Melting Away the Shame © by Trisha Sugarek
One early, wintry Sunday morning, I found myself sitting in the waiting area of the Illinois Correctional Facility for Men. I was about to visit a confessed murderer. I was writing his story for a stage play I was developing (Cook County Justice) and, while we had spent over a year with telephone calls and letters, this would be my first time seeing him in person. Need I mention that this would be my first time ever meeting a murderer?
I felt like a fish out of water. Overdressed, out of place, and very conscious of the other women around me. The only males in the room were young, probably sons and nephews of the incarcerated men we were waiting to see. And here was the odd thing: everyone’s shoes were untied. I found out later, and from personal experience, that the other visitors knew the drill. The COs (correctional officers) would search our persons, which included having us remove our shoes for inspection. Shoes were just one of the many places where contraband could be hidden.
Trying hard not to stare, I observed the hopeful resignation on these women’s faces. They knew each other and murmured news and gossip to one another. I was definitely an outsider and I did not belong. As I sat there, an overwhelming urge to know their stories and write them down came over me. It was urgent that I find out what brought them to this place, this time. They didn’t look like bad people. They were women you might see at the store, on the street, or in an office—wives, mothers, and sisters—ordinary in every way.
Suddenly, it was time to go inside. I remember heavy steel doors clanging shut behind us. It was a scary moment; I had just given up my freedom. Even though it was for a short time, my rights and freedom were in other people’s hands. I was assigned a table and sat down to wait for Bill. More time to observe—and feel as though everyone was staring at me. The suppressed frustration and rage in that room was palpable. Other than a short hug between loved ones, no touching was allowed. I’m certain that contraband was exchanged, but I never witnessed it. The women were indefatigably cheerful in front of their men. I might have been at a crowded city park, seeing families sitting at picnic tables visiting, playing cards, and giving their children snacks; save for the concertina wire at the top of the ten-foot-high fence.
A year and a half later, when I was in the final rewrite of my novel, I was working on the acknowledgments. One woman in particular had shared so much with me about her life outside the walls. I wished to thank her, but still maintain her anonymity. I asked her if I could use her first name and only the initial of her surname. Would that protect her, I asked, and keep her clients from knowing about her personal life? Her reply to this question was,
“It doesn’t matter if your readers figure it out and discover that it’s me… your book has taken away all my shame…”
Shirley K. had stood by her man while he served ten years. Raised their children, supported an unwed daughter and grandchild, and worked two jobs. Halfway through her husband’s term, Shirley’s son was sentenced to life for murder. Now she was visiting two of her men in prison. She’s a hero in my book. She did nothing to deserve this kind of life. She’d never even had a traffic ticket. And that’s the common thread among these women. Married, raising their children; mid-stream America, right? Then their husbands or sons or brothers make one stupid decision and end up in prison.
I once asked Shirley how she and the other women kept up a brave face when visiting their husbands. She told me stories about how, after the visit was over, the women—friends for years—would drive to a designated rest area (down the highway a couple of exits from the prison) and meet up. That was where they shared their tears, grief, anger, and commonality of spirit. Surrounded by other women who understood their pain, confusion and grief. But they never let their husbands see what they were going through. They were serving time in their own personal prison; doing their own time.
One gives little or no thought to the innocent families of the perpetrators. Violent crime has many victims. Not only does the victim’s family suffer a never-ending grief, but the family of the perpetrator suffers equally, only in a different manner. In cases of homicide, while the offender might not have lost their life, the family loses their loved one sometimes… frequently … for life. This is an ‘eye for an eye’ society, and justice should be delivered to the culprit. But that punishment is far reaching and unavoidable.
When Shirley told me about the shame finally leaving her, I had little known that my story—about wives waiting outside the walls—would have this kind of impact. What I did know was, as I wrote the book, I met many women from all walks of life, who had someone currently in prison, or had lived the experience in the past. As a writer it is not uncommon for me to have people—strangers—appear in my life to share and contribute something to my writing. It’s welcomed but a little eerie.
Epilogue: Shirley’s son, convicted of murder and sentenced to life, had his conviction and sentence reduced to manslaughter and fifteen years. He got out in 2014.
Women Outside the Walls is available on Amazon.com
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