Sunday, August 17, 2008

Locked Up: as Metaphor and Fact

This posting has been especially difficult to write, which is why I’m using long chunks from my journal, mostly as-is, with just the question marks cleaned up – when I wrote these entries I kept struggling for words and trying out alternate phrases, each with question marks. It’s therapeutic for me to write that way but would give readers a headache.

I also had difficulty choosing generic photos for the posting, which is usually my favorite part of blogging. I chose the stylized image above because I thought it was attractive, but also because it was less upsetting than others I viewed – more details on that below.

The basic facts, to the extent that my sister has divulged them and/or I could look them up online, is that Rachel is serving a 5-year sentence for drug charges in the Texas prison system, possibly eligible for probation this November. She had been close to arrest for the past several years and went to court-ordered rehab but then got into further life messes, and this spring it all caught up with her. Her spring arrest was complicated by her probation on previous charges, so that although she says she’s been clean & sober since January, and had been making strides to communicate with family again and get back on track professionally, she is having to serve real time.

Rachel spent almost 4 months in the Harris County Jail in Houston, never seeing the sun – even her court date was inside the building. She had hoped to then be transferred to one of the larger state women’s facilities where she could have more educational options, but she is now in Dayton, Texas, which as best as I can figure out online, doesn’t offer much besides a prison garden. Dayton is about an hour from Houston, but in many ways it's far from Houston. Craig and I had thought of trying to visit Rachel when we go to see my dad during Labor Day weekend, but she won’t be eligible for visitors yet. Some prison mentality came up with the idea that new inmates must wait 30 business days for visitors. Is it just me, or does the concept of a "business day" sound odd in that context?

How much to talk about it...It's not that I'm ashamed she's there, but I'm wondering if it's wrong or bad of me to write online about my reaction to her situation. It's my blog, but...already I fear this is getting too flip. I feel the feeling I want to write about when I feel close to her plight - by that, I mean visualizing her discomfort as I imagine myself in similar locked-up circumstances, which to me sound, which I imagine as, very claustrophobic. Reading online that she can almost never make phone calls and has to wait for a month and a half to have a visitor made my chest tighten and my brain kind of twist, flop, lock up, do the kind of queasy spasm you go into when you want to avoid something. Reading public web postings from family members of inmates, not complaints about Rachel's jail as a terrible place but expressing the expected frustrations and concerns with bureaucratic hassles and lack of...well, the lack of the system (Texas Department of Criminal Justice, TDCJ) to treat their loved one as the special person he/she is. And shit, I'm a very special person, but I would get no special treatment either - it's prison. Someone on the outside would have to raise the appropriate sort of hell - emailing, calling, threatening and copying the ACLU for me to get my anxiety meds, which are not exactly necessary to sustain life. Glaucoma and blood pressure meds might be a challenge too but I am most worried about the psych meds - after all, glaucoma and hypertension do silent damage, I wouldn't know about it other than worry/thought about it, but without even my small regular dose of stop-the-anxiety...hell, I could live without it, but I might want to kill myself, especially in a rural prison, with few activities other than the prison garden. And I wouldn't make friends immediately like Rachel - she's the kind of person who could win over the biggest bully, by the magic of her size, humor, earthiness, extroversion, drama...she has a way of drawing people to her, and people tend to give her a lot of chances. When she screws up she usually hurts herself more than them. Well, good - here I am talking about Rachel instead of myself! Poor Rachel, who was hoping to get to a large, sophisticated (that's clearly not the right word, but what would be?) facility where she could learn to drive a commercial truck and maybe parlay that into a good job after prison - assuming employers were ok with her having had a conviction. Worrying about her future is a whole other thing - lots of unknowns, and yet, a certain certainty of life patterning...not encouraging. She has had training and licenses in hair and manicures and managed to get a renewal around the time she was arrested, so she hopes to work in the prison beauty shop, according to a letter my dad got...the trading of information between us is kind of sad, and seems archaic, like my dad's much-delayed in mailing letters from WW 2. In an effort to coax myself toward putting something online on this topic, my sister is in jail, I looked on my usual free photo site for images. I was shocked by how sick I felt looking at the grimmer cell photos and especially people behind bars. How many movies, TV shows, books have I absorbed, even smirked and giggled at or otherwise critiqued, of the prison existence? But suddenly, I am one step closer. I told a friend at lunch yesterday that I felt a sort of luckiness at having a chance to get closer to something that is, after all, a reality of our society. But today I felt sick looking at online photos filmed/faked with models, because they made me imagine myself in a bad reality...that my sister is experiencing.

“Getting used to my sister in jail” – possible title for blogging? I used "get used to" in reference to my dad, trying to calm Rachel in one of my letters, as in, he needs time to get used to your news. Actually I, and I guess anyone else who knows her, who hears about her, also has to go through a process (an adjustment) of whatever speed and complexity. Of course we Scholls want to, or seem to need to assume that, we are above such adjustments, but we go through stages of grief, anger, depression like other humans, however good we are at diverting, denying, the emotions that want to spike up - however good we are at flattening. Part of the problem is accepting all parts, or at least certain parts of the process - we may think it's OK to make jokes about Rachel but not OK to feel angry at her, or vice versa. Yes, I guess all families do this, and many families bury and squelch. I can't quite put my finger on what I think is unique about the Scholls... One big part of the Scholl approach to “getting used to” is guilt. Now, guilt is always acceptable, rarely or never squelched. It is perceived as a somehow virtuous, selfless emotion. Beyond my guilt of how I might have contributed to my sister's problems, which I've thought about for so long that the edges of that guilt have gotten less sharp, there is guilt of how I am using my adjustment to her situation (for example, with curiosity, or for blog fodder), especially since my relationship with her has not been a consistent part of my life - we are several years apart in age, and worlds apart in personality.


While searching for images I found this goofy one that I saved on a whim and then realized deserves inclusion. It illustrates my imaginary placing myself in Rachel’s situation – Sarah the nerd, office drone, librarian-type in jail, much to her surprise, of course. I keep making parallels between my behaviors of spending too much and drinking too much to Rachel’s drug involvement. Maybe those comparisons are silly, but I was raised to try to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and not just give blind judgment or patronizing compassion.

I inhaled pot in high school, not many times but in some riskily public situations, and it has struck me since that even one arrest for that (again, the comparisons get kind of silly, since Rachel has been arrested more than once) could have changed my life. I would not have gotten my first Dallas job, which had a mandatory check of criminal records – unusual for that time, but I worked for a government office. I stayed at that job for 5 years and it was an important and formative experience for me. Surely a drug arrest would have had repercussions beyond that as well, and certainly would have added to my self-consciousness and hesitation at selling myself professionally.

I wasn’t personally drawn to drugs but my friends were – I didn’t have many friends then and we didn’t have much in common, so I guess it was as important for me to give in to their desire to expose me to a high as it was important for them to loosen me up. Two memories from 1978/1979 really make me cringe – driving (with my 16-year-old poor driving reflexes) my grandfather’s old sedan to take one friend to see another on Friday night, on 2-lane and 1-lane unlit country roads, with a fresh bag of pot perched on the front seat. And, parked at the Sonic on Main Street (yep, as public an avenue as the name indicates) as my friends smoked up the pale-blue interior of Grandpa’s pale-blue sedan with pot. The Sonic pot use seemed harmless to me, about the same caliber as a classmate’s story about buying tater tots with cheese and discovering their petrified leftovers in her glove box 2 weeks later. (Not moldy, just petrified – not much real food there, after all.) The pot, like the tater tots, represented just another harmless high school Sonic experience, in my view. Granted, this was before Nancy Reagan’s War on Drugs…in a way there was less stigma back then, but in a way more stigma – back then, it was less imagined that good kids would try drugs.

Actually those two stories don’t make me cringe as much as a third one, which took place at our country destination, a single-wide mobile home, so at least was not public. My two friends puffed pot into a cone and bade me inhale (I think I took one brief, polite sniff), and they also poured beer in my glass of Coke, thinking I wouldn’t notice the taste and more importantly, that it would make me more fun.

How does this embarrassing story relate to Rachel? Well, through the perennial theme of peer pressure. Many of the people Rachel feels most comfortable with do drugs. Add that to the fact that Rachel tries to self-medicate for depression, low energy, high energy, or whatever with drugs (and here I always have to interject, how is that different from me and my Chardonnay?), and you have a situation that’s exacerbated – if not caused by – peer pressure.

I may be stretching a point too far, or giving in to too much Scholl guilt, but I still see connections between Rachel and me. That makes it impossible (as if it would be possible, regardless...) to dismiss concerns for her, being locked up.

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