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A Mother's Hope Penetrates Bars

By C.V. Garnett / November 2, 1990



BALTIMORE City Jail. An ugly building any day, but on this sunny Sunday afternoon, it is more grotesque than usual. There are about 2 billion places I would rather be parking my VW right now. But, I remind myself, that I am here by choice. My friend Charlie isn't. I can leave in an hour. He can't. Charlie has this one hour a week to make contact with the outside world, then it's back to a reality as cold and gray as the hideous building itself. His mother stiffens beside me as I cut off the engine. We sit quietly a moment. She has this one hour a week to see her son. She hasn't missed a Sunday. Once, when nobody could drive her, she took the bus from her home in Virginia. An all-day round trip for a woman about 70 years old.

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We walk to the visitors' line at the front gate. The line inches along. Nobody talks, faces serious. I think about the previous time I brought Charlie's mother here: The guard couldn't find Charlie's name on the printout sheet and told us he wasn't there. To relieve the tension, I asked, ``If we find him, can we take him home?'' The guard didn't laugh. Neither did Charlie's mother. Oh well, I tried. Several phone calls later the guard tracked Charlie down in the library.

This time his name is on the list. We walk ``through the gates into the city.'' That phrase comes to my mind from a Bible verse. It's about entering paradise. This is about as far from that as you can get.

We walk down a long hallway and enter a room. The room is crowded, smoke-filled. One by one, visitors go to the window and name the person he or she has come to see. Charlie's mother also leaves some spending money.

A loud click and the iron gate grinds open. We go into the next room. Rows of lockers, a guard telling us to put all personal belongings in a locker and lock up. We've been through this before, Charlie's mother and I. We're old hands. Thang! I had forgotten the sound of that gate clanging closed behind me. It sounds so final.

We go up the steps, slowly. At the top I wait, as the mother carries a bag to another room and leaves it with an officer. Clean clothes for Charlie. When she returns, another switch is thrown. Another heavy door creaks open and we enter another room.

From this room we can see through the bulletproof marble-glass into the visiting room. Dozens of look-alike inmates sit on one side of a long table. On the other side, the visitors - wives, sweethearts, friends, parents - try to squeeze a week's worth of feelings into 60 minutes.

I sit among the blank-faced people and wait. Charlie's mother stands awkwardly.

``Why don't you sit down?'' I suggest.

``I like to see his face the second he enters,'' she explains. Then I realize: she's standing on tiptoes, to catch the first glimpse of her son.

At last Charlie comes into view. He enters the visiting room from the far side, looking grayer than when I last saw him. Not his hair; his face, his complexion.

Then we are admitted to the room and move between the benches toward him. I start to reach across the partition to shake hands, but he indicates that I shouldn't reach across. He sits down on a wooden bench behind the partitioned table. We take seats on the outer side.

``How are you?'' we ask him.

``I have a cold; have had all week, so I haven't slept much. Everything else is OK, I guess.''

``Still working in the library?''

``Yeah. That's going all right. Weekends here are the hardest. Nothing to do. Time doesn't move.''

``Any further word about the parole?'' I ask.

``Not really. They could come tap me on the shoulder any day and send me packing. Or it might be months. That's the hard part - not knowing.''