by Mikaela Kesigner

1. When your mother is in jail, there’s an endless list of things you get to feel guilty about doing. To name a few: showering alone, eating home-cooked meals, going outside more than once a year, not paying twenty dollars for an ibuprofen pill—I could go on forever. Most nights I feel guilty for not writing her enough letters. I used to write to her every day, and then I started making excuses for myself. I say that life gets in the way; what a bullshit excuse for someone who doesn’t have anything to busy themselves with other than a deck of cards and a radio with limited range. “I’ll send pictures this week, I promise!” I say weekly. The people in Albemarle District Jail can have ten printed photos in their possession at a time—which they can only swap out every other week—but my grandma always sends her fifty or so in one envelope. By the time she has to choose what photos to keep, why should I make it harder to decide?

  • The lies I tell myself never seem to stop the ever-invading thoughts which torture me for not sticking to my word. She once told me she spent a week staying up all night and then sleeping until five p.m. “The girl on the bunk above me won’t buy hygiene off canteen. She just keeps buying snacks,” she said. “I had to give her towel to the guard last night while she was sleeping cause I couldn’t deal with the metallic-mildew smell anymore.”

2. On our last video chat, she told me it felt like “Christmas in June!” Only, it was still May. I didn’t correct her. She doesn’t keep a calendar. She says she doesn’t need to count up the days that are being stolen from her.

  • The worst part about it was when she said: “I had two surprise visits, a ranch wrap with real ranch in it, and a bag of name-brand Lay’s potato chips!” she said. “We also got a whole banana each! I even scored an extra one off my friend who’s getting out tomorrow.” I told her that it sounded “so damn good” while swallowing the third lump to develop in my throat in less than five minutes. My stomach is full of lumps that feel like rocks, but they’re shaped like “I miss you.”

3. Dancing around certain conversations has become a coveted skill, but the guilt that comes along with it has dragged me through hundreds of articles and sociology textbooks which are supposed to help me understand the ache. The one that never leaves. The ache which grows when I think about how much we used to love going to the mall—or even just a doctor’s appointment—in Virginia Beach because we could go to Red Robin afterwards. It lodges itself in my throat when I’m cooking dinner on the phone with her. When she asks what I’m cooking, I always say the same thing: chicken and rice. She goes on to say something about how she taught us better than that, and my siblings and I should really be trying harder when it comes to cooking, but at least she won’t remind me how many years it’s been since she’s cooked the recipes I cherish daily.

4. How long before people stop asking me how my mom is doing? I like to rehearse my answer as I’m falling asleep at night, but I always struggle to find something positive to say when actually met with this question. “How’s your mom holding up?” asks my hair stylist, my tattoo artist, my best friend, my boyfriend’s parents, and the random lady on Messenger at least once a year even though I never respond. This question hides in the awkward silence between my friends and me when I take a collect call in front of them. After 15 minutes of forced enthusiasm followed by a daunting cloud of silence when I hang up the phone, I have to answer an impossible-to-answer question.

5. My number one rule is: don’t cry on the phone. I thought this was common sense—easy to remember—yet my mom always tells me about times where she has to hang up on people who make her upset by crying on the phone.

  • “Don’t you know you’re not allowed to be the one sad?” I always say. I know this isn’t true, and so does she, but I can tell she’s thankful.

6. My mission is to distract. Don’t stick to any conversation for too long. Always have a list of good things that happened that day ready to recite (but avoid bragging). I keep her laughing, and she forgets—even if just for fifteen minutes—about the looming smell of shit coming from the girl detoxing on a mat on the floor beside her bunk.

7. What will it be like when I can finally see her again? How easy will it be for her to see straight through me? Is there even a me left to be seen?

8. Even though I made the rules, I could never deviate from this environment I’ve created for her. I’ve always been a crutch holding up the broken. I stood by her side and gripped onto her hand during the divorce in 2011 because I was scared to lose everything I had grown up with. Over ten years later, her grip is still wrapped tightly around my life, and I fear we will both be pulled under from the weight of her pain.

9. I spent one percent of Thanksgiving Day with my mom this year. (To be exact, it was 0.01041667 of the 1440 minutes in a day.) From 2:10 p.m. until 2:25 p.m., I wasn’t by myself. We talked about her leftover turkey she stuffed in her pockets in the cafeteria to make turkey salad later. I didn’t get to see her face, and I didn’t get to touch her. But I spent 15 minutes with my mom on Thanksgiving Day.

  • “Have you eaten Thanksgiving dinner yet?” she asked.
  • “Not yet,” I said, “did you?”
  • “We had our Thanksgiving dinner at one p.m.,” she said.

10. The Prison Industrial Complex breaks down people like my mother until they no longer belong to themselves. Everything from the schedule that they follow to the rule books they are given break each person down as being property of the state with no other obligations. Since my mother was charged with a class A crime and was transferred to a women’s prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, she’s been told by the officers that she can only spend $45 on canteen a week rather than the $75 everyone else is allotted. Because of what they think they know about my mother, they won’t even let her buy as many ramen noodle packets as the person next to her. I wouldn’t believe you if you told me not all private jails operate this way; these facilities suck the life out of these people and their families alike for the sake of profit.

11. A guard stopped a line of people on their way outside last week and handed them a bottle of sunscreen. My mom tried to turn it down because her skin doesn’t burn easily, but the guard insisted each person put it on.

  • “You can’t get sunburned because you’d be damaging property of the state,” the guard said. “We will write you up.”

12. Is it fair to die a little inside every time my mother has a new “best day ever” to tell me about?

  • For this question, you have to examine what it means for someone who has been incarcerated for well over 1,000 days. Typically, one day outshines the rest, but for my mom, any time she gets a salad with actual fruit on the side instead of a barely edible chicken patty slapped onto a stale piece of bread with a side of applesauce, it’s Christmas morning.

13. To call my three siblings and me, it costs my mom $14.50 a day. (Not including hidden fees.) Maybe my brother convinced himself he is saving her money by only using a third of his fifteen minutes. Every letter, photo, and card I send costs a dollar, which is at least more than my mother makes a day at the job they’ve permitted her to do. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have the strength to clean the communal bathroom for forty cents a day. The most a person in prison is allowed to make is a dollar-fifty. Without financial support from her mother and her old college buddy, my mom wouldn’t be able to afford commissary food and other essentials that they have to stock up on themselves on a weekly basis. Never mind the women who don’t have the support from their family that my mom does; they were given up on after the first decade they spent behind bars (if not sooner).

14. For people like my mother—who spent her time awaiting trial in a privately owned correctional facility—time draws on forever and is lost in a sea of human rights issues. Depending on the kind of person the jail administrator is, your loved one could be receiving the bare minimum to keep them alive until they go to court. All the while, the private facility and the companies they outsource basic human needs to (like food, technology, hygiene, and health care) make a large profit off each individual. Incarceration can’t withstand a business model because a person’s life shouldn’t be seen as a way to make money. The rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals shouldn’t be a profitable expense.

15. When people ask me “How are you doing?” these days, I just say “I’m doing,” because I know they really mean “What are you doing?” and I don’t have anything to report. I’m just waiting. Aren’t we all? Waiting for something to happen so we can tell people about it. But like a flower, you can’t document the way its petals wilt and fall. It simply won’t do it while you’re watching. The waiting is worse for my mom, because there is nothing to do in a tiny privately owned jail except wait. And watch. Watch television, watch people, watch the ones she calls friends leave and never return, and wait.

Mikaela Kesinger (she/they) is a senior at University at North Carolina Wilmington, graduating with a BA in Sociology and a BFA in Creative Writing. She has two ekphrastic poems published alongside art on display at a local arboretum in Wilmington, North Carolina, and three of her erasure poems appear in the Spring 2022 edition of Still Points Art Quarterly. Her work centers around the injustices within our criminal justice system as it is inspired by her mother in prison.