Updated: Mar 5, 2021
My younger brother and I have always been close. When we were younger I took him everywhere that I could take him with me. To rehearsals and arts and culture spaces, to the park, to concerts, to markets. I was often emotionally unavailable and volatile as a result of a combination of unintended chronic mental illness and ongoing traumas that left me with a particularly nasty case of Complex PTSD (look it up). He was always patient with me, incredibly supportive, and eager to tag along. We were and still are fiercely protective of each other.
My beloved brother has been in prison for the last almost 4 years. During that time we have struggled to stay in contact. My phone number changes often when I’m traveling abroad. When I am in the US one of the issues is that calls from prison are expensive. You pay a lot for the smallest amount of time. A good portion of the money paid to make calls goes to various service fees. All of the communications are surveilled.
Throughout his sentence I have written him letters and sent him pictures of me and my travels. We co-read books. The complete works of James Baldwin. N.K Jemisin’s Fifth Season. I made the mistake of sending him Octavia Butler‘s Parables. They were apparently too heavy hitting and close to home to be enjoyable. We’ve read all sorts of books together over the years inside and out of prison. Short of being able to see him nothing has been as comfortable comforting as being able to talk with him on the phone. It’s harder for both of us to fake the funk when we can hear each other‘s voices.
Police and prison abolition is not a lofty rhetorical goal for me. I am the only member of my immediate family who has never been jailed or incarcerated. My earliest memory of the police is from when I was five or six years old.The same age that Aiyana Stanley-Jones was when a SWAT team burst into her house and killed her while she was sleeping on her couch.
My mom had disappeared for several days – she did that sometimes. My brothers and I--we would have been roughly 3, 5 and 7 years old – were home alone. The police burst into our apartment in the middle of the night. We hid when we heard the banging. I hid under the bed in the master bedroom. From my hiding spot spot I could see when they took the door down. Their lights swarmed into the apartment. Their bodies followed close behind. They were dressed in riot gear and they came in with their weapons drawn. Those weapons and lights were pointed at me. I was dragged out of hiding. Dragged. At gunpoint. At six years old. After being awakened by police banging the door down in the middle of the night. After being home alone not knowing where my mother was for several days. My brothers were found to. We were all thrown into the backs of police cars. No one told us what was happening or where we were going. They drove us to a building. It was surrounded by high walls topped in barbed wire. At the building my brothers went one way. I went to another.
They took all of the clothing off of my back, and the stuffed animal that I was clutching, and placed them into a plastic bin. The bin went onto a shelf full of other bins. They took me to a large bathroom full of rows of elevated bathtubs. They bathed me. I was dressed in a little mermaid gown that they pulled from a collective closet. Still no one told me where I was, where my brothers were, or what was happening. I was directed to a bed, a lower bunk in a room with three bunk beds. We stayed there for a while. We went back several times more than I can remember. I spent several holiday seasons there. I still do not like the holidays.
No one ever told me what that place was. I didn’t know what it was until much later when I began to work in emergency shelter and youth detention centers as an art teacher. So many things happened there but I’m still not ready to talk about in public or in private.
I knew my brothers were there somewhere. I really saw them because we are separated by six. At one point I was convinced that I was at a concentration camp camp about to be incinerated. I had read Anne Frank’sDiary and learned about the Holocaust. The accounts of people being taken into camps mirrored my experience of being taken into wherever I was. Imagine being a child alone, not knowing where are your parents or siblings were, reading about the Holocaust, and believing that you were about to die to be murdered. I had nightmares every night.
I never knew where my mom was when I was there. No one told me. I didn’t ask her where she had been after we were returned to her. I’m willing to bet based on what I know now that for some of those times she may have been in jail. For who knows what. Maybe just for being Black. Maybe for being poor. Maybe for suffering from untreated chronic mental illness. Maybe from defending herself--when she got into a fight she fought to win. I’m thankful to her for passing that down to me…
The effects of police and prisons go so far beyond the people that we think of when we talk about police and prisons. What happens to children with their mom is in jail and can’t make bail?.Black women are the fastest growing prison population. What happens to people when folks in the primary support system are incarcerated?How do the police and prisons plague families and communities over generations? I do not have to intellectualize or theorize to understand the answers to these questions. I can look into my lived experience for them.
Those long stints apart did irreparable damage to my relationship with my bio mom. Thankfully I have been able to maintain my relationship with my little brother who is one of most brilliant caring generous people that I have ever known. I always say that they saved the best for the last when it comes to me and my siblings. I have no idea where my older brother is or where he might be being held.
Today I’m asking you to support my joy by putting some money on my brother’s accounts so that he can call me and others. He had a very strong support system and a lot of people who love him. There is always room for more love. He will share the credits on his accounts with his friends whose communities do not have as much resources. He has regularly asked for me and others to send things not just for him but for four or five other folks whose names we have come to know.
Today’s ask is twofold. I am also asking you to support my work in my communities by taking a hard line stance in support of police and prisoner abolition. Find an organization near you —it could be a bail fund it could be a community organizing group it could be an informal group of friends— find this organization join it and take action to make sure that no person, no family, no community has to be subjected to the violences of the prison industrial complex.
*For my birthday this year I’m asking you to celebrate with me by supporting my joy, my work and my communities. Each day I’ll be sharing one simple thing that you can do to support me in each of these areas. Visit my blog at the link in my bio @adornedbyo to read past posts.