“Prison deprives everyone concerned — victims and those who have caused harm, as well as impacted families and communities — the opportunity to heal, honor their own humanity, and to break cycles of violence that have destroyed far too many lives.” - Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Alisha can hardly contain her excitement when she walks through the front door, slamming it closed behind her with the bottom of her foot. Last month, after a long period of negotiation, I had started letting her walk home from school without a chaperone, and she has come home every day since in an excellent mood.
Since the shooting down the block last week though, those minutes before she walks through the door have become nearly unbearable for me, my usual deep loneliness replaced with a new feeling of near-panic. But she doesn’t notice my immediate relief because she’s going a mile a minute about the gossip she has heard from the older neighborhood kids who she now walks home from school with. Apparently, Brandon S. has asked Tasha to be his girlfriend, but she rejected him in favor of Xavier. Alisha’s braids dance around her head as she acts out the rejection scene in the kitchen.
“And how were your classes?” I ask when she takes a breath. “What was for lunch?”
“Fine, and chicken tenders,” she says, and quickly pivots back to the Brandon–Tasha news, which I take to be her way of expressing appreciation that I allow her to walk home with her friends now. It’s probably not, but I take what I can.
It was after months of complaints about the embarrassment of my picking her up every day that I had finally found a way to ask her tactfully (well, evasively) as only mothers know how to do, whether she was embarrassed because I was the only white parent at school. I had tried to be at least somewhat open about the topic of race, but I still held my breath waiting for
her answer. “It doesn’t matter what color you are,” my 11-year-old daughter had answered with her hands on her hips, seeing immediately through my attempted tact. “It’s embarrassing for any parent, ‘Black, white, Brown, or green’, to be picking me up!”
She has learned to parrot back my phrases. I used to use that one – ‘Black, white, Brown, or green’– back when she first started asking questions about race, and I had explained that we had to show respect to others no matter the color of their skin. And she had always giggled when I said “green”, which I guess is what I was hoping she would do. I suppose the whole concept of a white mother teaching her child about racism instead of her Black father seemed to warrant ironic laughter at the time. Years later though, the irony has rubbed off, leaving a kind of sad emptiness that we usually avoid discussing.
I set a sandwich and two cucumber sections on a plate in front of Alisha, and she ignores the vegetables, biting right in the middle of the sandwich triangle. She’s turning twelve next month and still won’t eat anything green – which is fine by me, because it’s cheaper that way, but according to the doctor at the clinic, her “growth is stunted” and she “needs more greens”. Sometimes at work, I hear mothers bragging about their children eating kale as they sit there with their organic quinoa salad that costs more than I make all afternoon, and I have to hold my tongue. I imagine Alisha eating kale – which I wouldn’t buy even if I could – in a snack bag on the four-hour long bus ride we take back from Fishkill C.F. every other Sunday and I chuckle under my breath.
“What?” Alisha asks, suspicious of my laughter.
“Nothing. How was assembly?” I have long ago memorized Alisha’s schedule so that I can maximize the number of overly specific questions I can bother her with every day; one of the
only perks of being a young parent is that I can still remember fully what most irritates pre-adolescent girls.
“Oh, it was cool, actually,” Not her usual answer. “They’re starting this new school program that’s instead of detention, so they had people come in from this company and talk about it.”
“What’s instead of detention?” I ask.
“This new program. They sent an email about it. It’s going to be instead of detention from now on.”
“What do you mean no detention? What are they doing instead?”
“This other program, Mom, I’m telling you about it,” Her voice pulls at certain syllables in frustration. “They’re trying this new thing out so instead of getting detention, when you get in trouble for fighting, you go into this room and talk stuff out with the person you got into the fight with.”
“Talk stuff out? That sounds like a bunch of bogus to me.”
“It’s not – they’re doing it at a bunch of schools now, and...” Her voice is soothing, and her gentle cadence lulls me back into my own world until I hear the word “prison”.
I open my eyes. “Wait, what’d you say?”
“I said, they’re doing it in prisons now, too. Sometimes instead of going to jail at all.” A pause, and then, as if on cue, she says, “Maybe Dad can do it.” Any mention of prison around or by Alisha and her father is bound to pop up within seconds.
She reaches for the glass of milk I’ve just put in front of her and takes a swig. She coughs immediately and half the milk ends up coming back up. She’s not used to it like this – I usually
water the milk down so it lasts longer, but the water coming from the faucet is vaguely brown again and I don’t want her drinking too much of it.
“He doesn’t have time for that kind of thing,” I say, wiping up the milky mess she’s just made on the table. “His parole hearing is coming up real soon,” which Alisha knows, because I’ve been distracted and nervous for weeks, and all the papers strewn across the apartment, which are usually school notices with Alisha’s name, are now official-looking papers labeled with her father’s – Josiah Clark.
“Maybe he can do it after the hearing,” she offers.
“Maybe,” I say. Then, “You said this was an email the school sent?”
“Yeah, they said they sent it to all the parents last week.”
I’m already out of the kitchen, looking around for my phone so I can open the email
when I realize she’s still sitting in the kitchen with her too-pure milk. “Eat the veggies too, Alisha!” I call back towards the kitchen, picking up my phone from the table in the hall and scrolling through my emails.
There it is. The subject is “A New Approach to Conflict: Starting Restorative Justice at Uptown Charter.”
Restorative Justice. Sounds like one of those programs started by rich white folks who feel badly about all the people sitting in prisons. But as I keep reading the email, I feel my feet slowly grow heavy as if they’ve sunk into the wooden floor. It’s like my body knows something before I do. My hands turn warm, a thin film of sweat forming on my palms.
Restorative justice is a community-oriented approach to conflict that focuses on accountability, by allowing perpetrator and victim to come together in order to move past the incident. This indigenous practice values healing, community, repair, empathy, and humanity instead of the isolation and trauma of the
punitive systems we currently employ in schools, detention facilities and prisons.
I stare at the screen so long that my eyes tear up and the letters lose their meaning and
turn into lines and curves. I blink, and the black lines jump back into legible words.
Perpetrating crime can cause irreversible trauma to an individual and their close family and friends. Restorative Justice circles are therefore an inclusive approach to conflict resolution that aims to address this trauma by involving not only the victim and perpetrator, but other individuals affected by the crime.
The idea seems foreign to me. Impossible. Still, something from deep within me, buried so far down I can’t even identify it, pulls at me and refuses to let go. I think about the years of silence between Josiah and me once he was upstate, the unspoken anger, the elephant in the visitor’s room at Fishkill that has sat patiently, quietly, between us every other week for almost nine years.
Perpetrating crime can cause irreversible trauma to an individual and their close family and friends. I read it over and over again, and tears are falling silently down my cheeks before I can stop them. For the first time in nine years, I allow myself to think back to the night he was arrested, getting the call, running out in the middle of the night with Alisha asleep in the stroller...the days in court that followed, where I could catch only glimpses of Josiah for seconds at a time, gaunt and shackled.
I never told Josiah – never told anyone – that I went to the funeral. Jo was in custody by the time the service had been arranged. I remember leaving Alisha with her grandmother because I knew her presence would give away my identity among the victim’s white family. I sat in the back hiding in my white skin, watching the heartbreak and brokenness my Josiah had caused. I
was offered food and comfort but I felt dirty just being there, like an intruder who had come to infiltrate a family in their time of grief. I don’t think I made it twenty minutes before I ran out.
Josiah took the plea deal shortly after and we never discussed what had happened.
My tears have obscured my vision and I see only a blur as I sink down to the floor, sobbing silently, years of anger towards Josiah spilling out of me like blood pouring from a wound – anger, not just for taking a life, but for breaking our trust, for never allowing me to resent him, for missing our daughter’s childhood, and most of all, for leaving me alone to cry on the floor in an cold, empty apartment.
When my tears subside, drying sticky on my face, and my breath starts to calm, I find my anger is gone, shed like a second skin. In its place remains the loneliness, endlessly vast and unwavering, which I have felt every night that I go to sleep alone and every morning that I wake up to find Alisha cocooned in the sheets next to me where Josiah should be.
If all goes well, Josiah could be home by the time the school year is over – but home, to an apartment he has never seen, and a daughter he barely knows, in a city that will no longer be recognizable to him.
I rest my head on the wall of the hallway, and allow myself, for the first time, to imagine Josiah walking through these rooms, laughing at the dead plant in the windowsill that I’m still trying to revive, or sitting next to his daughter as she reads him her newest story, desperate for his attention.
In the next room, Alisha pokes at her uneaten cucumbers, humming quietly to herself.