By Ashley Denay
(We gonna show ya’ll the meaning of black love)
When he havin’ a bad day I fill up the bathtub
(She put on the oven mitt, be cooking up mad grub)
Got beef with a nigga, put on the black gloves
(Who run the world?)
(Rem you buggin’)
Beside every great man, bae, is a good woman
Anybody think differently gotta be a hater
Name one good man…
– Black Love (Remy Ma ft. Papoose and Tamia)
My mother never seemed to attempt to deter my brother. She always seemed to excuse his behavior as something he had to go through to revert on the right path. Selling marijuana or committing petty crimes wasn’t a deal-breaker.
I knew if I committed those same acts and ended up in prison, Mama wasn’t coming to bail me out or see me. She said these things verbatim many times to my sister and me. Even now, as a 31-year-old mother with a daughter, I never let my mother’s statements escape my thoughts.
In the summer of 2006, my brother was sentenced to three years to serve in Macon State Prison after he was found with a substantial amount of weed in his car. The state sent him to an all men’s prison that housed about 300 inmates and it was a four hour drive from where I lived. On Saturdays at 8 am, like clockwork, I would make that lonely drive to see him. I did this for 3 years because I knew I had to show him I loved and missed him. I was his mouth and eyes and his connection to our life outside.
I would arrive in the afternoons and be surrounded by fathers, mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, sons and occasionally the “side chicks” wanting to see their brothers and fathers and husbands and boyfriends. It was always packed in the cafeteria during these visiting hours, and if you were lucky the wait to see a loved one wouldn’t be too prolonged.
My brother and I always put those visiting times to good use. I would tell him how the family was doing and how school was coming along. He would tell me about his week and how much he missed us. We would joust each other. I would put money on his commissary. Sometimes we would sit in silence. I would use this time to navigate through the full room, looking at other inmates and their families.
I would observe the faces of the mothers of these imprisoned men and try to understand why they seemed so anxious. Wives would be engrossed in deep conversations and the kids would be running around seemingly not noticing their fathers were incarcerated.
These hours of visitation for the families seemed imperative to us. How could we not see our men folk when they were locked up? These men were, most times, the heads of our families. But eventually I began to ponder what would happen if this was a women’s prison? Would the setting be the same? Would we be here for our daughters, wives, and aunts? Years later I would get the answer.
In 2014, I received a chance to visit Whitworth Women’s Facility in Hartwell, Georgia. I was part of an organization raising money for women’s rights and we were going to disperse sanitary napkins and tampons to the women. By this time in my life, I wasn’t nervous about visiting a prison again, and in fact I was a little relieved. I thought visiting a women’s facility would be better than the men’s prison just because I am naturally more comfortable around women.
I showed up on Thursday afternoon, went through security, and was given a chance to take a quick tour by one the prison guards. The guard informed me that the ladies had visitation on the day we arrived, and not to be alarmed. Guards were to wear full body armor on these days.
After dropping off the sanitary napkins and tampons to the ladies, I walked over to the guard station that looked over the visiting section. I noticed 85% of the inmates didn’t line up for visitor’s day, most went back to their bunks or to their job duties. By my calculations, there were about 350 women in the facility. There were 28 people in line to be searched and sent to the visiting area.
I was forbidden from communicating with the ladies, but I did persuade an officer to ask a friendly inmate who helped us earlier in the organization’s drive and had already served two of her seven-year sentence for a drug charge for a brief chat. The woman looked as though she graduated high school only this year. She had bright eyes, a short-kept hair style, and unflawed mocha skin. I wondered to myself “How did this baby get 7 years?”
She looked at my hair and asked if it was mine. I told her it wasn’t. She told me that on the outside she did sew-ins to make money occasionally, and if the prison allowed for her to bring weaving extensions into the facilities she would make a killing off the black women housed in her unit. I laughed, knowing this to be true, impressed with her business sense.
We talked more about life, growing up in Georgia and our kids. We laughed and reminded each other of how wild and free life in Atlanta could be. Once I felt we were completely comfortable with each other, I began to open up to her about my brother and my visits in Macon. She listened intently to the way I described visiting hours in Macon, and became animated over the differences she had grown accustomed to.
I asked if she had any visitors that day and she replied, “My mother is somewhere. She’s on drugs. What family I have, they don’t come. I have an old man, been with him for 5 years. You think he ever came up here to see me?” It was rhetorical. “He was my first love. Got me my first car. Put me on the life (selling drugs).” I inquired her why he hasn’t traveled to see her, and asking if he lived in a different state. Her brown hazel eyes seem to darken a little bit and shift towards the floor. “Girl, no. his bum ass lives in Atlanta. It’s one hour away. I’ve been here for 2 years now and the most Dre has done was put $20.00 on my books.”
I asked her hesitantly if she thought the prison conviction was why he cut her off. “I don’t understand that part. I told the cops at the time they were my drugs, thinking that because I only had a couple of misdemeanors, the judge would give me community service or probation. The drugs were his. He had just served 10 years for the same things before we met. I wanted to protect my man. He took care of me on the streets. I am not having no real family to go to. Dre made sure I never went hungry.”
I looked through the glass window of the guard’s station and asked her about the other women she knew, and if they receive constant visitation from families. “A couple of the inmates see their mothers or young children weekly. Every blue moon fathers and husbands will come,” she said, “being here you learn fast who is really down for you. That’s why so many of us find families or partners/girlfriends in here. A man is not going to see you through a bid. They ain’t built for it.”
I reflected on that confession as we proceeded to say goodbyes to one another. I promised I would write to her when I could, which she seemed elated to hear. As she was being escorted out of the guard room, we made eye contact. She winked at me, and turned and walked away with the guard. I took that gesture as her way of telling me she was going to be okay. I still write to her every month. She has a parole hearing in June of this year, and she hopes to be let out on good behavior.
When the female hip-hop star Remy Ma was released in 2014 after serving eight years in prison for charges of assault, weapons possession and attempted coercion, many women in the Black community were surprised to hear about the 2008 marriage to rapper Papoose while she was incarcerated. Remy Ma herself said once in an interview that Papoose was a “unicorn.” She recognized that she is one the few women that had the support of her now husband while being locked up.
When will men stand behind their wives and daughters and mothers while they are behind bars? Why do women receive the short end of the stick, when we give so much of our support to the men in our lives? My mother gave me the answer to this question early in childhood. Women who end up in the prison system in today’s society are expected to suffer alone. We are not seen as individuals anymore, we are seen as mistakes.
Women serving time today in America’s prison systems should be considered lost ones. They disappear and are left to wait in the shadows while serving their time. Families who are supposed to be their lifelines all but disappear with no regard for maintaining these connections. Intercalations on the outside is the way many prisoners survive the years locked up and can function properly daily. There are 113, 000 women currently behind bars in the United States and the number is increasing a disturbing rate. We have to put a spotlight on these women, and never let society forget that they to matter.
Ashley Denay is the founder and owner of the non-profit organization named Oya’s Daughter that allows girls of color to learn about computing programming. She resides in Atlanta with her two children, and enjoys advocating for women of color rights. She loves Beyonce.