A Family Like Mine

by Shana L. Redmond.


One hug at the beginning of the visit and one at the end. With the exception of holding hands on the way to the vending machine for his favorite snack, this was the extent of the physical contact that we were allowed. Two hugs. This is how I learned to show love to my father; a repetitive sequence of events that transpired for almost nine years, though never often enough—at best six or seven times a year. There was never enough contact, never enough time to believe that this was anything other than it really was: the cold and calculated violence of capture.

I was twelve when my father was arrested and by the time of his release just prior to my twenty-first birthday, I had come to notice and appreciate the tiny victories as they came. Originally, he was housed in the county jail. While there I could not touch him. He was behind glass and though always smiling, it was hard to imagine him as anything other than part of a curated scene. Rather than being fully animate in real time, he appeared, like all of the other men who walked the line ahead of him, to be on display, posed, being made to do what some unknown person told him to do.

In spite of this, I relished these weekly visits and worked hard to make my few minutes on the telephone count. With three children and a partner to speak to, time was precious. When he was sent to one of the half dozen prisons that he would know over the time of his sentence, I was scared and sad. We would no longer be in the same city. Little did I know, however, that now there would be no dirty glass, no telephone static to manage. I would be able to touch him. This was a win and I cherished it, no matter the circumstances.

With hundreds of letters written between us and many more miles driven, those were an unforgiving nine years. We both missed a lot. Yet no matter how difficult, the visits took away a bit of the sting and loneliness of our distance. During them I could see his smile for what it was—older and complicated but genuine and necessary. So too was mine. He was as much my lifeline as I was his.

I am fortunate to now have my father home. He is healthy and moving through the world with the integrity that no one can take from him. But those nine years are never far from either of our minds, especially as I continue to watch in horror as the prison industrial complex lurches forward. To recently read news, on the verge of the holidays no less, that hundreds of U.S. jails and prisons have terminated in-person visits and replaced them with virtual sessions by phone or computer is stunning, even if the rationale is not. Incarcerated women and men continue to be treated as carrion for vulturous telecommunications companies (via prison brokers and administrators) who justify their actions by trotting out the familiar ruse of security. Exposed here is the cruelty required to sustain the economic logics of carceral crisis and the pervasive damage wrought by such demands.

 The active retention of ties between those inside and those out is not simply a matter of preservation for families like mine. It is fundamentally about the rights of incarcerated people to continue living, even in the shadow of so much death. The deprivation of proximity and touch is an attempt to impose slow death, which is continually resisted by incarcerated people and their communities through gestures both grand and modest. These moments of love and affirmation are the signals and struggles that we share across the wall and the resolve that announces a collective promise to be present for as long as it takes.

About the author:

Shana L. Redmond is the author of Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (NYU Press, 2014) and associate professor of Musicology and African American Studies at UCLA. She is currently writing a book about Paul Robeson’s afterlife.


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