IInside the forbidden outside
Looking out through only one side
Dear mom how are you?
Fine I hope as for me I’m okay. Anyway, the reason I’m writing this letter is to let you know how sorry I am about the phone calls and the hours I was calling. Once again I’m sorry it’s just being in here is hurting me do to the fact that I don’t know if I’m going to be there for my family. I love Megan with all my heart and being here while she is in pain is putting me through pain also. I love her not only because are having a child together but because she is a loving, caring and bright young woman. I love her with all my heart. I would do anything for her even if that meant giving up my life. I love her so much mom. I sit in hear and think about her all day every day and that is why I called so much. Worrying myself about how she’s doing wondering if she’s okay. It hurts me to go so many days without hearing her beautiful voice. If you could please tell your husband that I’m realy sorry about the phone calls to. I’m realy sorry for being disrespectful to the both of you I just worry about her every day. Well I have to go now but before I do I want to say I sorry again. Love you Mom
P.S. Thanks for the positive advise
Love Always, Jamie
( To be replaced with a picture of the actual letter. Jamie has many handwritings. It is easy to see his state of mind by which handwriting he uses)
My very pregnant daughter Morgan arrived at my home by bus a couple months ago, with her two other young children, ages six and eight. No doctor in Key West, Florida would accept her as a patient this late in her pregnancy. She was already in the latter part of the second trimester. To take on the responsibility for the care and delivery of a baby with possible problems because of maybe another difficult pregnancy, wasn’t a chance doctors, accepting Medicaid, wanted to take.
She had eclampsia with her second pregnancy which can cause dangerous problems with gestational diabetes, stroke, seizures or heart problems. She needed to tell any new doctor her medical history so they could be watching for signs of it repeating. Having no prenatal care was not an option. Because of eclampsia, after her second birth, she had a grand mal seizure twenty-four hours after giving birth which has resulted in a life time of predominantly petite mal, or silent seizures, also called staring seizures in which she can’t respond to you until the brain waves settle down. This requires seizure medication. Doctors in Key West backed away from accepting her as a patient this far into her pregnancy. They were afraid of getting sued should something go wrong. Neither of us realized getting her a new doctor was going to be so hard. Other towns going up the keys didn’t have a hospital, only clinics.
When she first started scouting around for a doctor, she had to tell them over the phone about her second pregnancy. They would quickly say they weren’t taking new patients. After days of phone calls, we had to start looking on the mainland and began calling OB/GYNs in Miami. Finally, a doctor said yes. We were relieved. I was getting worried. Ev even so, it was also going to be a grueling eight hour round trip drive for each appointment, making it a hard day. The bigger the baby grew, the bigger the bumps on the two lane road going in and out of the Keys began to feel. I could hear Morgan grunt with every bump and swerve the car made as I tried to learn and remember the rough patches.
The closer she got to her delivery date the more often we had to make that drive. When it became every week it was hard but we knew it was almost over. It was worth it. She scheduled an appointment for an inducement to make sure she was able to have her doctor there. No surprises. She didn’t want to go into labor in Key West. She did have a problem with delivery because the baby wouldn’t drop. She wanted to have him naturally but this was going to change things. If she had to go to the Lower Keys Hospital they would have life-flighted her to the mainland.
The hospital on the keys was a small hospital, good for run of the mill medical procedures but they aren’t equiped for complicated issues. They could fly them in a chopper to the mainland fairly quickly. She might not have made it in time because the baby’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck three times and no one knew. In the middle of the night, when his vitals started dropping, she was taken into the OR for an emergency C- section. She would not have had her own doctor, who saved the baby’s life, and I would not have been there for the birth. When baby Jamie was delivered, I would have still been driving crazy, over the speed limit, up that same narrow road through the keys.
The day of this ordinary check-up appointment was a normal, hot, humid summer day in Key West. Coming home, after driving around the block a few times trying to park close to the house, I gave up searching. I dropped her off in front of the house and parked two blocks down the street. Parking spaces were always a premium on an island only 1.5 by 3.5 miles wide. It was easier to get around town on a bicycle, moped or golf cart. Everything was close on this tiny island. I even did my grocery shopping with bags hanging from my bicycle handlebars. I rarely drove my car, instead letting Megan use it with the kids.
I was lucky finding that parking place. Walking down Whitehead Street toward my house, a few blocks up from the buoy, supposedly the southernmost point of the US. Every tourist stops there to take get their picture, even asking if you could see Cuba from there. Some people forget the world is round. I also passed the Lighthouse, the only inland lighthouse in the US and the Hemingway House, home of the late writer, Ernest Hemmingway, which still had a line of people waiting outside for the last tour of the day. Tourists were everywhere. As I glanced in through the gate, six toed cats were walking lazily around the property as usual.
Feral cats were a problem in Key West. At last count I had at least twenty-seven of them living under my house. They ate the eggs of all the chickens living in the hedges. Roosters crowed all day and night, awake because of street lights and also confused not knowing when morning hours truly started. Chickens were a protected species on the island. When they crossed the street, with all their baby chicks following behind, if you didn’t stop you could be ticketed. An island wide BBQ sounded good to me.
Key West was a very eclectic community to live in; only 90 miles from Cuba. I loved it. I felt Morgan and the kids could be happy here. Having my grandkids near me, including a new baby, brought all my mother cravings to the surface. Being close to them every day, with her working in the store with me, was special.
The front gate to my house made a metallic grind when it opened. I grabbed the mail as I walked down the two foot wide walkway between houses to get to my entrance at the rear of the house. It was barely wide enough when I had to squeak my bike through, pulling it by the handlebars. It was a typical Key West house nestled in the charm of Old Town, built close together because of hurricanes. Morgan was laying down on her daybed in the guest house, AC going full blast, already asleep from the drive. I closed the door between her place and mine and plopped down on my own bed, in the middle of the livingroom, with a loud sigh of contentment and began sorting the mail.
There was a letter addressed to me from Jamie. That was odd. He had never written to me before this. I briefly talked to him on the phone a few times to ask how he was coping, but I never wanted to use up his minutes and would quickly get Morgan. Those fifteen minutes were precious to both of them and they went by fast.
I felt bad because their life fell apart so fast. I wasn’t sure exactly what happened. I’m not sure I know now. Kids, no matter what their age, lied to their parents when they thought the truth was too hard to tell. How did I know this? I did the same thing. Morgan is her mother’s daughter. She had been an accident waiting to happen since she was twelve and found out what sex was, and those accidents happened frequently. She kept trying to get her life together, but the word consequence wasn’t a word she remembered when making spur of the moment choices.
James Cummings was the father of Morgan’s baby. A little over 6’1”, a bit chubby, with a pleasant face and perfect manners. He was nice. I liked him when I met him the previous Thanksgiving when I went to Texas to visit Morgan and the kids. She was living near her father’s family. It didn’t matter to me Jamie he was black and she was white. I have never gotten hung up on skin color. It’s a shame so many do. They seemed happy. To me, it was the only important thing right now.
Unfortunately, Jamie was arrested one night a couple months after we met, when he was at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person. Was he guilty? I didn’t know. Was he a bad person? Not by what I saw. I know good people can make bad decisions. How much of one’s life should be taken away to teach that person a lesson, and is there any other ulterior motive going on that effects how much time needed to be served?
He was still at the jail, waiting for an attorney to talk about his options. All he had was a public defender, and they aren’t known for being on the side of the defendant, I soon found out. Until then, I knew nothing about the justice system or prisons, except for what I learned watching the TV series, Prison Break. Prisons had not affected my life, so why would I know?
This was the beginning of my educationabout the prison system. I learned it was vaguely possible to have a public defender who cared about their clients, but they were overworked trying to do an impossible job because there were too many arrested people on their list to check off with their fates settled, as quickly as possible.
There were also attorneys who weren’t exactly in the brain surgeon category of attorneys, nowhere near the top of their class. They worked for about $75 an hour, doing the bidding of the District Attorney. That meant locking up as many people as possible, who didn’t have the money to fight the plea deal by hiring an attorney. It forced people into taking these deals instead of going to trial. Jamie was first offered a deal of 40 years. When he refused he was offered 17 years. If he didn’t take that deal they told him they would make sure he got 50-99 years by adding charges. What would you do if you were in his place and had no attorney to advise you, let alone fight for you?
Guilt or innocence played little part in the scenario they laid in from of him. If every person arrested got their day in court with a jury of their peers, at the rate they were arresting people in the drug war, it would take decades to get to court. So what if some were innocent. They were probably guilty of something they weren’t caught doing, right? They weren’t productive citizens of the community in their minds – and they didn’t have attorneys to fight for them.
When you look at exonerations today, because attorneys are now fighting for these people, most of the people freed after 20/40 years were judged guilty on bad or no evidence, and most were black men. No one cared if they were innocent when they were arrested. They were black. It was all the reason they needed. They made sure all were guilty. Families were ripped apart. And if they were guilty was it really necessary to destroy their entire life, while white people serve less time for the same crime? What is fair?
This still happens today, which is why people are fighting back and groups like Black Lives Matter was able to gain support from the people. Our government promised the prison corporations they would keep the prisons full. Jamie has filled a bed for a long time. That is a lot of his life lost, and his son has been without his father. So much loss. So common. How could I live so much of my life, with this going on around me, and not know? Reading about these things for the first time was an eye opener – and it made me angry. It brought out the fight in me. It was time to scream it from the top of a mountain because it was now affecting my family.
I couldn’t let this happen and not try to do something about it. I realized, if I didn’t know this was happening, a lot of people didn’t know. It was time to pull my head out of the sand and not wait for someone else to do something. Today, more people do know and things are beginning to change, with a long way to go. The squeaky wheel has begun to turn.
Jamie took the 17 year plea deal because the fear of being given a longer sentence scared him. He had no attorney to consult with. His mother and other family couldn’t afford to help. I learned the phrase, “Prison Industrial Complex,” for-profit warehousing of bodies, for one reason – money for shareholders. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I say these things to show how naive I was about the system.
I thought prisons were filled with only the guilty. They got what they deserved. and heck, they were fed and medically taken care of, so it couldn’t be that bad . . . I thought.
Knowing Jamie and what he goes through in this story of his life, impacted my own life like a freight train running over me. His story needed to be told. Not because his story is special, but because it is shockingly ordinary and is the same life of millions of other Americans and it has affected their family’s lives as well. That is frightening when you stop to think about it.
Jamie was worried. I knew that. It had to be a scary place when you didn’t know what was going to happen to your life. Having a pregnant girlfriend made it worse. Nerve racking wasn’t a good enough word to explain how either of them felt. Hopeless was a better word. All I could do was give them emotional support and help Morgan with the kids when she needed me..
Being black was only the first strike against him. Being poor was the second. Money buys justice and when you don’t have any, the misnomer of luck doesn’t fall on your side. Morgan scraped money together from paychecks she earned working for me at my store, Touched By The Sun; a busy little store where the cruise ships docked. She sent the money to Jamie’s brother, who said he knew somebody, who knew an attorney, who would take a down payment and would take payments over time. He would start working to get him out.
I don’t know what happened, except it didn’t happen and the money disappeared. There was no attorney. I only know she never got her money back. Jamie’s public defender had no interest in what happened that night. There can be no justice when there is no seeking of the truth. It made a mockery of the truth. There was only justice if you had money. Prisons set their sights on people who couldn’t buy their freedom. That is what freedom meant now.
At first Morgan didn’t want to tell me she was pregnant, for good reasons. I was upset. Where was her head? Jamie didn’t have a job. He was looking for one, but jobs in their area were low if you didn’t have an education. He didn’t even have a high school diploma or GED. How would he support the family by himself when she became too pregnant to work?
They had plans, but right now they were pipe dreams. Love does not fix all, and pipe dreams do not buy food. She was already struggling to take care of the children she already had. She told me Jamie had a disability check because he had epilepsy since birth. It sounded reasonable. In hindsight, should I have questioned it?
After Jamie was arrested she never saw him again until little Jamie was about fourteen months old. The day after the arrest she took his seizure medication for epilepsy to the police station, but they wouldn’t let her see him. No one can have visitors until they have been processed and it can sometimes take a while. They rushed her out of the building when she pressed them for details.
As she left she turned around looked back at the jail, looking up at the second floor. She could see him looking down at her from the window. She told me he looked so sad. They didn’t signal each other in any way. They stood like that, looking each other in the eye. At this point she knew she had to make a decision about her life very soon. She had a baby growing inside her and he was her priority.
Morgan knew she didn’t have a lot of time to figure out a plan. She couldn’t go through this alone. She didn’t even have a car now. He was driving it the night before and it was impounded. She didn’t have the money to get it out and knew every day it stayed at the impound lot the fine would get higher. She knew her mom was going to be upset and a lecture would probably come with it, but she also knew her mom would never let anything bad happen to her if she could help. She could trust that thought. l
She didn’t want to stay at her grandmother’s house. It was a big house but there were already too many family members living there. Mammaw’s adult children lived there, including Morgan’s own father, a dead beat dad when she was a kid, who was making up for lost time trying to lay down the law and tell her what to do even though she was twenty-five. His sister and stragglers of her family and grandchildren, also down on their luck, lived there. It was too much chaos and no privacy. But if she left, she would be leaving town without having the chance to see Jamie again. She did love him, but right now she needed her mother.
This is when I got the call, “Mom, Jamie was arrested. I need help. I’m pregnant.” She was 3-4 months along by now. I went on high ‘Mom to the Rescue’ alert. I put her on a bus and arranged the little guest house attached to the back of my house for her and the kids. At least I knew she would be safe and Jamie wouldn’t need to worry about her or the baby.
After she arrived I knew they needed to talk. Of course, I had no idea what it cost to accept a collect call from a jail. It was shocking when I got my first phone bill – twenty-five dollars for fifteen minutes. What a racket. This is why he wrote that letter to me. I had to tell him he could only call a certain amount of times each week. He felt bad thinking he was taking advantage of me and thought I was angry at him. He wanted me to know he was sorry.
I learned over the years he feared losing me, the only person who was consistently there for him. If I waited too long to answer a letter he was afraid I had gone away and was angry at him. Why shouldn’t he feel that way? His own family dropped him like an eight ball down a side pocket and he rolled under the table – with no explanation – and no help. There is always another side to every story but I had no idea what that reason could be. I only knew I was writing to someone who had been hurt in so many ways I didn’t understand and I wanted to wrap my arms around him so he wouldn’t feel so alone.
I also knew there was a reason why this was happening in my life, too, because things don’t happen for no reason. I didn’t know then what was going to happen, and the part he would play in my life, too.
Between Jamie and Morgan there were promises of waiting until he got out and loving each other forever. “Every day and twice on Sundays.” There was deep pain on both sides of the phone line. If I could have afforded it I would have let him call as often as he wanted. He had no one else. He was scared.
We had no way of knowing when he would be moved to a prison, and we didn’t know he wouldn’t be allowed anymore phone calls. Most inmates have phone privileges. They took that privilege away, along with being able to take classes, even for a GED. There was only one three week period of time about year nine, when he was allowed to make calls and I was the only one who registered their phone number. I let him call every day. I had forgotten he had a Texas Twang. Then they took the privilege away again because of false report made by a guard. I learned false reports were a common way for guards to get even with inmates they don’t like. Maybe they refused an offer of sex. I’m not joking. Jamie is an attractive man who lost his boyhood chubbiness from the foul, uneatable food.
While Morgan was waiting out her pregnancy, those phone calls or letters were their only means to stay together. Their relationship was cut short before it had a chance to begin. Both were afraid of what would happen to their future. Morgan would end up moving on with her life, even getting married again and having another boy a couple years later.
Jamie couldn’t move on. The making of new memories had come to a dead stop. All he had were old memories and many of those were too painful to think about, or no longer gave him comfort. In prison, growth and wisdom gained by life experiences stays exactly where it was the day you were arrested.
His life stopped. The world outside moved on. Many people locked up are eventually broken and forgotten. Depression sets in. Communication tapers off, if there ever was any. There is little anyone can do if they are sent to a prison far away, which often happens. Everything is in a holding pattern. It becomes rare to get an answer to a letter. No one wanted to be asked if they could give a little money and he had no way to earn any. Texas pays no inmate money for any job, period. Not even the usual .20 an hour.
Life can become bitter. They get emotionally institutionalized, making it hard later when they need to re-enter society. Many can’t make it and end up back inside again. They have forgotten how to live, or were too young if they were arrested as a teen and never learned how to live. Never paid a bill or had a bank account. Never had a job or learned how to drive a car. Never used a computer that had windows or scanned groceries at a store.
It didn’t matter to me what he did or if he was guilty, or even how guilty he was. Whatever happened, no one was hurt in any way. Maybe someday I’ll find out all the little details. Maybe he’s afraid I’d go away if I knew. I’m not going anywhere. Whatever the details are they don’t equal the destruction of his life. Knowing racism played a part in this pushed me to take a stand for equal – reasonable – justice.
This is when I re-entered the picture, about eighteen months after he was arrested, when he was finally sent from the jail in 2008, to a prison in La Mesa, West Texas. I asked Morgan for his address. I wanted to send him a card. He answered and I became the mom he needed at the time. I don’t always stay ‘mom’. The separation from Morgan and baby Jamie nearly killed him. He wasn’t doing well. I needed to be the bridge that spanned the gap. Their separation was nothing compared to what was coming. It was a good thing he didn’t know how hard it was going to be.
Twelve years have now passed. He has five to go. When he gets out he will be almost forty. He will have gray in his beard. Will his brain survive the seizures that persist until he can see a real doctor, not a nurse on a video screen? He will have lost his twenties and thirties. He had already lost his teens. Except for a very brief period of time when he met Morgan he has been locked up since tenth grade. He is now thirty-four. He will re-enter a world he doesn’t know – and I will still be there to help him, myself having gone from my early 50’s to nearly 70.
To begin, settle in. Relax. Make a nice, hot cup of tea. You are entering a solitary prison cell that few get to see. We are going to fast-forward to year ten . . .
For the past month and a half I’ve been in a writing class which has absorbed my life like a Bounty paper towel, as I have been working on rewrites of chapters of my book. “Inside the Forbidden Outside” Some of those chapters have been printed here already.
This piece is the prologue, setting up the book and telling the reader why I’m writing. What happened.
Before all is said and done, when it hits real editing I’m sure there will be more changes. if there is one thing I’ve learned, if you do it right, no book is written, checked for grammar and published. it is written, rewritten and parts rewritten and edited it again and maybe again., unless you want a poorly written ebook you can give away on kindle. There is too much at stake here and the more than two years I have spent so far writing it is not going to be wasted. It won’t be published until I think it is the best it can be.
The order so far, and the chapters are easy to do a search below the fold:
2. Dead Men Don’t Bleed – ten years later . . .
3.The Waking Hour
5. Sharp Left Turn
6. Circles Inside Circles ( will be published in the next ITFO Newsletter)
7. (being written now)
Subscribe to the newsletter on prison issues and inmate writings. As I build my mailing list for the book I’m writing about Jamie Cummings life, Inside The Forbidden Outside, keeping people informed along the way is important. Most of the information in the newsletter is not on this blog. We have a government now more gung-ho on locking up as many people as they can for even longer years. It is going to affect even more people who will get knocked sideways when they find themselves behind a steel door. Staying informed helps you protect yourself. Yes, it can happen to you, too.
If you know an inmate who writes poetry or is an artist or has a story you’d like to tell you can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jamie Life in Prison at Face book . . .Blog posts and news about injustice in the world
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