Mental health takes its toll on prisoners – and their families

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Throughout his adult life, Miquelle West hesitated to date him. Dating can lead to love, which can lead to marriage. And Miquelle doesn’t want to get married until her mother can walk her down the aisle.

Her mother, Michelle, now 60, has been in jail for almost three decades now. She was sentenced in 1994 to two life sentences plus 50 years in a drug conspiracy case, which held her accountable for the actions of her co-defendants, including one who committed murder. It was his first offense.

Miquelle West and her mother, Michelle West, at Walt Disney World. Courtesy of Miquelle West

“I feel more touched by his incarceration now than when I was a kid, because now I see no end to it,” said West, who lives in New York and works as a fashion designer. “I have been successful in my professional life, but I haven’t been able to focus on my marriage or having children, because I’m still trying to get my mother out of prison. it ruined the two of our lives. “

Having a loved one incarcerated can be emotionally stressful. The experience, however, is not uncommon. More than half of all black American women, for example, have at least one family member incarcerated, and this experience can cause high levels of depression and psychological distress, according to a research article published in the Journal in February. of Marriage and Family.

Black Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white Americans, according to an NAACP fact sheet. After decades of mass incarceration, this means that families and communities across the country have struggled to fill the voids caused by imprisonment.

“From slavery to lynching to incarceration, generations of African-American families have endured the kidnapping of their family members. African Americans had to learn to compartmentalize this trauma and survived, in part because of their resilience, ”noted the research paper, which also called this resilience“ a double-edged sword as these experiences worsen the outcomes for women. health “.

Miquelle West understands this firsthand.

“We both spend our time in our own way,” she said of herself and her mother. “Some things I can’t do because my mom isn’t there. But sometimes when you’re fighting for something of this magnitude, it should take your time, ”West said, speaking as he cried softly.

Miquelle’s uncle, Marcel Mays, his mother’s brother, was arrested along with his mother and convicted of the same drug conspiracy. He was released in 2010 after 16 years and five months in prison.

“Michelle doesn’t have a release date,” Mays said. “I always wonder: what does it feel like not having a date? I woke up with something to look forward to.

Marion “Pete” Mays, Miquelle’s aunt who helped raise her, said she suffered from depression for years after her siblings were incarcerated.

“My entire life has been consumed by very dark days,” said Marion Mays, 58. “Later in life I was able to ask for help with this. It’s something I had to live with. It’s like death. It also causes grief. I haven’t lost my sister, but I am wasting time with her.

She said going to therapy helped her. “The newspaper helped me. And my faith has also helped me, ”she said.

Evelyn J. Patterson, associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and principal investigator of the Family Incarceration Study, said most of the studies, as well as programs to support people with incarcerated loved ones, focus on focus on ‘children and also for mothers of young children whose fathers have been incarcerated. Much less attention was paid to people in other family roles like siblings or a daughter. “

Yet families of all types and at all levels have faced the mental stress of having loved ones in prison.

“There really hasn’t been a time in American history when we haven’t had laws meant to disrupt black families,” Patterson said.

Marcel Mays, who lives on the former homestead in Detroit, said communication within his family has never been the same since he and his sister were jailed.

“You are moving away from your family,” he said. “We’re all so used to not talking to each other. It is becoming the norm. “

But he emails his sister Michelle about four times a week. “The prison is designed to separate you mentally, physically and financially from your family. You are stripped of everything. It’s like slavery. I don’t really have a relationship with my nieces and nephews. I have nieces and nephews that I don’t even know, ”said Marcel Mays.

He said he and his sister Marion rarely spoke to an older brother, who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Marcel Mays’ mother died of a heart attack seven days after his release in 2010. It angered him that people say she wanted to see him come home before he died. “It was like, if I had stayed in jail, she would still be alive – or like she didn’t want to see Michelle free,” he said.

Miquelle West is Michelle’s only child. She was 10 years old in 1993 when her mother dropped her off at her elementary school in Detroit. It was the last time the daughter and mother were together outside of a prison. West was raised by her grandmother and her aunt.

Over the years, Miquelle West has devoted much of her time to fighting for her mother’s freedom. She has appeared on radio and television broadcasts and in newspapers and magazines, which she understands as a privilege that is not accorded to relatives of most of those in prison. The Can-Do Justice Through Clemency organization has also repeatedly called for West’s release. But Miquelle is frustrated that nothing she has done has allowed her mother’s freedom.

In 2015, Miquelle West was invited to a summit on leniency at the White House during President Barack Obama’s last term to advocate for her mother. However, the Obama administration rejected West’s request for leniency. Still, she said she did not regret a day spent fighting for her mother.

“Maybe some people will get married, have children. God put me on earth to fight for the people who are wrongly imprisoned, ”said Miquelle. “Some people live their lives and don’t know their purpose. I knew my goal very young. I knew the day I found out my mother had gone to jail. ”

The West’s story was featured in the bestselling book “Humans of New York”, with the elder West writing from prison at the time: “My sister told me that after graduation, when everyone was taking pictures with their family, my daughter just broke down and cried.When she visited she told me that she feels too guilty to start a family because i won’t be there to see it.

After high school, Miquelle moved from Detroit to New York City to be near federal prison where her mother was incarcerated at the time, so she could visit her more often.

Between visits, West worries about his mother. And the past year has been particularly stressful, with prisons closed due to the pandemic. Sometimes she said that visits and even phone calls were prohibited.

Michelle West, her mother, Miquelelle, her brother, Marcel Mays, and her sister, Marion Mays.Courtesy of Michelle West

“To have a loved one incarcerated is to be in a constant state of worry, anxiety, depression, worry,” explains Laura B. Morse, psychotherapist in Atlanta. “You always ask yourself: will they be safe? With Covid, we knew how quickly it was progressing in these facilities. “

Michelle West contracted Covid-19 after being placed in a cell with two people infected with the virus. The day Miquelle spoke to NBC News, she was angry that her mother had been injured while helping to move beds inside the prison.

“I am tired of my mother’s harsh treatment,” Miquelle said. “She’s old enough now and this thing hit her on the head.” Why do you have women who move heavy metal beds? “

Her mother is better now.

Michelle West.Courtesy of CAN-DO

In addition to worrying, Morse, said relatives of those imprisoned often feel ashamed.

“Shame could come from most people who make strong assumptions about people in jail or in prison,” Morse said. “There is this immediate judgment that they deserve to be there. So it blocks people, makes them hesitate to ask for support and understanding.

“They even ask: do I deserve to be supported? said Morse. A client who had an incarcerated son “couldn’t bring herself to tell me why. I knew it was a violent crime. You could see the pain and the guilt in her.

Michelle West’s sister, Marion Mays, lived with their mother. “I could see his anguish about Michelle. It was extremely difficult to watch, ”Mays said.

Marcel Mays believes he has handled the mental challenges associated with his sister’s incarceration fairly well.

“But you never know,” he said. “Maybe I should have sought therapy. I think if you do anytime [in prison] maybe you should be in therapy.

Marion Mays recalled her own reluctance to speak to anyone after her siblings were arrested.

“I don’t mix with people. … I stayed isolated, ”she said. “I felt lost, hurt, I was worried and I didn’t want to go out. It was a very lonely time.

Mays suggested Miquelle could benefit from therapy, but her niece was reluctant and only had a therapist last year during the pandemic.

“I wasn’t sure anyone could understand this situation,” Miquelle said. She also turned to meditation to help her get through the most difficult days.

“I still feel the absence of Michelle,” said Marion Mays. She last saw her sister two years ago and had considered visiting her for her birthday this year. But Michelle is now in California and Mays is in Detroit. She weighed in on whether the trip was worth it.

“It’s a lot to fly to San Francisco and rent a car and go see my sister behind some plexiglass for two hours,” Mays said.

The two communicate by email almost every day. Mays sends money to his sister every week.

“I couldn’t survive and live in this free world without knowing my sister is okay,” Mays said. “I look at the things I have and I ask myself, ‘Does she need new athletic shoes? “”

“I like to say that the most precious asset we have in life is our time,” Mays said. “It’s not our money, it’s our time. Sometimes I hear in my sister’s voice that she wants to give up. But I said, ‘You can do it. You can go home.

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