This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
To visit someone in a Michigan state prison, you have to fill out an application and send it to the Department of Corrections with a self-addressed envelope. A couple of months after I mailed mine in, they sent me a sheet of paper saying that I was not approved to see either of my two sons, Harvey and Antwan, who are incarcerated.
You can't see your child, they told me, because you have outstanding debt.
I have never committed a crime. The only thing on my record is tickets: parking tickets, license plate registration tickets, one for not having proof of insurance, and a couple of others—all of which are more than four years old. I don't have any moving violations, like speeding.
But I do owe $1,485.
I'm 64 and have lived in Detroit my whole life. I was a receptionist at the city social services department, and an attendance lady at the high school, and helped wash patients at a hospice care facility. I also worked at a poultry shop once. I've worked for a long time.
But now I have cancer—tumors on my ovaries. I'm very ill. It's very painful, and I'm on medication. I haven't been able to get out of the house much.
And so I'm unable to work and on a fixed income. I get $735 a month of disability that I've been getting for many years, and $525 of that goes to rent. Fifty dollars or so goes to my telephone bill, then my food, my toiletries, my transportation. And I have to pay for some of my medication, even though I'm on Medicaid.
I just don't have the money for those unpaid tickets.
Not being able to see my children, with all this hanging over me, is devastating. For one, you never know what will happen to me with my condition, and it would be devastating to not be with them, to not hold them close, ever again.
My boys are in different prisons, each about two hours away from home. I talk to them on the phone, but not that much because it's very expensive: three or four dollars for each call. And talking on the phone is nothing like being able to see them and see what's going on in there—what's hurting them—because the prison sure won't let you know.
One of my boys was in segregation ("the hole," they call it), in a little room, every day for six months. I was so distraught; we couldn't even talk then. It was affecting his mind—he was talking about committing suicide and all kinds of crazy stuff. If I had been able to go down there, I could have encouraged him.
It was so bad that I started watching YouTube videos about what happens to a human being in a little small cell with just a little toilet. What happens to human beings, you know, so that I could know what was happening to my son.
There's not much that you can do at a prison visit, but you can buy some candy and some pop, just to get them away from that environment for even a moment. I want to be able to talk to them face to face about their families, things that go on out in the world, how everybody at home is doing, you know. They are both dads, and everyone is proud because Harvey's one son just turned 18 and is going to college. We'd talk about Antwan getting a GED up there, Harvey being in some kind of school program, too. We would talk about how much we miss each other.
I was always a typical mother, a single mother. I lost my own mother and father two decades ago, and because it was only me raising them, I told my kids all the time that I should get a Father's Day gift, too. I raised five boys, so you know that was a challenge right there.
They were typical kids. My son Harvey was kind of withdrawn from the world; he clung to me. He didn't have father figure, because in 1979 when he had just started to walk, his father was gunned down on his way to work. How I heard about it was on the news.
And now Harvey is in prison for second-degree murder. I think he took a plea deal, but didn't do it; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had just gotten married. Now he's in prison for at least 12 years.
My other son, my Antwan, he's the baby of the family. His dad passed away from a heart attack when he was four or five. Like most, he got to be a teenager and started to act out more. But then he became one of most level-headed people I know, so I don't understand how he could have committed a crime, something about witness intimidation. I don't believe it. He's a very kind boy, a good kid.
But not being able to see me, I do think it's starting to cause them to act out more. You know, they are in a hostile environment, where anything could happen at any point. I don't know what kinds of things happen in there. You don't get along with everybody, and some people in prison live for drama. If you try to be a decent person, they take it for weakness.
People are trying to turn my children into people they are not, and I cannot be there to see it or to face up to them about it.
You're just not prepared for any of this. It breaks you down mentally, emotionally. I think about my kids all the time, just all the time. They've been in there for years, and it never gets any better to not be able to see them.
I try not to think about what's happening in prison, but I do. They should be out here raising their kids. Whether they did those crimes or not, which I hope they didn't, it's still unbearable for me for their lives to be thrown away.
I have been struggling with my kids' behavior all my life, and they are grown now. I am responsible for the humans that I brought onto this Earth, for what they have or have not done. That is not a small thing.
I ask again, why would you keep a mother and a child from being able to see each other? People who are poor, they make us feel so much worse for it, like it's almost intentional. But what's really poor is their reason for keeping a mother or a wife or a brother away from a person they love.
Joyce Davis is a mother and grandmother in Detroit, Michigan.
View more of illustrator John Lee's work on his website.