Pulling my charcoal peacoat tighter around me, I trudge the short distance from the train to Ma’s house. January’s cold nips at my bare fingers. I shove my hands into the coat’s pockets, bow my head to the ground, quicken my pace as I near the brick elementary school that shares space with Ma’s housing complex. School has ended for the day, but its resource officer still sits guard in the police cruiser. He watches me approach the beige and green townhouses, a stark contrast to the lemon yellow I grew up in. Nearing the parking lot, I notice Ma’s gray Honda Civic isn’t parked in her usual spot. The breath I don’t realize I’m holding breaks free. Before her empty parking spot came into view, I anticipated Ma greeting me with her trademark scowl and silent treatment. It’s been two days since I was last home. It’s been less than three months since I left a post-prison halfway house, and, already, I’m spending nights with a man I hardly know.
I enter the house quickly, shrug off my coat and toss it across the back of a wooden chair, leaving the cold with it. I climb the stairs to the second floor, racing against the clock, rushing to pretend I’d been home longer than I actually had. That I’d been there waiting for her return instead of her waiting for mine, just as she’d done for the almost three years I’d spent in prison. The house phone begins to ring. Two steps at a time, I get to the second floor, flop across Ma’s queen size bed, and grab the receiver.
“Hello?” I huff.
“Hello,” the male voice on the other end responds, “this is Norwalk Police Department. May I speak with Heather Stokes?”
It was just past 2 a.m. when a CO escorted me from York Correctional Institution’s intake building to Four South, the medical building where I would be placed until the administration classified me and determined my permanent placement.
Permanent. Permanent. Permanent.
I wasn’t going home anytime soon.
The gray brick building was only 20 feet away, but the weight of time made it feel like 20 miles. I pressed the thin state-issued bedding against my stomach and, shackled at the ankles, shuffled behind the correction officer.
Four South was quiet and dimly lit. Still, stark, and empty, sort of like how I envisioned the rest of my life would be now that I was a convicted felon. The officer, who never offered me his name, opened the door to a dark cell and barked, “Top bunk, that’s you Stokes!”
I hurried inside, clumsily navigating my way through the unfamiliar expanse to scramble up narrow stairs leading to a top bunk. I didn’t even bother smoothing the sheets and blanket across the bed. Instead, I curled myself into a ball, used the sheets as a pillow, cried myself to sleep.
“This is the Norwalk Police Department,” he says. I freeze, heart racing, retracing my steps over the last few months.
Work. Sergio’s. Home.
Work. Sergio’s. Home.
I’ve been diligent in not making any moves that would jeopardize my newfound freedom. Yet, the Norwalk Police Department is looking for me. My left thumb starts to rub my right wrist, feeling for handcuffs my mind has placed around it.
“T-t-this is Hea-th-ther,” I stutter, tears well up in my eyes.
I can’t go back. I can’t go back. I can’t go back.
“Hi, Ms. Stokes. This is Officer James. We have a minor child by the name of Jaelanie in our custody. Her mother Eileen was arrested today and, uh, Jaelanie was with her. Eileen asked we call you. Can you come get Jaelanie? She’s here at the station.”
“Sh-sure,” I murmur. Still not convinced my freedom is entirely my own, I clench Ma’s comforter like a state-issued blanket. “I’ll be right there,” I say, then slowly loosen my grip.
I peel myself from Ma’s bed, smooth out my clothes, brush tears of relief or fear from my cheeks. As I wrap my winter coat around my back, wrest a new pair of gloves onto my hands, and pull a hat onto my head, I question if this is a ploy to get me back to prison. I wonder if I can outrun the police.
Where would I run?
“CHOW ON THE DOOR!” startled me awake before the steel door flew open and four trays slid across the floor in quick succession. Swish-swish-swish-swish. Once the door slammed shut, just as quickly as it opened, I got a look at my roommates for the first time.
A tall, thin blond, barely 21 years old, sat on the top bunk across from me, legs folded like a small child, rubbing her bloodshot eyes while eyeing us nervously. Track marks lined her pale arms. She caught me staring at them and tugged at the sleeves of her maroon t-shirt. Beneath her was a Black girl, who appeared to be about my age. As she trembled, a thin layer of perspiration dotted her forehead despite the air conditioning vent that blew down from directly above her. She clawed at her skin with ragged nails, the corners of her mouth were white with foam. My brother was a crack addict, my uncle, too. I’d spent time in County and being transported to the prison with several other women who suffered the effects of such a sudden withdrawal of drugs from their systems. I knew dope sickness. I knew the Black girl who sat on the bottom bunk across from me suffered from it.
The tall blond jumped down and distributed our breakfast trays. As I reached to grab mine, I got a look at my bunkmate — a white woman about my age with long brown hair. She sat back in her bunk against the wall, clutching a pillow, as if trying to get as far away from the rest of us as possible. She hesitated for a moment as the young blond reached the tray towards her but eventually threw the pillow aside and inched to the edge of the bed. That’s when I noticed it — a bulging belly strained against the state-issued grey sweatshirt’s minimal stretch, as if it were demanding freedom.
What the fuck is a pregnant woman doing in jail? I thought to myself.
I looked down at my tray, an apple was the only thing I could make out from the assortment. I swiped it, climbed down from my bunk and headed toward the door to place the tray back. As I did, the pregnant lady spoke up, “I’ll take that if you’re not going to eat it.” I handed her my tray. She smiled weakly, “Thanks, I’m Michelle.”
I head toward the new Norwalk Police Department, situated in a large brick building on the corner of South Main Street. The heart of South Norwalk, Connecticut. In 2005, the Department relocated here in an effort, Mayor Rilling — our former police chief — said, to better serve the community. My mother says it was to be closer to the people they want to arrest, the large African American and Latino populations of South Norwalk. I shiver as the police station comes into view.
Once at the station’s entrance, I take a deep breath and swing open the heavy glass doors. A gathering of officers animatedly talk while lounging behind a tall transparent partition. I approach cautiously, ready to bolt when a young Black officer leans forward and presses the intercom button, his smile slowly disappearing.
“Yes?” he questions, aggravated by my intrusion on the lively conversation.
“I’m here to pick up Jaelanie. Her mother was arrested today.”
After spending a mandatory week of isolation in the medical unit, Michelle and I were transferred to different areas of the prison. I hoped that meeting her meant prison wouldn’t be as horrific as film and TV made it out to be, as I’d been led to believe.
A few weeks later, I sat on a top bunk in an eight-person dorm. Though no longer in medical, I was as isolated as ever. The bunk beneath me was empty, leaving me bunkie-less. In addition, shortly after I was assigned to the dorm, my things were stolen while I used the bathroom. I complained to the CO on duty, which led to a gathering of corrections officers “tossing” our room.
My new roommates were pissed.
Where in medical I had Michelle, here I was alone and prison enemy number one, awaiting whatever retaliation my new roommates planned.
But a couple days later, after I kept praying that whoever came to occupy the bunk beneath me would be friendlier than the people who surrounded me, I looked up and spotted a familiar face. There was Michelle. She had been transferred from one of the larger, more populated dormitories to my dorm room.
Her belly had grown even bigger than when I had seen her last, just the month before. She waddled towards the empty bunk, trying to hold up the weight of the baby and her plastic bag. My heart warmed, finally someone familiar! I saw a similar sentiment when Michelle locked eyes on me. Once she settled in, we caught up on our last few weeks. She was almost due and was terrified about having a baby in prison. She let me feel the baby kick, and I fed her Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. One day, though, I returned from a group, and Michelle was nowhere to be found. A bunkmate told me she had gone into labor.
Two days later, Michelle resurfaced, a shell of the woman who had left. Her tear-worn face looked empty and exhausted. The space that once held her child was deflated. Her full breasts had already begun to leak through her state-issued sweatshirt, the milk trickling down and pooling where her belly used to protrude. I couldn’t think of words to say, so I weakly smiled and waved. Instead of her usual smile, she nodded her head in acknowledgement then laid down on her bunk. Only minutes passed before I heard her sobs, the ones that lasted until she finally fell asleep.
The next morning when Michelle went to the medical building for a checkup, I slipped off the bunk, went into my bin and slid a Reese’s under her pillow. Hours later when she returned, she found it and popped her head up with a smile — the first she managed to muster since giving birth.
Michelle told me all about her labor. That it was easier than with her first two babies. The staff was nice, the CO on duty was respectful. All in all, it went as well as a birth in prison could go. She beamed as she told me about her daughter, Alana — born at five pounds, ten ounces. Beautiful with her father’s nose. Big blue eyes like her mother. Michelle’s own eyes welled as she spoke about kissing Alana goodbye, about not knowing when she would get to see her again, about not knowing how she was going to survive without her daughter.
He juts his index finger towards a conference room and goes back to his conversation, giving me not even a second more thought. I enter the room where several uniformed police officers huddle around my brother’s girlfriend’s eighteen-month-old baby, a child who’s not biologically his but whom he has fathered as best he could, considering limitations caused by his addiction. Despite the cops’ coos, funny faces and squeaky voices, Jaelanie is stone-faced as she stares at them. I’ve only met her once or twice before, so I brace for the tears she’ll shed and the screams she’ll sound when I try to pick her up.
What the hell am I supposed to do with this baby once we leave here? Am I supposed to keep her? I think to myself.
My brother’s locked up with her mother, and even if he were free, he’s a crack addict who can’t care for himself, let alone a child.
My situation isn’t much better than his.
I’m an unemployed, recently released from prison felon who lives in her mother’s public housing apartment.
My hands begin to sweat.
“Hi, I’m Heather. I’m here to pick up Jaelanie,” I work up the courage to whisper.
At the sound of my voice, Jaelanie turns her head and reaches her hands towards me with a smile. I take a step towards her but a bulldog of an officer intercepts our reunion and requests my ID, “You know, for safety purposes.”
Once I prove I am who in fact who I say I am, he allows me to pick her up. She jumps into my arms, and I’m surprised at how easily she takes to me. I zip up her brown and pink puff jacket and kiss her caramel cheeks. She giggles. We step out together into the cold winter air, leaving her mother and my brother behind, not knowing what lies ahead for either of us.
Michelle did survive without her daughter. We both also managed to survive prison. Even when separated and placed in different dorms, we stayed connected, catching up in groups or in the rec yard. She shared Alana updates and photos with me. She also shared fears that her daughter’s father might try to keep her away. Eventually, we were both released and went back to our lives.
A couple of years later we reconnected on Facebook.
Michelle was doing well and was in Alana’s life fulltime. She had met someone and gotten engaged. Because I had been such a good friend to her, she asked me to officiate the wedding. I had done the same for another friend the year before, and I wanted to meet Alana. I happily agreed.
The day before the wedding, I hopped on an Amtrak to Hartford. As I exited the platform, Michelle and Alana both jumped out of a car and bounded towards me, arms wide open. This child who had never met me in the flesh was as elated to see me as I was her.
“Mommy told me all about you!” she exclaimed. “She said you took care of us when I was in her belly, and you fed me Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.”
“You’re mommy’s right!” I laughed. Then I reached into my purse and pulled out a Reese’s that I had brought along just for her.
It was nine and a half years ago when I walked out of the police station with Jaelanie. Today, she’s ten years old and has lived with me and Ma ever since. She has lived through DCF’s midnight visit to the house that same night I brought her home, laying stoic as they pulled at her diaper checking for bruising or evidence of abuse. She has lived through Saturday morning visits to the women’s correctional institution to visit her mother, through metal detectors and correctional officers. She has lived through hopes of possibly moving in with her biological mother, promises made by a woman desperate to be with her child. Promises made false by a judge who doesn’t think it is in Jaelanie’s best interest. Not now, maybe not ever. Most recently, she has lived through the unrelenting blow of watching my mother, the woman who raised us both, bleed to death on the kitchen floor. An event that made me her sole guardian.
I don’t know what is down the road for Jaelanie and I. I don’t know if one day a judge will decide she belongs with her biological mother instead of me. I don’t know if I’ll get to watch her grow into adulthood, fall in love with herself, create the life of her wildest dreams. What I do know is that I was meant to be the only one home for the call that day. I was meant to be the one to save her so that she could in turn save me.
Illustration by Cassandra Orion
Justice Involved Mothers is a column developed in partnership with Roots. Wounds. Words.: A Literary Arts Revolution. Devoted to real life, authentic narratives of criminalization, Justice Involved Mothers is curated and edited by Nicole Shawan Junior and penned by the Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Brown women who have suffered the white supremacist arm and misogynist fist of law enforcement. Through these creative nonfiction works of literary art, we aim to uplift liberation demands, amplify abolitionist urgings, and cast an even wider spotlight on the vice grip criminalization holds around the necks of women—MOTHERS—of color. Justice Involved Mothers centers Our stories because we are the ones who are most ignored. The ones with the most to tell.
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