I started a thing recently with my son Jay for when he calls. When I pick up, I say, “Jay’s Kitchen, how can I help?” And he always says right back, “What’s on the menu for today?” Every day I answer with something different – chicken, mac and cheese, pecan pie. So for the time we talk, I can take him outside of that prison. I think it helps us both. Mentally, for the time of our call, he’s not behind those bars, and I’m not waiting for him for years to come home.
Jay’s been in prison for a long time now, and so was one of my other sons until he got his freedom over four years ago after 23 years inside. He’s doing awesome – he’s a homeowner, and he’s got his own business. Jay has been incarcerated for 28 years now, serving life without parole. I get to talk to him almost every other day, if they’re not on lockdown. Lately with the pandemic, everything’s been rough. They canceled all the video visits. It’s been almost a year without touching him or even seeing him.
So waiting and worrying is nothing new to me. But what’s new is how I deal with it. For almost twenty years, my way of dealing with it was to not tell anyone about it. No one. I kept it all inside.
Twenty-nine years ago, Jay got caught up being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and pretty much I’ll leave it right there. All of the years are really hard, but I think the first few years were the hardest, adapting. He was 19 when he went in. He just had a birthday October 4, and now he’s 48.
So when he first went in, it was difficult on the family and on him, trying to keep the family together by going up there, taking the family members to go see him and my other son. We lived in Pittsburgh, where I’m from, and there were too many bad memories all around. I was in a devastated state of mind. My youngest was 14, and my biggest fear was for him. The gangs in the city were really bad then. My brain was like, “I’m not going to let the system get him, because at this time I only got one son out here with me.” I had to think quick.
So we packed up and just got in my car and went to Atlanta. Left my husband, left my new house. I started a new life to save my youngest son from the system. If I would’ve had to stay down there 50 years to keep him from the system, I would have.
Each time I left, I would get outside the prison and just start bawling. I’d really cry, like hold my stomach, thinking, Oh my god, I’m leaving my baby.
Once we got there, I just worked and went home and took care of my son. I was barely above water taking care us financially. But I had a great job and things got better for us. I was starting over mentally.
But when it came to that part of my life about my other sons being incarcerated, I wasn’t dealing well at all. My strategy was to just shut down about it. I stopped talking about Jay. I wasn’t ashamed of him, but there were too many judgements from people when I would talk about it. Basically, I went into shutdown mode. I buried my life in my working.
But then one day I was talking to a woman I knew in Atlanta, and I don’t know how we got on the subject, but she was telling me how her son was incarcerated and she didn’t have any support. I told her: “My son is incarcerated and nobody goes to see him.” I just said the words, after not talking about Jay for so long. She looked at me and she said, “Antoinette, please go back home and give your son some visits.”
So I did. When I had vacation time, I would go to Pittsburgh and I would visit Jay for the whole two weeks straight. Then I would get back in my car and drive back up to Atlanta. I did that a couple of times throughout the years. Each time I left, I would get outside the prison and just start bawling. I’d really cry, like hold my stomach, thinking, Oh my god, I’m leaving my baby.
Finally, I decided to move back home to Pittsburgh, and for a long time I was still doing my old trick of keeping quiet about Jay. Until one day, Jay told me about a rally in Harrisburg, called “Fight for Lifers Without Parole.” I met people there, and I started getting involved in fighting for Jay, and for justice. From that day forward, I’ve been involved with different organizations, especially FAMM.
It was FAMM that got me to break my silence. I would be at these organizing events, and they would ask me to tell my story, to talk about what happened to Jay and our family. All I wanted to do was run out the door. But they kept putting me on the spot, in a good way, and eventually I started telling our story. It was so hard – I still get butterflies when I talk about it. There was a time I couldn’t tell my story without crying. Finally, when I was able to tell it without crying, I realized, wow, that’s part of the healing process. And I saw that it was helping others to hear it. Because there’s so many families out here, including myself, who don’t know what to do, who to turn to. That lonely feeling is — I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s not good. It’s not good.
More people are starting to see that life without parole sentences are cruel and devastating.
Now I tell my story all the time, connecting with more people going through all of this because of our broken system. I speak up to my family more. I’m active in a lot of advocacy groups, and I went back to school for criminal justice. I want to learn the language, so I can be stronger in this fight.
As hard as I work, self-care is really important for me. It may be to step away from the computer, don’t answer the phones. Just listen to music, take a good walk. I read and I sew. It’s so hard having an incarcerated son. All my time for a while was writing letters for him and thinking about him 24/7. It’s so easy to get burned out, and sometimes you just need to step away.
I have hope. More people are starting to see that life without parole sentences are cruel and devastating. More people – even lawmakers – are starting to see that people like Jay deserve second chances. And Jay is doing well. He’s a very positive person. He’s always trying to be better, taking courses. He just picked up a course to be a paralegal because he’s really good at understanding the law. He’s also a fitness coach, taking care of mind and body. He lives in the honor block.
I will always keep hope alive. I visualize Jay walking through my door. I visualize us eating together. At the same time, I have to look at it realistically. I hope he will get out, and I will keep fighting so that he gets out, but looking at it on paper – “life without parole” – anything is possible. I know that he may not ever get out. I don’t even like the words.
I think the healing process is forever. Mostly, I’m just happy that I can actually help other family members. I get phone calls all week, talking to different people with family in prison, and I try to help them support their loved ones on the inside. I know from my own experience how easy it is to just walk away. It’s hard sticking by them. But a mother never goes anywhere. And now I’m living my life, helping my son, and helping others. I’m never going to be silent again.
By Antoinette Osei
Don’t be silent about your struggle. Share your story, start to heal, and begin to help others. That’s one way that reform can start, and it’s in your hands.