Coming Home

by Lorraine Cipriano

We were late to arrive at the prison. Colin’s release was set for 8 a.m., but with the five-hour drive from the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, we kept him waiting.

Colin had been “up north,” as our family called it, for over three years. We had seen him intermittently, but he found the visits painful, a reminder of how he had disappointed his family, had betrayed our trust. Each visit forced him out of his isolation, made him long for the outside, for a life without restrictions, a life that was not forever changed. We also found visits hard. Paul felt anger that his older brother could have been so stupid, causing him humiliation at school; and we, as parents, felt a visceral anguish at seeing our firstborn behind bars, a convicted felon. As a mother, the hug that was allowed at the beginning and end of each visitation was vital to my wellbeing, a tangible way to pass my love through to him.

We would meet in the Visitors Room, a small square room without windows, a room with two doors—one leading to the free world and the other back into the cellblock. The Visitors Room had two bathrooms, a desk for the guard, and four round tables with uncomfortable, straight-back chairs encircling them. To the left was a row of vending machines. On usual visits we would come into the Admit Building, leave our coats and any purses or backpacks in a locker, and then receive a thorough pat down. Allowed to carry in only a clear bag of coins, we walked through the gates and inside a wire-enclosed passageway that led to the Visitors Room, not quite into the heart of the prison but protruding from its side—within the razor-wired facility but apart. The coins were for the vending machines. Prisoners were not allowed to touch the money, so we would feed the machines coin after coin until they gave forth their unhealthy snacks of soft drinks, candy, and chips, denied at all other times.

While we sat and talked, other prisoners in the cellblock would walk near the glass-fronted door, peering in to see whom each prisoner was entertaining. And the variety was extreme. There was the girlfriend with the short skirt, badly dyed hair, and low-cut blouse, who always sat facing the door so that the other prisoners could get a glimpse of her breasts as she leaned forward across the table. The gaunt father, sitting across from his inmate son, would play checkers for hours and say little. The visiting mother, both loud and obese in bulging sweatpants, was eventually caught trying to pass drugs to her son. She had brought in cocaine stuffed down in her underwear. And then there was our family: college-educated parents who still didn’t believe what had happened and the younger brother who had always been the family hellion and was now being shocked into better behavior. We had been the kind of parents who made sure evening meals were shared together, who tried to keep communication open with our teenagers—parents who assumed our children would choose a moral road. We didn’t belong here, but did any family feel comfortable in this place? As we visited with Colin, we would sit and talk for a period of three to four hours while feeding him the normally forbidden Cokes and candy bars.

But today was different. Today Colin was coming home.

We walked into the Admit Building to find Colin sitting there with his prison footlocker at his side. Instead of his prison blues, he was dressed in thin tan cotton slacks and a matching work shirt. Both were badly sewn, not a surprise, since they were made by prisoners somewhere in the great state of Michigan. Colin’s dark blonde hair was cut short and choppy. Each clump stood distinct and separate from the others, obviously the work of a blind barber. But Colin looked great. Relief was shining in his eyes as we approached.

Our son was being released early. Michigan had passed its Truth in Sentencing Act after he committed his crime. Otherwise, he’d be sitting inside for another two or more years without the possibility of early parole. Even so, he hadn’t just sat inside. His job had been in the frozen food supply room for his unit’s kitchen. There he had unpackaged and shelved frozen beef from Brazil that was already past its sell-by date and chicken that was equally too old to eat. Some of the food packages were marked “not for human consumption,” but then prisoners had given up the right to be considered human. Other prisoners working in the freezers would slip meat into their pants to cook later on hotplates that were allowed in the cells. Colin told us the meat was barely worth eating in the cafeteria, much less risking trouble in the cell.

The first thing we all did in the Admit Building was to hug and kiss, the pleasure of the occasion bubbling up in laughter and jokes. This was the first time in over three years that the whole family—Bob and I, Colin, and Paul—had been together. Prisoners couldn’t have more than two visitors at a time, so Paul had always come up with one of us or with a friend.

With Paul helping Colin carry his footlocker to the car, we left the building. The footlocker must have weighed 150 pounds. Inside it was Colin’s prison life. Books on philosophy and religion that he had studied, including the Bible, the Koran, and books on Jewish mysticism and Buddhism; letters from people in our church; his calligraphy pens and inks that had earned him prison money from other inmates when he penned their letters home in beautiful script; crafts he had purchased from other prisoners (so that he would have gifts for us when arriving home). These gifts included a pencil holder made out of pebbles found in the prison yard and a perfectly formed long-stemmed rose made from bread and paper clay. Inside the fences other prisoners made useful crafts such as shanks fashioned out of toothbrushes, but Colin didn’t have one of these. Handcrafted weapons would be routinely confiscated when the guards conducted surprise inspections of cells, tossing mattresses, looking inside radios, and emptying footlockers. He had avoided those “crafts,” as they meant more time to be served.

Muscling up while incarcerated had brought protection and self-esteem. Besides his job and reading, Colin spent two or three hours a day in the yard lifting weights. Summer or winter, he was out there. In winter—and the winters were long—the temperature would remain around zero degrees and the wind, bitter and biting, would assault the yard. Feet of snow had to be shoveled around the equipment before exercise could begin. Cotton gloves that gave no protection from the frigid weather kept the hands from sticking to the bar. By lifting weights, he was not bothered by the bullies and sociopaths who inhabited his life. Strong and powerful, he now had a massive chest and upper body, nothing like the lanky build of his childhood and adolescence.

We could not leave the prison fast enough. As we drove out of Kinross, the small, desolate town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we passed the other prison in town, larger and even grimmer than the one we had just left. The only industry in this area was incarceration. The land was deforested and flat with no beauty. This was a place to leave, never to return.

Crossing over the bridge into the Lower Peninsula, we asked Colin if he was hungry. He was starving, so we stopped. It was still morning so we ordered breakfast with coffee. While Colin ate scrambled eggs and hash browns, sausage and a stack of pancakes, and juice and coffee, we also ate with vigor and watched him. He was different, sure of himself but closed off emotionally. His language had changed in three years, morphed from the politeness of a middle class vocabulary to prison speak, a dumbed-down dialect of double negatives interspersed with the predominate adjective: “fucking.” His voice, deep and carrying well, caused families with children and older couples to turn. Being polite didn’t earn respect in prison, and Colin had forgotten the niceties of please and thank you. Being middle class could cause retaliation and abuse, so that too was hidden. The perfume of prison—that unpleasant, slightly unclean smell of too many men living together without hope—was still upon him. This was not the unwashed, wet dog smell that he had as a child, when he came inside, dirty and scuffed, on a summer day, but an institutional smell. The smell would wash off with soap and water, but the language and remoteness would take months to go.

As we traveled home, talking and beginning to reconnect, I recalled the night Colin was arrested. The doorbell woke Bob and me at 1:30 a.m. Flashing lights from the three police cars in the driveway were visible from our upstairs window. Bob hurried downstairs, pulling on his robe, meeting the police at our door. There was no warrant, so he didn’t let them inside. Also woken, Colin and Paul hurried by me as I stood in my nightgown at the top of the stairs. As our sons joined their dad, the police asked Colin to step outside. Handcuffing Colin with his hands behind his back, they read him his rights. I remained rooted in the upper hallway, crying, unable to move, horrified at what was unfolding. I had guessed that Colin and his girlfriend were the criminals in the robbery of a liquor store in our town, which they had held up using a paintball gun. The police had called the house several times. I had told none of this to Bob, hoping it would go away. But, of course, it did not.

Colin told me later that he had committed the crime to prove to himself that he was a man. Surely there must have been a simpler way.

My original feelings were all of guilt. Where had I failed him? Had I been so engrossed in my own pain of having HIV that I had neglected him? Had I failed to model the right behavior? Ultimately, I blamed the HIV. That was the easiest. The virus had spread its evil over the entire family. Although I was the only one infected, Colin was contaminated with the fear of a mother dying, the inability to talk about it with others because of the reality of rejection, and the unvoiced anger resulting from loss of innocence. He had been our creative child. He had been the one who was always making sculptures in his room. The one who turned cardboard boxes, toilet rolls, and other household waste into fanciful creatures held together with rolls of tape. He was the child who had shown his fellow students in the English primary school the joy of breakdancing with complete abandon. But things changed when we told the boys of the HIV. Colin was in junior high and turned inward. In high school he suffered panic attacks and depression. Despite seeking help, he found an outlet in drugs and a wild girlfriend. The crime that followed was his terrible, life-changing decision.

But now we were arriving home. Colin noticed the greenness of the lawn and the lushness of the trees. Prison had been gray, an environment devoid of color and beauty. While locked up, he saw a sameness in everything, a numbing monochromatic grayness of paint and metal, everyone in uniforms, both prisoners and guards, and surrounding it all, tall double fences topped with rolls of razor wire. There was someone always watching and always controlling his actions. Growing up, Colin had spent hours drawing, loving all things beautiful, and now, returning to a world with choice, privacy, and visual stimulation, he slowly relaxed.

There would be hardships ahead that continue today. Doors would still be closed for employment ten years later even after he obtained a college degree.

Using kung fu and exercise, he continues to work through anxiety and feelings of frustration. Reading philosophy stretches his mind. Colin is now working in landscaping, for a stonemason, building walls of stacked stone. Re-contouring the sloping topography of his own yard into terraced levels, he is adding steps and stone walls, crafting a unique environment that he first pictured in his mind. Built without mortar, these walls are held together and supported by the interlocking of stones, each carefully chosen. There is strength and simplicity in hand-built walls. Their beauty lies in function. These walls do not imprison but provide escape and empowerment through physical labor and imagination.

Lorraine Cipriano lived the first thirty-two years of her life in Lake Jackson, Texas. Married with two sons, she moved first to Michigan and then to England. Now retired, she lives in Weaverville, North Carolina, with her husband of many years.

About Coming Home—Brought up in Lake Jackson, Texas, a small middle-class coastal town, I put my faith in Walt Disney. You were meant to live happily ever after, particularly if you whistled while you worked. Contracting HIV in 1983 through a blood transfusion, I saw my life view shattered. This story centers on one of the struggles that my family experienced in the ensuing years.