We’d seen the lights from the prison complex the night before, long before the actual buildings appeared just outside Winslow on Highway 87. Night had fallen black and featureless, and they shone over the horizon like the glow of a distant city, dwarfing the illumination of the town itself. When we came abreast of the starkly lit compound, the barbed wire fences and long squat buildings suggested more than anything an emptiness. A waiting. Then the darkness swallowed us up again.
Winslow. The Winslow of “Standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona.” I’d long thought it would be fun to stop at the actual corner that the song celebrates. After all, the Eagles had provided the soundtrack to my college years. When, this last weekend, I found myself but a couple of blocks away, my mental energy was elsewhere.
I was in Winslow to see my son. My beautiful son. My son who is addicted to heroin. I could say he is an addict, but I dislike ascribing an identity to him in that way. As a friend pointed out, his addiction does not define him. Yet it has defined his life over the last half a decade. And that life went its predictable way since he started using heavily. He lost his job. Became homeless. He was in and out of jail for a year and a half. In and out of rehab, though never seriously in. Last September, he did himself the favor of not avoiding the police when he returned to an apartment he’d been staying at to find two officers responding to an unrelated theft. He was questioned, patted down, arrested. This time he got prison, not jail.
It was my first visit to the Arizona State Prison Complex, though my son has been there since November. A visit is of course not a slap-dash, spontaneous kind of event. There is the enormous task of figuring out the bureaucracy, paying fees for background checks, learning how to set up prepaid calls, and applying for visitation rights. I was approved before Christmas. Both my husband and my sister, for reasons I won’t go into, were denied. Finally I could wait no longer. I would go alone.
Even before Charli Mills put out the prompt on power last week, I had been thinking about the theme. I had been pondering it in relation to my son. In particular, I had been thinking about the lack of power, about throwing away one’s power. That led me to reflect on just how we get power, on what power I had, on what power remained to my son in his present circumstances.
I talked to my husband about it. I was thinking of power as force, but he pointed out how power is influence, the ability to effect an outcome. He noted Alvin Toffler’s book Power Shift in which the author identified three distinct kinds of power: the physical, the financial, and knowledge. So, I surveyed my own power or influence, checking my examples against Toffler’s basic formula but also including others. I have the power of knowledge, afforded by a curious mind and a decent education; some financial power in the form of a regular income and good credit; the physical power of a healthy (as of yet) body (and still functioning mind); the social power I might exert through my network of family, friends, and associates; the political power of my vote (I still think that is worth something); the power afforded by my autonomy and relative freedom; the power afforded to me by the rights I enjoy as an American citizen; and the power to influence my own circumstances through discipline, self-regulation, and self responsibility.
It’s not a great deal of power, but I was satisfied for the time being to know I had at least a modicum of the precious stuff.
In contrast, my son has been rendered almost powerless. I was reminded of just how powerless when we drove up to the stark, isolated complex on Saturday. It was a cold, bright morning. A guard checked our IDs at the gate and waved me in as my husband turned the car around to leave. The guard then instructed me to stand behind a portable trifold fence while a leashed German shepherd made a few sniffing passes on the other side. Satisfied that I was not carrying any drugs on my person, he then directed me to a nondescript building at the end of a short road. Once inside, I filled out the requisite form, removed my shoes and sweater for inspection, handed over my baggie of coins (up to $30.00 permitted for vending machines) and the one unopened pack of Marlboro reds I had bought for my son. I was told to open and empty the contents of the pack into another baggie. Then I passed through the security booth, gathered up my items, and entered the visitation room.
Inside three or four families of visitors had preceded me. They sat on cheap plastic chairs around battered square tables visiting with their orange-clad inmates. Around the perimeter various vending machines offered the usual chips, sodas, water, and weak coffee. I wavered for a moment surveying the choices of table. “You can sit anywhere,” a woman called jovially to me. She clearly knew the routine. An armed guard sat behind a folding table on the far side of the room, next to a locker that I later found contained board games and playing cards. He rose and asked me my inmate’s name. Then he moved to a locked door leading out into the yard and called it out. A moment later I heard it amplified by loud speakers. I was happy it was his name and not his number.
I chose a table within sight of the door leading to the yard. Periodically the guard stepped through it to see if any inmates had lined up outside to be admitted. I eagerly peered through each time he opened it, anxious to see that familiar form. I felt the keen anticipation one has when waiting in an arrival lounge at the airport.
At last he came through. At 6 feet 2 inches, my son has towered over me for the last five years, and the old pride of having to rise up to hug him returned. (The simple maternal pride of having produced this man.) He has a high-bridged prominent nose, dark, thick eyebrows and eyes the color of strong tea. These features were as familiar as always. But his strong, thick arms and shoulders were something new. As were the orange sweatshirt, pants, and slippers. I had not hugged him since last May. I had not seen him since then, except for the two times in court last November. Both times his wrists and ankles had been shackled.
We spent the next four hours talking, playing checkers (as we had so often done when he was a boy), and going out to a separate yard where he could smoke. He spoke of his arrest, of feeling like the moment had come to get out of the life he’d been living, of knowing there would be no other way he could stop using. He spoke of events in his recent past, some painful for me to hear. He spoke of his future, of what he wants and hopes for. And we spoke of power. Of being empowered.
And that is what I hope for him. That of the qualities on the list I made for myself above, my son achieves the last three while he is still incarcerated: the power to influence his future through discipline, self-regulation, and self responsibility. Those three strengths are the basis of all power to come. And those three qualities, if externally enforced now, can be bolstered internally.
Here is my flash on the theme of power. Thanks to Charli Mills for another provocative prompt. February 3, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that explores the question, “What good is power?” Is it a story of empowerment, or a story of a dictator? Poke around power and go where the force takes you this week.
The Power Remaining
He’d learned the unwritten rules in the first weeks. How he had to back up his own kind. Step into a fight between a white inmate and the blacks or Hispanics. Take another inmate with him anytime he talked to a guard, insurance against a false report on either side. And how to look out when someone got high on contraband dope.
The dope. He’d been offered it. Had fought the memory of the pleasure of it in his veins, the release, the purest happiness there could be.
But he’d resisted. It was the one power remaining to him.