For any parent who loves an adult child who has ever been incarcerated, I’m writing this for you. For anyone whose adult child experiences mental illness and addiction. For anyone who has ever discovered their adult son asleep on bare concrete at a public park in the middle of the day. For anyone who has taken collect phone calls from their son, sent emergency money through Western Union, paid for residential treatment at for-profit rehabilitation centers, provided transportation to appointments at the D.H.H.R., or the state mental health clinic, or the Social Security office to obtain a replacement card for the one that was lost when he was blackout drunk again. For anyone who can no longer keep track of how many times their son has been in jail for charges like public intoxication, disorderly conduct, shoplifting, and destruction of property.
Being the parent of an adult addict has caused me to wrack my brain to explain, understand, and influence my son’s way of being in the world. I’ve blamed myself, blamed genetics, blamed his father and friends, and, of course, blamed him. I spent the early years hoping he would outgrow it, and yet here we are today: my thirty-five-year-old son is in North Central Regional Jail in West Virginia and awaiting sentencing. The charge is more serious this time, a felony rather than a misdemeanor, a property crime that was committed when he was drunk. In broad daylight, he stole a funeral van because the keys were left in it, and he wanted to travel across town to meet a woman he’d been texting. Since there were witnesses who immediately reported the event, he was picked up in minutes, and thankfully no damage was done to any persons or property.
People ask, was there a corpse in the van? There was not, and it’s not funny. Or it is. He jumped out of the funeral van and into a river to try to escape, but there were some men fishing who pointed him out to the police, who threatened, “If we have to jump in the water to arrest you, you’re not going to like it.” So, my son swam to the shore and gave himself up. The story made the local news and amused many readers according to their online comments.
It’s safe to say that my son’s crimes are often absurd, disturbing, socially unacceptable but only potentially dangerous, like the time he juggled knives in the middle of the street and alarmed people driving by. This is not to say that he hasn’t had confrontations, most often with other men. He’s been burned, cut, punched, and stabbed in the gut with a rusty curtain rod so deeply it damaged his spleen. The perpetrator was another male alcoholic with mental health issues, a real two of a kind. In another era, my son might have become Otis, the beloved town drunk who sleeps it off in jail and is free to go once he’s sober, but this is 2020 and not an Andy Griffith episode. My son is in a regional West Virginia jail during a global pandemic, where his safety and well-being are my primary concerns.
My son has been in jail for a total of four years over the course of his life if you add overnight stays with longer stays of up to ninety days. At this point, I know what to do when he ends up back in the slammer. I go online and add funds to his ConnectNetwork account so he can contact me by phone or text. We talk on the phone more than text because each text costs fifty cents plus the funding fee charged by ConnectNetwork. Inmate services are a racket, but there’s no way around them. A packet of ramen that costs twenty-five cents at Target costs an inmate fifty-six cents plus taxes and fees when ordered through Access Securepak. There are always fees. There’s a ten percent fee to put money in his commissary account, which he uses to buy toiletries and to pay the twenty-dollar co-pay required if he’s sick and wants to see a doctor. For Marion County, where my son resided before his arrest, the cost of maintaining a prisoner at a regional jail is $48.25 per day. It’s not a lot of money when you think of the overhead. Incarceration is expensive for everyone.
The best thing about talking to my son when he calls is that he’s sober. He reads books in jail, most recently one of the books in the Gotham series by Jason Starr. We talk about books and family, and I tell him how his sister and brother are doing, his grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephew. We talk about his next court date, which has been delayed more than once due to coronavirus hobbling the courts and justice system. Inmates across America wait for court dates or for transfers to other facilities. Every time an inmate is moved from one facility to another, there’s a chance coronavirus travels with them. Social distancing is impossible in jail; jails are hotbeds for virus transmission. At Huttonsville Correctional Center, a state prison in Randolph County, WV, 111 inmates tested positive for Covid-19 back in March. Since then, Governor Jim Justice has mandated testing for all inmates, employees, and contractors at state correctional facilities, though the mandate’s implementation remains far from completion.
I fear an outbreak at the regional jail where my son is housed, and I fear an outbreak if he’s transferred to a state prison like Huttonsville. I call my son’s state-appointed attorney every other week or so about court dates and other information. His attorney, an admirable young lawyer who is smart and humane, advised me a month ago to once again try to find my son a bed in a long-term inpatient rehabilitation program. If I can find a bed in a rehab program, the attorney will present that option to the prosecuting attorney and the judge. We agree that rehab would be a better fit than state prison for my son, who is an alcoholic, an addict, and who struggles with mental health, none of which make him a criminal.
For anyone who has ever tried to access in-patient addiction and mental health services for an indigent adult, the options are slim to none. There are more patients than beds, and some services are so bogus, they’re not even recognized by the courts. In the past, I have faxed multiple referral forms to a multitude of programs, only to be put on waiting lists that seem not to end. Not once during my past couple years of effort have I had a callback to tell me that a bed was available.
Not until this time, in the middle of a pandemic, 2020. The callback made me burst into tears, and I had to excuse myself until I was collected. A program called Recovery Point in Huntington, WV, has a bed available in early September. The director of the program has sent a letter of acceptance to my son’s attorney, who will be presenting it to the court. I know that the prosecuting attorney and judge might not agree that rehab is better than jail for my son, and I know that even if my son enters a long-term rehab program, he might relapse and fail to maintain sobriety. I’ve been loving him and living with his struggle for years, like millions of other parents who care about an adult child with addiction and mental health issues. For all of us, it’s okay to feel lifted now and then by good news