Her tiny house in Richmond’s South Side is white and worn with pink shutters, down the street from the Hillside Court public housing complex. She lived there once and vows never to return. At precisely 12:30 on a sunny Sunday afternoon she steps onto her stoop wearing a sleeveless denim dress and white canvas shoes. She carries a baby carrier in one hand and a bottle in the other, simultaneously ushering her toddler grandson, Orin, down the steps.
“I need to grab a Pamper,” she says, anticipating the wait. In seconds she’s back outside, diaper in hand, strapping the boys in the car. Today Coe, 39, is one of hundreds of moms, grandmothers and children who flock to the Richmond City Jail on Father’s Day. They form a line outside and bounce babies in their arms beneath a cloudless sky. They are young, old, infants, toddlers, teens. Smartly dressed, they stand and talk and inch expectantly toward the door.
The number of families divided by bars is on the rise. In the last 30 years the incarceration rate for men aged 18 to 39 has more than quadrupled, according to a 2000 study by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In the poorest communities across the country, jail has become a veritable rite of passage. The Justice Dept. study says that nearly half of the nation’s inmates are parents of children younger than 18.
Today, there are more than 1,800 men and women held at Richmond City Jail. Capt. Christopher Hicks with the Richmond Sheriff’s Office says the jail doesn’t track the number of inmates who are parents. He estimates it to be half, in accordance with figures from state and federal prisons.
When a parent is incarcerated, it’s easy for families to lose touch. In state prisons, for example, more than half of all fathers report never having visits from their kids, according to the Justice Department study. But when the lockup is within reach, just miles away from where most inmates live, visitation is easier and more likely to keep relationships intact.
The question may be whether it’s worth it. Doing time unravels the family fabric, and then, too frequently, becomes part of it. Still, advocacy groups such as Prison Family Support Services suggest that families that maintain a strong connection through the incarceration period are more likely to put it behind them, and the children are more able to understand its consequences.
It’s hard to say what’s taken a worse toll on Coe’s family, being locked up or being out on the streets. Her ex-husband was in and out of prison for all their 24 years together. The streets have claimed a nephew and a cousin, too. The ride to the jail and the long minutes queuing up outside seem to spark reflection. Coe’s worried about Handsome.
“I tell him, you can’t take the same path as your mama and your father. You got to do better,” she says. Coe met Handsome’s father, Barry, through a friend when she was 15. By the time he appeared destined for a life of crime, she was pregnant.
“I married Handsome’s daddy in the penitentiary, at Brunswick Correctional Center,” she recalls. Coe was 27 the first time she went to jail herself. She’s been in and out seven times since.
“I came in for different things, little things,” she says obliquely. “You learn from your lessons. Handsome’s going to learn from his lesson, too. He knows what he’s missing now. He wasn’t even there when his new baby was born,” she says. “Now he’s got something to think about.”
The way Coe remembers it, Handsome was coming up fine, staying out of trouble before his father spent some months out of prison for a change. Handsome was with his father when he was arrested for the first time, charged with armed robbery. He stole a bicycle. He was 14.
It was the first in a series of “little charges” he’d receive in the next few years, Coe says, none of them resulting in jail time. She routinely warned that one would be a wake-up call. “I told him he’s not going to be seeing his kids in jail the same way I had to drag him to see his father,” she says. So when Handsome was convicted in 2003 of possession of crack cocaine, Coe figured, one way or another her prayers were answered. He was sentenced to 10 years with nine suspended. “Stay here and get a whiff,” she says she told him of the year he’ll spend. “He got what he needs.”
It’s nearly 2 when the Coe, Orin and Jaquis make their way into the jail lobby, which is crammed with visitors. Over the hum of fans and constant chatter, Capt. Hicks instructs family members to check in with a sheriff’s deputy and have their IDs ready.
Eventually Coe and her grandsons make it into another holding room, this one just outside the two visitation rooms. A round of visits consists of nine inmates appearing at nine windows in each of the long narrow halls. Mothers and children scurry to the partitions to face their loved ones for 15 frenzied minutes.
From this insular spot in a light blue cinderblock room, Coe waits through a series of visits before Handsome appears. Meantime, John Dooley, who heads what’s called the “Education Tier” at the jail, approaches her. His tier is a special section for up to 36 male inmates who prove they have the smarts and temperament to stand apart.
Dooley has run the tier and the jail’s GED program for men and women for 26 years. He knows Coe from her time at the jail, knows her husband, too. Now he knows Handsome.
“I’ve been here long enough to see three generations come through — hopefully not four or five,” Dooley says, pointing to Coe’s grandsons.
“It won’t happen,” Coe assures. “Not if I got something to do with it.”
Likewise, Dooley says. Handsome has been on his tier for the past few months and took his GED May 28. He passed.
Coe shares her joy at the news. “I said he needed to be where he could use his own mind to think about what he needs to be doing when he gets out of here.”
Education on the tier has many forms, Dooley says. For some, parenting is as much a source of guilt as it is a call to legitimacy. “They’re all excited right now,” Dooley says, “but later on this evening, I’ll guarantee that they’ll be crying.”
Coe’s approach with her sons — she also has an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old — is one of tough love, peppered with encouragement but also with regret. “I ask myself to this day why I got involved with his father,” she says.
“I was talking to Handsome yesterday about his dad, Barry,” Dooley says. “We were telling stories back and forth and then he got really quiet.”
Dooley offers Coe assurances that melt a mother’s heart. Still, the streets are vicious. In 2003, nine of the inmates from the education tier released from jail ended up dead within a year, most the victims of homicides, Dooley says. So far, this year he’s lost six.
“This is Richmond, where most of the murders are not solved,” Dooley says. “I’ll remind the fellas upstairs: Do you want to be a little toe tag on a slab downtown? Or, What about these creatures, the little ones?” He points to Handsome’s sons and shakes his head in dismay.
Dooley has a term for today’s open visitation for families: “Trench level.” He explains his theory. “It happens all the time. Something inside just rips the soul out really, like this. These kids in here, it’s so not cool. It’s good for everybody to see each other. But it’s something too intense. It’s not right. And all the emotions upstairs, they’re probably tearing at the bars right now. They love their families, they really do. Still, it’s very strange.”
Yet his optimism prevails. “Handsome’s got spirit in him. There’s something alive in him,” he says. “You try to reach inside and pull it out and hope he sees it. For the sake of his sons, I hope he does.”
Coe talks with Dooley through three waves of visits, the rooms emptying and filling and emptying again. Suddenly, Orlin, who has been nearly silent throughout the afternoon, asks the question, “Where’s my Dada?”
A new round of inmates appears before the Plexiglas windows. “I don’t see your daddy, Boo,” Coe says.
In seconds the chaos of hustling bodies and chiming voices resumes. Free from her conversation with Dooley, she slumps onto the blue vinyl bench to wait some more. She stops some friends on their way out of the visitation room and updates them about everything from Handsome’s GED to her trip to Virginia Beach last weekend to the tragedy of losing her stillborn granddaughter last year.
“This is father’s day, I’m a father, too,” she tells the huddled group of women, adding: “After this, I’m going to go out to eat and have some fun.”
It’s nearly 3 when Handsome appears. “There you go, there’s your daddy! Look! Look! See your daddy, look!” Coe calls.
Orin’s fresh white T-shirt is stained now from Kool-Aid but when Coe props him up in the window, Handsome doesn’t say a word.
Orin repeats, “Dada. Dada,” and presses tiny palms to the glass as if playing patty cake.
It’s all he can do. The time passes so quickly, families are in such a whir, the noise is so great that, to an outsider, visits are little more than an exchange of smiles and gestures.
This is the second time Handsome’s seen his son, Jaquis. It takes most of Coe’s attention to hold both babies on the sill to face their father. She steadies Orin in the corner just long enough to wave her hand across the top of her closely shaved head, comparing his cut to hers. “You’re almost there baby boy,” she yells happily. “But you can’t touch this.”
Coe tells her son she received his GED He smiles and smiles, eyeing one child, then the next, mouthing words that appear to be their names. A minute or two is lost when Coe takes Orin to the restroom.
“I think about them all the time,” Handsome yells to a reporter, speaking into a kind of silver intercom. “It’s why I got my GED I want to help with their homework. I want to help my mom out. I want them to grow up and be smarter than me, better off,” he says.
Just as Coe returns with the boys, a sheriff’s deputy announces visitation is over. “Tell your daddy bye, he’s gotta go,” Coe instructs. Orin musters a wave and one last “Dada.” Handsome slips a blue standard-issue jail shirt over his white T-shirt. He flashes his mother a wide smile and vanishes as quickly as he appeared.
The way home includes a stop at McDonald’s. Coe orders a Sprite and some McNuggets that turn out to be cold. In the back seat, Jaquis begins to fuss. “All right, Quisi, chill,” she says tiredly. “Orin, give him his pacifier. I know you’re hot. You’re going to be riding in a minute and catch the breeze.”
Home again, Coe unbuckles seatbelts, gathers Jaquis in the carrier and Orin’s hand, saying, “C’mon Boo, let’s call your mama.” They go inside.
Immediately Coe sinks into the couch. Orin eats French fries; his tiny brother sleeps. Coe checks her messages. She calls her grandsons’ mother. She calls her friend. She tries to mask exhaustion with playfulness. “Do you know I’m an old woman with old bones?” she muses. “Nana’s going out to eat!”
Like the visits she pays to Handsome with her grandsons in tow, the wall she faces is a reminder.
“That’s my nephew,” she says, pointing to a picture of a man in a casket. “All of them people right there are dead. That’s the dead wall,” she says. According to Coe, a girl stabbed her nephew in his heart and he died. Next to him on the wall is a picture of her cousin. He got killed trying to save somebody else’s life, she says, caught a bullet in the head. To the right of her nephew is a picture of her granddaughter, stillborn. “She’d be a year old,” Coe notes.
People tell her she needs to take the pictures down. She refuses. “I keep my memories. I show mine,” she says. “Inside, here, this is the house of joy.”
In minutes her grandsons’ mother has walked over with some friends to pick up the kids and their gear. Coe shows them the envelope that contains Handsome’s hard-won certificate. It came in the mail Friday.
“Let me smack you in the face with this,” she teases, dancing and making up a song that seems to fit: “Pap! Whew! That’s my son’s GED, yeah, that’s my son. Whoa, whoa, y’all ain’t know!” S
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