My name is Claire Tate. I am the vice president of the Arizona criminal justice reform nonprofit the S.T.A.R.T. Project (Striving to Achieve Reform Together), one of FAMM’s partners. We are on a mission to band together system-impacted family members and the formerly incarcerated to reform Arizona’s harsh sentencing laws and improve prison conditions. I am also married to a man in prison, Joshua.
We have two young children, and one of our favorite places to go is the library. One day soon after Joshua went away to prison, when Eliyahu was three, we were playing in the kids’ area, and another three-year-old boy came with his mother to play, too. Our boys clicked right away and were having a great time. It was time to go, but the mom and I decided to come back the next day to play some more – she said her kid needed more socialization and she needed some socialization herself and would 4 p.m. be okay? Sure! My kids were so excited – our first real playdate!
We all showed up the next day and the fun started right away. The mom and I started talking about our lives, how we ended up in town, what our husbands did – she met her husband in the military, like a lot of families in our town. I shared what my husband did … before he went to prison. Her face remained calm, but her eyes gave her away – a brief flash when I said “prison.” I said, “Just for drugs, nothing dangerous, his sentence was too harsh anyways…” and we moved on. The play date ended, and we promised to get together again soon – maybe the park next time. She never called me again.
My family is halfway through a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence – my husband Joshua was sentenced out of Yavapai County for possessing less than 2.5 grams of methamphetamine for personal use. For reference, a nickel weighs five grams. Although Josh’s struggle with drug addiction led to his incarceration, he has only had 21 days in inpatient drug treatment. A few weeks before sentencing day, while in the process of collecting character letters, I secured him a spot in Teen Challenge, a year-long inpatient drug rehabilitation program in Phoenix. I begged his lawyer to beg the judge to let him have a chance to go to that instead of prison.
The judge said no way, but that she would recommend he go to Marana Community Correctional Treatment Facility, a small, private prison providing custody and substance abuse treatment — still prison but with a twist. Marana is a “short-timers” yard – the only people who get to go to Marana have five years or less, and this judge gave Joshua 10.
Eliyahu is now five, and Hannah just turned three. She was three weeks old when Josh went to prison. She has had a bit of trouble remembering her colors, but she is quick to recall fluorescent orange (prison jumpsuit). She took some of her first steps in a prison visiting room. Each one of her birthdays also marks a year closer to freedom for Joshua.
All the pictures we have of the four of us were taken by a prison guard.
The first time we went to visit Daddy in prison, Eliyahu was almost three and Hannah had just turned one. Josh cried when he finally saw us – he had been watching our babies grow and change only through pictures for a year. Our boy picked up right where they left off – eating, talking, playing. Hannah was puzzled because she did not know who this man was – why had we come here, Mom? His baby girl, the spitting image of him, wanted nothing to do with him at all. She howled when I put her on his lap, and refused to look at him when I put her back on mine. Things have warmed up since that first visit (he is all Hannah talks about now), of course, but Hannah has never known her dad anywhere but prison. All the pictures we have of the four of us were taken by a prison guard.
Since the day we met – yes, it was love at first sight – we have been inseparable. Josh and I have never voluntarily spent a moment apart, even going as far as him hiring me to work as his secretary, so we could spend work days together, too. We joke that living in a studio apartment would be just the right size for us, simply because we just like each other so much. Josh is the other half of me – his love is patient, his love is kind — and it is our love has made this separation easier to get through, but at the same time, the empty space he has left is enormous because of how close we are. I feel his absence in many ways throughout the day, especially when I have to make big decisions on my own, and wait to see if I did the right thing, or when the kids and I are out and about in our town.
I will tell anybody about Josh, just like I did with that mom at the library that day. He is not dead, he did not leave me. He loves me, we are a family, he is just away right now. His most serious charge, possession of a dangerous drug for personal use, was a righteous conviction. But his mandatory punishment does not fit the crime. Addiction is a mental illness, and we must treat it as such. Prison should be reserved for people who cannot be safely monitored in the community, not filled to the brim with people who have made us mad by their compulsion to use drugs.
My family’s story is a perfect example of why the mandatory minimum sentencing schemes on the Arizona law books must be dismantled. The judge said at sentencing, after my mother-in-law started to bawl, “If you don’t like what I have to give you, take it up with the legislature. They say you deserve 10 years, so here you go.” That is just what I am doing, advocacy.
After Joshua went to prison, I did what a lot of people in my shoes do nowadays when they want to connect with other people — I got on Facebook. I started following FAMM. I was one of the first members of FAMMilies in Action, getting involved after reading Cassie Monaco’s profile and thinking, “Wow, I’m not the only one.” Since then, I have joined many criminal justice reform pages and groups and that is how I connected with Lillian Coppess, the S.T.A.R.T. Project’s president. Together, we saw a need for a prison reform movement in Arizona, led by families of incarcerated people. What started as a small Facebook group called Arizona Prison Reform Movement has blossomed into a legitimate nonprofit that is helping to bring the plight of Arizona’s prisoner to the forefront. We are proud to be FAMM’s partners and we look forward to the next legislative session, during which we will continue to fight for alternatives to incarceration, earned release credit reform, and humane prison conditions.
Claire took a small incident that made her feel ashamed and turned it into full-blown advocacy. If you want to be like her and do the same, join FAMM. Together we can make a difference!