"Jail doesn't let mommies visit?"

An Intro to the Carceral State while Building Castles

"Jail doesn't let mommies visit?"

At some point early last Thursday morning, Brontë, my five year old, was puking at the same time someone was breaking into our garage and stealing my husband’s electric bike. 

I was up with my Brontë all night, feeling desperate and tired. I knew everything was fine, she was having a reaction to something she’d eaten. But at 2am, covered in vomit, it’s hard to remember what you know. It was a long night in a months-long string of long nights. 

Her room is in the back of the house, it looks out over our alley-facing garage. If I’d looked out her window in between changing sheets and smoothing hair, I might have seen a person desperate enough to wander alleys in the cold hours after midnight. Someone tired after a years-long string of long nights. If I’d seen them prying at our garage door, I wouldn’t have wanted them to leave empty-handed. 

Which is a nice thing to think. But I can’t pretend I thought it without qualification. Because if I’m being honest, I would have asked them to take something else. The bike isn’t easy for us to lose. Riley needs one. It’s unclear if our insurance will cover the loss in any meaningful way. 

I know our garage was incredibly disappointing to anyone looking for something of value. It’s mostly old non-electric bikes, boxes of books, a shelf of gardening tools, a half-finished Little Library. (I’ll get it set up someday!) And one pretty old car. 

So I am not sure that anything I offered instead of the bike would have been much of a replacement. Which makes my qualification embarrassing and revealing, You have too little. So I want to give you something, but not something that will make us feel like we have less.

I guess it doesn’t matter, because I didn’t see anything. I went to bed at 5am and then slept through the morning. Riley got the other kids off to school and washed Brontë’s sheets. He told me the bike was gone when I got up. 

You know the moment in an apocalyptic movie when one character tells the other that their only milk-producing cow has been stolen? Okay, this wasn’t that moment. We have milk in our fridge. We’re ultimately very, incredibly ridiculously fine with or without that bike. 

But in my emotionally and physically exhausted state, it did feel like that moment, for just the smallest fraction of the smallest portion of time. Not Bessie. Why’d they have to take Bessie?

It’s hard to explain to people outside our little family circle what that bike represented. Riley doesn’t do much for himself. It’d taken over a year to talk to him into purchasing the bike. We all cheered when he finally caved. It’s the only thing other than clothes he’s purchased for himself for at least five years. Maybe that’s why it felt like Bessie had been taken. But of course, feelings are not reality. They’re just one way we filter it.

I spent the day plating saltines and sliced bananas. Brontë felt fine. But I told her we needed to let her stomach rest. Did the person who stole the bike have anyone to put bananas on a plate for them? Did they need to put saltines on a plate for someone else? Did anyone ever tell them they needed to rest? Did they have a place to rest? 

My kids usually use their stay-at-home days to eavesdrop. Brontë knew Riley’s bike was stolen without anyone telling her. I was sitting on her bedroom floor, trying to write in between building a block castle with her. Which means I was neither writing nor building. 

She’d just finished the tower when she said, “I can’t believe someone took daddy’s bike. I hope they go to jail!”

I was surprised. We don’t talk about jail or prison a lot in our house. When we do it’s always to say that imprisoning people is immoral. But she’s not always in our house. And I suppose that it was the worst thing she could think to say, and that felt like a way to support her dad.

I put down my computer and started building with her. She was working on a part of the castle complex she called “the trampoline garden.”

“Hmmm. It’s really crummy that dad had something important taken from him. I am frustrated about that too. You say that the person who took the bike should go to jail. Can you tell me what jail is?”

She didn’t think very long before she said, “It’s where bad guys have to go when they do bad things. That way they won’t do bad things anymore.”

I sorted through the pile of blocks looking for trampoline shaped pieces, 

“Well, jail is a very bad place. Did you know when you are in jail, you can’t even go visit your family? And your family can’t even come see you when you’re sad? They have to wait for special days to visit. And you have to just sit in a cage. Can you imagine not being able to hug me whenever you wanted to hug me? I don’t think anyone deserves that kind of punishment.”

Being separated from her family is the worst thing Brontë can imagine. So she was totally flummoxed by this cruel and unusual punishment, “Jail doesn’t let mommies visit?”

“Sometimes people who are put in jail are mommies. But mommies aren’t allowed to go see their kids whenever they want. And you know, I don’t think there’s such a thing as bad guys. I think there’s just regular people who sometimes make bad choices. And I guess stealing a bike could be a bad choice. But with dad’s bike, is there anything that could make that bad choice seem more like a sad choice?”

She shrugged her shoulders and then said, “I’m done with the trampoline garden. Let’s do the fairy forest now. Will you find some magic rocks like this?” And here she held up a crumpled up crayon wrapper. 

Finding trash in her room is never very difficult. I started sorting through a little toy bin while I talked,

“What if the person who stole the bike doesn’t have money to buy a car, bike or a bus pass? And they want to earn that money, but they need a car, bike or bus pass to get to work? If that’s why they stole the bike would that make it a bad choice or a sad choice?” 

She thought for a minute, “A sad choice.”

“Yeah, right?” I held out a handful of magic rocks made from more crayon wrappers, a foil candy wrapper and two tags. “Or what if the person who stole the bike doesn’t even have a home? So they have to sleep outside? And what if they don’t have enough money for food. And they can’t get a job because you have to have a mailbox to have a job.” 

And here she said, “You do?” and I said, “You do. But if they steal that bike, they can sell it for money. And with that money they can buy some blankets for when it is very cold outside. And maybe some dinners. They might even be able to pay to sleep in a hotel for a little while. If they stole the bike because they are cold and hungry, does that make stealing a bad choice or a sad choice?”

She knew this one, “A sad choice.”

“Yeah, I think it’s a sad choice. And do you know what it is sad about it? The real sad choice came before the bike was stolen. It’s sad that the person who stole the bike isn’t taken care of by all of us. That’s the sad choice. 

Communities are supposed to take care of the people inside of them. It’s very sad we make it so people have to steal to survive. Can you imagine putting someone in jail because they were cold and hungry? Because if we had that person go to jail for stealing your dad’s bike, that’s what we’d be doing.” 

She’d been very focused on her fairy forest, using fat markers for trees and twisted pipe cleaners as a stream. I wasn’t sure if she’d been listening. So I just said, “Does that make sense?” 

She nodded once while balancing a bead on a magic rock and then said, “Mom, look! That’s the crystal ball of all things!”

At dinner that night, the stolen bike took up a lot of the conversation. The older girls were mostly trying to make their dad laugh. Jokes are kind of how we love each other. 

Viola said she’d walk the neighborhood and look for it, “If I find it, I’ll steal it back! Or tell the person they better give it to me or face my wrath. And they’ll listen to me because I look so tough in my Dr. Martens.” This was funny because Viola is very small for her age and her Dr. Martens are glittery and lavender. 

Margaret made a quip about the person taking the bike but leaving behind our old car, which she loathes, “See? It’s the worst! They didn’t even want it for free!” 

It was here that Brontë piped up from behind a big pile of rice,

“The thing is,” when she is very serious about a point she always starts with the thing is, “they didn’t even want the bike. They want to be taken care of and if everyone takes care of each other then we could all keep our bikes and everyone would have bikes. And no one should go to jail, even when they take daddy’s bike. Jail is making the bad choice because no one should ever not be able to hug their mommy.” 

I guess she was listening. And she’d learned a few things, including that supporting her dad didn’t have to include punishing someone else. 

I looked over at Riley, who desperately needs a win, who has had a pretty rough couple months, who will take another year to talk into another bike, and his eyes were a little wet and he was smiling,

“That’s right.”