Psychological well being is a burden for inmates – and their households

Throughout her adult life, Miquelle West has hesitated to this day. Dating can lead to love that can lead to marriage. And Miquelle doesn’t want to get married until her mother can lead her to the altar.

Her mother Michelle, now 60, has been in custody for nearly three decades. She was sentenced to two life sentences plus 50 years in a 1994 drug conspiracy case that held her responsible for the actions of her fellow defendants, including one who had committed murder. It was her first offense.

Miquelle West and her mother Michelle West at Walt Disney World. Courtesy Miquelle West

“I feel more affected by her imprisonment today than I did when I was a child, because I see no end to it now,” said West, who lives in New York City and works as a fashion stylist. “I was successful professionally but couldn’t concentrate on getting married or having children because I’m still trying to get my mother out of prison. It ruined both of our lives. “

Having a loved one who is incarcerated can be emotionally stressful. However, the experience is not uncommon. For example, more than half of all black American women have at least one imprisoned family member, and this experience can lead to severe depression and mental distress, according to research published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in February.

According to a NAACP factsheet, black Americans are more than five times more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans. After decades of mass incarceration, this means families and communities across the country are struggling to fill the gaps left by incarceration.

“From slavery to lynching to incarceration, generations of African American families have endured their family members being taken away. African Americans had to learn to classify this trauma and survived in part because of their resilience, ”says the research paper, which also calls this resilience a“ double-edged sword, ”as these experiences worsen health outcomes.

Miquelle West understands this firsthand.

“We both make the time our own way,” she said of herself and her mother. “There are some things I can’t achieve because my mother isn’t around. But sometimes, when you’re fighting over something of this magnitude, it should take time, ”West said, crying softly.

Miquelle’s uncle Marcel Mays – her mother’s brother – was arrested with her mother and convicted of the same drug conspiracy. He was released in 2010 after 16 years and five months in prison.

“Michelle has no date,” said Mays. “I always ask myself: How does it feel to not have an out date? I woke up with something to look forward to. “

Marion “Pete” Mays, Miquelle’s aunt who raised her, said she suffered from depression for years after her siblings were incarcerated.

“My whole life has been marked by very dark days,” said Marion Mays, 58. “Later in life, I was able to seek help for this. I had to live with that. It’s like death. It also causes grief. I haven’t lost my sister, but I’m losing time with her. “

She said it helped her go to therapy. “The journal helped me. And my faith has helped me too, ”she said.

Evelyn J. Patterson, associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and lead researcher on the study of family incarceration, said most studies, as well as programs that support people with incarcerated loved ones, focus on “children and mothers too” of young children whose fathers are imprisoned. Far less attention was paid to people in other family roles such as siblings or a daughter. “

Yet families of all kinds and at all levels face the psychological stress of having relatives in prison.

“There really has been no point in American history where we haven’t had laws intentionally designed to destroy black families,” Patterson said.

Marcel Mays, who lives on the family’s old homestead in Detroit, said communication within his family has never been the same since his sister was imprisoned.

“You are estranged from your family,” he said. “We are all so used to not talking to each other. It is becoming the norm. “

But he emails his sister Michelle about four times a week. “The purpose of the prison is to separate you mentally, physically and financially from your family. You are free from everything. It’s like slavery. I have no real relationship with my nieces and nephews. I have great nieces and nephews I don’t even know, ”said Marcel Mays.

He said he and his sister Marion rarely speak to an older brother who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Marcel Mays’ mother died of a heart attack seven days after he was released in 2010. He was upset that people said she wanted to see him home before she died. “It was like if I had stayed in prison she would still be alive – or like she didn’t want to see Michelle free,” he said.

Miquelle West is Michelle’s only child. She was 10 years old when her mother dropped her off at her Detroit elementary school in 1993. That was the last time the daughter and mother were together outside of prison. West was raised by her grandmother and aunt.

Over the years, Miquelle West has spent a lot of time fighting for her mother’s freedom. She has appeared on radio and television programs, as well as in newspapers and magazines, all of which she regards as a privilege not granted to the families of most of the detainees. The organization Can-Do Justice Through Clemency also repeatedly called for West’s release. But Miquelle is frustrated that nothing she did led to her mother’s freedom.

In 2015, during President Barack Obama’s final term, Miquelle West was invited to a grace summit at the White House to plead for her mother. However, the Obama administration rejected West’s pardon. Still, she said she didn’t regret spending a day fighting for her mother.

“Maybe some people should get married and have children. God put me on earth to fight for people who are unjustly imprisoned, ”said Miquelle. “Some people live their lives and don’t know their purpose. I knew my destiny very early on. I knew the day I discovered my mother had gone to jail. ”

The story of the West was featured in the bestseller “Humans of New York,” with the older West writing from prison at the time: “My sister told me that after graduation, when everyone else was taking pictures with her family, my daughter just collapsed and cried. When she visits, she tells me that she feels too guilty to have a family because I won’t be there to see it. “

After high school, Miquelle moved from Detroit to New York City to be near the federal prison, where her mother was incarcerated at the time, so she could visit her more often.

In between visits, West worries about her mother. And the past year has been particularly stressful as prisons have been closed due to the pandemic. Sometimes she said visits and even phone calls were forbidden.

Michelle West, her mother Miquelle, her brother Marcel Mays and her sister Marion Mays.Courtesy Michelle West

“Imprisoning a loved one means being in a state of constant anxiety, depression, and worry,” said Laura B. Morse, an Atlanta psychotherapist. “You always ask yourself: will they be safe? At Covid, we knew how fast it was going in these facilities. “

Michelle West contracted Covid-19 after being placed in a cell with two people who had the virus. The day Miquelle spoke to NBC News, she was furious that her mother had been injured while helping move the beds in prison.

“I’m sick of my mother’s harsh treatment,” said Miquelle. “She is now of legal age and this thing hit her on the head. Why do women move heavy metal beds? “

Your mother is better now.

Michelle West.With the kind permission of CAN-DO

In addition to worry, Morse said, the relatives of people who are incarcerated often experience shame.

“The shame could come from most people who make strong assumptions about people in prison or jail,” Morse said. “There is this instant judgment that they deserve to be there. So it locks people in and makes them hesitate to ask for support and understanding.

“You even ask: Do I deserve support?” Said Morse. One client who had a son who was incarcerated “couldn’t get me to tell me why. I knew it was a violent crime. You could see the pain and the guilt in her. “

Michelle West’s sister Marion Mays lived with her mother. “I could see her agonizing over Michelle. It was extremely difficult to watch, ”said Mays.

Marcel Mays believes he’s coping fairly well with the psychological challenges associated with his sister’s incarceration.

“But you never know,” he said. “Maybe I should have done therapy. I think if you do anytime [in prison] Maybe you should do therapy. “

Marion Mays remembered her own reluctance to speak to anyone after her siblings were arrested.

“I didn’t mix with people. … I stayed withdrawn, “she said. “I felt lost, hurt, fearful and didn’t want to go out. It was a very lonely time. “

Mays suggested that Miquelle could benefit from therapy, but her niece hesitated and only got a therapist last year during the pandemic.

“I wasn’t sure anyone could understand this situation,” said Miquelle. She has also turned to meditation to help her through the most difficult days.

“I still feel the absence of Michelle,” said Marion Mays. She last saw her sister two years ago and had considered visiting her for her birthday this year. But Michelle is now in California and Mays is in Detroit. She wondered if the trip would be worth it.

“It’s a lot to fly to San Francisco and rent a car to visit my sister for two hours behind plexiglass,” said Mays.

The two communicate almost daily by email. Mays sends money to her sister every week.

“I couldn’t survive and live in this free world without knowing that my sister is fine,” said Mays. “I look at the things I have and ask myself, ‘Does she need new trainers?'”

“I like to say the most precious possession we have in life is our time,” said Mays. “Not our money, it’s our time. Sometimes I hear in my sister’s voice that she wants to give up. But I tell her, ‘You can do it. You can come home. ‘”

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