The fourth Saturday of every month Barbara Toliver gets to see her boy.
This is her only visiting time, bridging slightly the days, weeks, months and years that blur imperceptibly in his absence. When she embraces him at the Haynesville Correctional Center, she pats him down like only a mother can, with hands that size him up more knowingly than eyes or the routine pat of prison officers.
Nearly 29,000 adults are incarcerated in 43 correctional facilities throughout Virginia. And with the nation's tough on crime policy in full force, more arrests and prosecutions mean more convictions and more people in prison. Likewise, the number of families with a relative in a state prison is expected to grow exponentially over the next decade. Experts fear the increased prison population signals a boom few families are prepared to handle and fewer understand.
And while incarceration's effect on families continues to be argued or ignored, folks like Barbara Toliver figure it out on their own.
They pay insanely high phone bills. They travel to remote Virginia towns for day visits on weekends and state holidays. They are processed and scrutinized like criminals themselves - sometimes by prison officers, but more frequently by co-workers, neighbors and members of their church. Most of all, families of inmates prepare for the unexpected.
Through it all, rare people like Barbara Toliver believe any family's fabric, even hers, can be restored.
Recently, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics announced that last year nearly 1.5 million of the nation's children had a parent in prison, an increase of more than 500,000 since 1991. According to the BJS report, an overwhelming percentage of incarcerated parents are male, as is the general prison population, and most are held in state prisons. But the number of incarcerated mothers, too, is on the rise. From 1991 through 1999 the number of children with an imprisoned mother rose 98 percent. And while 40 percent of imprisoned fathers and 60 percent of imprisoned mothers report weekly contact with their children, nearly 60 percent say they've never had a personal visit with them since they've been incarcerated.
"This is a growth industry," says Dr. Barbara Myers, associate professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Myers' research includes studying the impact incarceration - particularly a mother's has on children. "Some people worry that children shouldn't see family members who are in prison because it may normalize it, and I think that's mistaken." Still, she says, families "get their hearts and hopes broken," when the offender repeatedly makes promises that aren't kept. There are cases in which the inmate is so violent that relationships with the family can't continue, but Myers suggests such situations are rare. Nevertheless, offenders are in jail for all kinds of reasons, many of them grisly. "It's not that they were mean and someone sent them to prison."
But Myers says that in the majority of cases, the bond that existed before incarceration should be encouraged. "No matter the length of sentence, those relationships are still very important. And it's possible they can still be warm and close."
Toliver, 63, ensures it by taking every trip to Haynesville she can. The transportation is provided by Prison Family Support Services, a Richmond-based, nonprofit organization that contracts James River Bus Lines to offer visiting-day transportation to 21 state correctional facilities.
PFSS began 22 years ago as an outreach project of Second Presbyterian Church. And since the mid-'80s it's been a United Way partner. Its services have expanded to include the school-based Milk and Cookies Program that helps kids work through the stigma of having a parent in prison and provides them with resources to help them in school. PFSS also is the only local organization that provides transportation to families of inmates, many of whom don't have a car or anyone to take them on long visits to state prisons.
"The programs PFSS has in place now are really just scratching the surface," says Susie White, the nonprofit's executive director. And though they're still a United Way partner agency, that designation could be lost. Last spring the United Way turned down PFSS's request for renewed funding. "There's so much competition for nonprofit dollars and immediate results," says White, who leaves her 10-year post this month to move with her family to the West Coast. "We're doing things at our own pace, and it might sound arrogant, but it's the right way," she assures.
According to White, the programs have United Way funding through December.
"Their focus now is on families and not as much on children," says Susan Crump, vice president of community building for the United Way. "It's not making as much of an impact on children as we would like."
White maintains PFSS has always met or exceeded donors' expectations, and with or without the United Way, it will continue. "It's not about funding a program, but supporting a population. I can't accept that prisoners' families need no resources."
They are resources Barbara Toliver depends on. She's been a registered rider with PFSS for 10 years. If she weren't, she'd never get out of Richmond to see her son, Marcello. "It's the only traveling I do," she says.
[image-1](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Most Saturday mornings people arrive downtown at Second Presbyterian Church long before 9 a.m. That's departure time for the first bus trip to Brunswick and Lawrenceville correctional facilities. The second bus bound for Nottoway and Lunenburg leaves a half-hour later. Toliver's bus to Haynesville leaves at 10 a.m. All three buses return around 4:30 p.m., and those who get back first are first to go through the supper line. At the day's end, PFSS volunteers serve a hot meal to families.
Today, a small group of 10 adults is signed up for the Haynesville trip and each has paid the $4 fee. Toliver's niece, Janel Jordan, 20, and her 1-year-old son, Javel, arrive just in time. The final head count is 12. Haynesville is the only stop. It's hard to imagine another reason to visit the tiny Tappahannock town.
It's a gray day, the kind of day that lacks definition and seems to say there's nothing special in store. As the bus hums east along Route 360, the dozen riders settle deep in the striped blue velour seats, keeping mostly to themselves. Condensation fogs the windows and the air conditioner spits out a prickly chill.
An hour into the trip the bus crosses the Rappahannock River. It's here that passengers who aren't asleep gaze out the window into a colorless world, where the sea and sky meet as imperceptibly as the days that slide by on Toliver's calendar.
Relaxed yet poised in the black print dress she wears to church, she feels for her glasses, smoothes the hair graying only at her temples and folds her hands.
She tells Marcello's story in matter-of-fact short sentences, an abridged version she's told hundreds of times before. "He got mixed up. He was with some others. He was shot. They say he killed a man. I think he pleaded not guilty. I can't recall the date, sometime in February 1991. He was going to a maximum-security prison. It was his first time."
But Marcello's isn't the first experience she's had with prisons. Five of her 14 grandchildren are locked up today. She accounts for each grandson on a hand of fingers. "One is at the city jail, one in Southampton, two in Greensville and one in Haynesville that's Marc. He's in with Marcello. We would be able to see him today but I think he had an incident with another inmate and they put him in the hole.
"It just saddens my heart to see them locked up. They don't have their freedom." Toliver pauses and seems to consider this a long while.
"I just had a brother who's come out from Lawrenceville. He broke his probation. He was locked up for six years. I can't recall what he was locked up for to begin with. Marc was locked up for a firearm," she recalls.
"It means a lot to be able to go and see them, and then it hurts to see them confined."
Last year, Toliver retired from her job with Greyhound bus service as a cashier. Today, she's every bit as busy with a full house. Her Highland Park home has become a haven for any family member needing her rules and soft touch to start over.
"When they get in trouble they always get paroled to my house. They'll be in the living room and spilling over into the dining room," she says, shaking her head. Then the closest thing to anger deepens Toliver's voice. "But then they go out there and get with the wrong people, and next thing I know I'm getting a call and they've been locked back up. I have had struggles a lot of times. I've almost lost it. But the Lord has helped. The boys have to have somewhere to go when they come out."
Toliver's brother, her oldest son and her 1-year-old great grandson, Dwight, all live with her today. She is Dwight's legal guardian and she worries about him the most. He's a follower, she says.
From the seat across the aisle Jordan, Toliver's niece, picks up on her aunt's concern. "All he needs is somebody pressuring him and he'll get locked up in juvy," she quips.
"I talk to him about it and I say, 'You got your freedom, stay out here, get yourself a job and make something of yourself. You don't want to take the route your uncles took,'" tells Toliver.
Sensing her aunt's sensitivity, Jordan quickly consoles. "He plays chess, not checkers. It's a God-given gift, chess. If he sticks with it he could get a full scholarship."
Jordan bobs Javel in her lap and combs out his curls while he sucks on a cracker.
Her aunt's outpouring triggers Jordan to bare a graver family heartache, fresh and swelling.
"On June 26, my brother died John Jordan Jr. He was killed on his 24th birthday." She pauses and looks at her son, then wipes a bit of soggy cracker from the corner of his mouth. It'll be a while before he understands.
"He's in a better place right now. He was shot in the abdomen. He got shot with a .45 and because he's so thin, it shot his liver. He passed at MCV hospital. What time was it Auntie?"
"He was shot around 2 a.m. and died around 4 p.m.," confirms Toliver. "On his birthday."
"You have to live with things all your life," says Jordan. "I wanted to be a lawyer, but I don't think I could handle the stress of having to defend someone I knew was guilty."
Jordan has been working for a Richmond law firm as an office assistant for three years. She says it's taught her a lot about people and the legal and criminal systems. But she trusts her church more for teaching real justice.
"You basically follow what the good book says." The inspiration she and her aunt find in church is helping them deal with her brother's death. Where there are wounds, they say, there's room for healing.
"It's hard. That's my mom's first boy," says Jordan. "At first I thought it was a joke. Sometimes I think it still hasn't hit me, like it's still a joke. But, in all actuality, it's brought us closer. Taught us life is short."
The bus pulls into Haynesville Correctional Center at 11: 41 a.m., and the people onboard sit up and rifle through pockets and pocketbooks for the required I.D.
Toliver has watched the razor wire, steel fences and outlook towers overshadow the bus and its occupants from the same direction nearly 100 times.
"My brother's girlfriend is having a boy," Jordan blurts out as if it had momentarily escaped her. She puts a sweater over her sleeveless blouse that isn't allowed inside and gathers Javel in her arms. "She's six months along. He'll have his whole name: John Enoch Jordan III," she says. "It's in the Bible." Jordan looks around the seat to see if she's forgotten anything, but remembers nothing is allowed inside, not even diapers. Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2