Tom Jacobs has served for several years on the Washington Corrections Center for Women Local Family Council, and recently retired from representing his local council at the Washington Department of Corrections Statewide Family Council. As his wife nears her release date, he is thinking back to what her incarceration has meant for him, his family, and the holiday season.
It’s another Holiday Season where families gather about with spirits of great joy. There is the smell of a turkey or ham emanating from the oven while the chatter of relatives and friends greeting each other comes from the front door. It is not the same warm greeting in every home, though, because in some family members won’t be together for years.
We watch the news each evening of someone being assaulted, a store or home broken into, or a car hitting a pedestrian in the street, and begin to think the worst of the people who would do these things. We follow them through the courts and soon they are sentenced to 3, 5, or whatever number of years and thank God, one more criminal off the streets.
That’s fine if it ended there but it never does. We seem to forget the families that are waiting outside of the prison walls and the hardships and grief they must be going through over the next several years. This is a subject that I know something about because I have lived through it for the past seven and a half years.
I would like to think that we were a normal family; we raised three wonderful children, were very active in community affairs, donated to the food bank, belonged to the PTA, and were involved in all the kids’ activities. Our children were all grown up and had homes of their own, while I, being retired, was thinking about enjoying my pastime, fishing.
It came as a surprise to me when the police knocked on our door one evening and asked to talk to my wife. She went up to the police station and a few hours later returned home to tell me that she has been arrested for stealing from the company where she worked. While the district attorney investigated the crime, it took two years before she finally had her day in court. Friends that we had in our neighborhood for thirty years who had promised to be by our side and support us through this ordeal no longer called on us. I had lost the use of my leg a couple years before and could no longer take care of our home on my own, so we sold the house to cover court costs and to lower our cost of living.
To avoid family embarrassment for the kids’ sake, my wife went into court and pleaded guilty and took her punishment as the court deemed fit. It shocked me when the judge sentenced her to seven and a half years because I had seen on the news where prominent individuals had stolen millions of dollars but served nowhere near this much time, and where murder convictions would get less time.
The first time I went to the prison to visit my wife, I felt a lot of apprehension because this was a whole new world to me. I did not know what to expect. As I walked through the front door a gentleman came up to me and said he was on the Family Council and was there to help me in any way he could. Explaining the rules of what was allowed in visiting, he showed me where to sign in and lock up my valuables. We were not allowed to bring cash into the institution but they did have machines for purchasing drinks and snacks. He showed me how to put my money in a machine to obtain a canteen card which we could use to purchase snacks. He then escorted me over to security check-in and explained the procedure for removing our jackets, belts and shoes before walking through the metal detector. The guards would check each item for contraband before handing them back to us. There were several other people already in a holding area as I put my belt, shoes and jacket back on.
Eventually a guard came in and escorted the group to the visiting room, which was about fifty yards away in another building. There was a gate between us and the building and we had to wait before a buzzer sounded and the gate lock opened up to let us through. I remember looking up at the high fence surrounding us and the concertina wire on top and along the bottom, and how sensitive it made me feel. The group came to a halt at the closed entrance of the building and we waited for another buzzer to unlock that door. When the buzzer sounded, we all filed in before the door slammed shut behind us with what I considered to be an ominous sound. But we weren’t in yet because in front of us was another door, where we had to wait for another buzzer to sound before we could go through. When we finally entered the visiting room, two guards sitting at a table checked us in and assigned each of us to a table to visit with our loved ones.
Each weekend I would visit my wife and would be greeted at the door by a Family Council member. I soon realized that they too were individuals with a friend or family member incarcerated. It didn’t take me long to become familiar with the routine of checking in, and as we waited to be escorted I would talk to other people waiting in line. From this I learned a lot about the unspoken hardships they acquired when their family members ran afoul of the law. Some had to travel from hundreds of miles away—even from out of state—to see their daughter or wife, and had little money to cover expenses.
An elderly lady came up from Oregon with her unemployed son and stayed at a cheap motel on South Tacoma way so she could visit her daughter. Her son looked for work and never seemed to pay that much attention to his mother, but would drive her over whenever he could and pick her up later when he felt like it. One day he didn’t show up to take her home and I told her that I would pick her up and bring her over each weekend because I passed her motel each time I came over. One day she said her daughter was getting out Monday so she wouldn’t need a ride anymore. Her daughter did get out Monday but the mother had passed away the Sunday before.
I learned more and more about the Family Council and all the good they did to help individuals who came to visit, and soon realized that I wanted to be part of that group. In order to address the numerous problems that came up within the prison system locally and statewide , the Department of Corrections established and maintained Family Councils at each institution to advise, collaborate, and problem solve in partnership with the Department and the community.
I signed up for the local Family Council and was accepted. For the next seven years I was able to help others coming in to the prison for the first time. Eventually, after four years, I was asked to represent the local Family Council at the Statewide Family Council level.
At Statewide Family Council, we discussed, reviewed and even presented different programs to help families and inmates bond closer together to cut back on recidivism.
Whenever you think of an individual being incarcerated, also think of their families and the hardships that they have to endure, not only emotionally, but physically and financially, due to no fault of their own. Extend a hand to help not only the inmates who have served their time upon their release so they endeavor to remain free, but also to the families to work through their hardships.
My time is ending soon when my wife gets out on January fourth and we are together again permanently. It might be a belated Christmas for us but one we will celebrate in a family way.