveals that strong families play the most significant role in helping their loved ones secure housing, employment, and emotional support that ensures they do not return to prison, yet the system explicitly severs those connections.
This punitive approach to justice does not make any of us safer. It buries families deeper in debt and desperation, condemning future generations to poverty, trauma and an increased likelihood for incarceration themselves.
We need sentencing reform and community-based alternatives to incarceration that keep our loved ones close to home. We need our elected leaders to prioritize and reinvest in families in every prison reform measure they propose.
Richard still has four and a half years of his sentence to go. I still have four and a half years of financial and other sacrifices to make. Our story is like that of too many families.
Taina Vargas-Edmond is the state advocate for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland.