Some mothers spend Sunday morning at church. Bessie Elmore spends Sunday morning in prison. For the past 20 years, Bessie has traveled the state to visit her son, William, who was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1993. "I would go every week, hell or high water," she says, remembering the early days of his sentence. "I did that for many years because I felt like I had to be there."
Initially, Bessie could picture only what she'd seen in movies. Was anyone bothering him? Would he get sick? "I had a lot of questions," she reflects. "Of course you don't know what goes on in prison. Nobody tells you what goes on."
In search of answers, she called the prisons and the Department of Correction in Raleigh. She recalls the heated response of one lieutenant: "I'm so sick and tired of you mothers calling up here!" Another reportedly told her, "This is not a prep school, Ms. Elmore, this is a prison."
Nonetheless, Bessie continued to visit. She worked with criminal justice organizations, meeting others who felt confused and alienated by the prison system. "People suffer in silence because they're afraid and ashamed that people will shun them, look at them, act differently toward them," she says.
This year, Bessie launched Straight Talk, a support group for families of people in prison. The group gives voice to a community that is more overlooked than the thousands who are behind bars.
On a March evening, eight people share stories around a circle at a community center in southwest Durham. Most are women—mothers, sisters and girlfriends of men who are serving time. On the whiteboard in green marker are the words: "You may have come here in pieces. Our hope is you leave in peace."
The group is reminiscing about the yearly holiday packages—parcels filled with delicious food that families can order for prisoners. Bessie, leading the group with spunk and thoughtfulness, says she sends a package to William every Christmas, and usually a few to guys whose families aren't involved or can't afford it. "I'm so sick of the Christmas packages!" she jokes.
Christmas comes once a year, but visitation is a regular expense—especially if the prison is miles away. Inmates are often transferred between prisons based on capacity, custody level, medical needs or special programming—all of which take precedence over placing them near relatives. During his term, William has been moved through more than a half-dozen counties, including Wake, Greene, Nash, Robeson, Northampton, Rowan, Anson and Halifax; at one point he was sent to a prison in Texas.
To reach some of these places, Bessie reports paying $50 in travel costs each weekend—plus the price of phone calls, books, sneakers and a weekly allowance so William can buy basic items such as soap and toothpaste. "I dare not try to sit down and count up how much money I've spent over the years because I would probably pass out," she says.
"It's like the system has no consideration and no concern for how the family is affected," remarks Linda, whose brother has been in and out of prison for the past two decades. She describes visitation as a stressful, emotional event. Once, she and her mother arrived late due to traffic and were blocked from visitation. "We were one or two minutes late and they shut the gates," she remembers. "It was heart-wrenching because he was expecting us."
"Prison is prison. It's not designed for comfort," Bessie acknowledges. "But no one looks at what the family deals with... Whether that person is guilty or not, that family is broken."
Straight Talk helps families understand the prison and criminal justice systems. "Just because their loved ones don't have rights doesn't mean the family doesn't have rights," Bessie says. "They have a right to call the prison and find out what's going on."
Calling prison, however, can be difficult. Annie has two sons in prison, one of whom has health issues. She recounts a two-week period when she didn't hear from him at all. Finally, she reached a prison administrator:
"I haven't heard from my son," Annie recalls saying. "Have y'all killed him?"
"Ma'am, we're a prison. We don't kill people," the administrator reportedly replied.
"Well, I don't know whether you do or not! I'm just trying to find my son."
She later found out her son had been hospitalized, but no one from the prison had called to tell her.
Bessie, Linda and Annie worry about their sons and brothers, despite their mistakes. "Sometimes you're angry for the choices they've made, but they're human," Linda says. "Their friends abandon them. They need that support."
It's a brisk morning at Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough, where the quiet is frequently pierced by a loud intercom that alerts and summons prisoners. William Elmore is wearing forest green prison scrubs, an orange knit cap and a bright smile just like his mom's.
At 42, William has spent nearly half his life in prison, but he doesn't look it. He's sociable, articulate and apparently healthy. The guys call him "Mecca." It's fitting, because since his conviction, William has sought clarity, accountability and acceptance—primarily through writing in journals given to him by his mother.
Over the years, he's filled nearly a hundred notebooks with reflections, poems and prayers; he even wrote a short play. "Journaling," he says, "was one of the greatest keys in un-arresting my development." He believes his personal growth was stunted when he started dealing drugs at age 13. "Prison doesn't provide the things that my journaling has done for me."
While a few childhood friends kept in touch at first, Bessie and Cheryl have been William's only constant sources of support. "My mother and sister have been my rocks, my anchors," he says. Through visits and letters, they helped him maintain his "social graces" and stay connected to the world beyond the prison gates. Without their involvement, he thinks he would have resorted to selling drugs in prison. "I probably would've hustled," he says.
Instead, he's incurred no major infractions and receives extra privileges as part of "Honor Grade," prison slang for minimum custody, according to his case manager. He earned his GED, participated in outreach for troubled teenagers and attended classes on domestic violence and anger management. He also took a class on parenting, in case one day he has children of his own.
This year, William became eligible for parole and began the official reentry process. He is scheduled for release in December 2015.
William is one of the 37,612 people currently in North Carolina's prisons. And like him, most will eventually be released—95 percent, according to national statistics. The next challenge will be to stay out. About one-fourth of ex-prisoners return to prison within two years, according to a report from the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission.
Families can keep ex-offenders from falling back into the system by helping them secure housing and employment, seek necessary treatment programs and resist negative peer influences, according to the National Reentry Resource Center, a project funded in part by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Roughly half of all offenders have strong family support in the first place, estimates Adrian Neely, reentry counselor and case manager at the Criminal Justice Resource Center in Durham. "Some of these guys were not living in normal society before they were incarcerated," Neely says. "Over half were raised by a single parent. When I ask them if they can put their finger on any one thing that's the cause of their current problems, a lot of them say they didn't have a father."
William fits that profile. His father, an alcoholic who abused Bessie, was largely absent throughout William's youth. "I can't remember spending any one-on-one time with my dad," he says. After his parents separated, the family struggled financially. William began to sell drugs, in part, he says, to support his mother and sister. Ten years later, a drug-related gunfight in Raleigh landed him in prison.
"That lifestyle of selling drugs, it steals so much away from you," William says. "It takes you so far away from who you are as a person, the innocent things... I missed out on so much of my childhood."
For families of North Carolina's prisoners, there is just one state-appointed liaison. Mary Ward serves about 215 families per month as the administrator for Offender Family Services, a program under the Department of Public Safety.
Many families have shown interest in joining a support group, but Ward doesn't have anywhere to send them. "I wish we had more local programs. It's a lot [of work] to get one started up and maintain it," she says. "There is a lot of education that needs to be done," she adds. "I certainly cannot fix all of the issues."
Some people decide not to keep contact with their incarcerated family member, for instance in situations involving domestic violence or sex offenses. But these cases account for the minority, according to Odalys Rojas, a mitigation specialist for the Capital Punishment Project at Durham's American Civil Liberties Union.
"For the families this is usually new," says Rojas. "They're getting introduced to the legal system and they don't understand all the rules from the Department of Correction. They're not sure who they can contact, or even [how] to get to the prison."
She believes Straight Talk will help address these logistical issues. "There needs to be programs like this that can work with families on a one-to-one basis, so they can understand what this journey could look like and what to expect."
Straight Talk aims to ease that journey by providing comfort, allies and resources. Each week the group hears from guest speakers, including therapists, lawyers, case managers and representatives from groups such as the Innocence Project and ACLU. Bessie plans to expand Straight Talk to Hillsborough and Raleigh and eventually create a nonprofit.
"Hopefully through the support group we can transfer a kind of hope," says William, who contributed an inmate's perspective to Bessie's plan for the group. "We're willing to be vulnerable enough to share our stories, mistakes and mishaps with other people: Us Elmores, we made it, and we want to keep you guys from going through that."
As for the brand new world awaiting him in two years, William isn't worried. "With all the challenges that I may face, I know that I can make it," he says. "It starts and stops with me."
Bessie, on the other hand, feels nervous about William's reentry. "I really don't know him outside of prison," she admits. She anticipates the day when she and her son can spend time together outside of two-hour monitored visits on Sundays. In the meantime, she'll focus on spreading the word about Straight Talk.
"I want to leave my handprint," she says. "I want to let other people know that they're not alone."
This article appeared in print with the headline "You're not alone."