This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade's photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.
In 2002, over 600,000 individuals left state and federal prison, four times as many as were released in 1975. However, according to a national study, within 3 years, almost 7 in 10 will have been rearrested and half will be back in prison, either for a new crime or for violating the conditions of their release. Clearly, an individual's transition from prison back into a home and into a community is difficult, and avoiding crime can be the least of his or her problems. Understanding these pathways and the reasons for and the dimensions of an individual's success or failure is the focus of recently scholarly attention to the problem of "prisoner reentry," the process of leaving prison and returning to free society. However, most of the existing research on prisoners' lives after release focuses solely on recidivism and ignores the reality that recidivism is directly affected by postprison reintegration and adjustment, which, in turn, depends on four sets of factors: personal and situational characteristics, including the individual's social environment of peers, family, community, and state-level policies. Moreover, individual transitions from prison to community are, we suggest, best understood in a longitudinal framework, taking into account an individual's circumstances before incarceration, experiences during incarceration, and the period after release -- both the immediate experience and long-term situational circumstances.¹
Hi. It's been, what, eight months since I've seen you? That last time wasn't pretty, either…god, methadone withdrawal in prison. You said you gave up heroin all those years ago and for what? To lose your tough face and sit there, a hunched-over skeleton in jail.
Have to say, never thought I'd become attached enough to a pimp to write a letter. But never expected to meet a hardass lesbian pimp either.
Charlie: Hunts Point, Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
You did not look good, ma, across that cinder-blocked cafeteria's table. You looked old, earning your 40s, under that fluorescence. Looked like a lost animal, one of those Hunts Point pitbulls that roam wild and get too thin.
I'm sorry I wasn't one of your girls bringing you drugs. I know that's what you thought, that some devotee had miraculously figured out how to get a car, obtained drugs, avoided doing said drugs on the hour's ride up, smuggled the drugs through prison security to present to you in the buttons of some prison parcel nightshirt that got patted down by guards.
C'mon, you're smarter than that. But I like the wild hope…I guess you thought if you had a visitor, why not fantasize big.
I bet you don't get any visitors. No street prostitute could do any of that. And those are the women you love, or at least, those are the ones who love you.
I don't know who you truly love besides your brother. Can't see you allowing yourself to be fragile to someone else on the streets.
I wonder if you've seen him, your brother. I know how much he means to you, how you raised him after your parents died, how you're afraid he thinks the way you live is cool. I know you tell him that it's hell, that you wish you had done something -- anything -- differently. You wanted to show him how to do good, how to stay away from the drugs and streets. You spoke of him with the tenderness of a mother about a child. Your sole tenderness.
You once told me, when you were against the monastery wall snorting coke off the web of your hand, that Hunts Point is haunted. You asked me if I've noticed the way it holds people, how people return even after being gone a long time. The place calls them back when they leave. You said you hear that call whenever you've been away, that it always catches you. You said you see that in me too, that I'll keep getting closer. You said, just watch and see.
I know you have a lot of regrets, but I have mad respect for you. You were a grown-up, responsible, at least when I knew you. You tried to turn your life around to the extent you could: did less drugs, got a stable apartment, stayed away from street violence, appeared at court hearings. The last is what did you in though, remanded on a years' old charge. Then sent away for years. So fucking unfair. I'm sorry.
You gave me a lesson on how to be a woman on the street, did you forget? Scratch that. You gave me a lesson on how to be respected on the street: "They gotta be hard out here. You gotta be twice as hard."
You've always had to do that to prove yourself, be twice as hard as men. Elicit twice the fear. Slice a knife quicker than they can. Always deal the first cut. (You and your knives. Yes, I know, cutting's your thing.) Show them up. You should know as the lone female pimp in Hunts Point, let alone one who's done it for 20 years.
I have flashes of memories with you:
Visiting during your week-long stint in the hospital after you were beaten by a group of guys in the laundromat. (You were so mad they snuck up on you without your knives. After that, remember, I gave you my air mattress because your broken bones couldn't sleep on your apartment floor?)
You making fun of your girl Jen for getting stuck in the back of a semi full of bananas with a date, stuck enough to have to call you on her cell phone for help.
Waiting on the curb with you impatient for Jen's return from a date. You had gotten her McDonalds (you take care of your girls), and her ice cream was melting.
Then, on a routine day, you were gone.
You're further Upstate now, I think, finally settled for your two-year stay.
I hope you can sleep now, that your body aches less from withdrawal. That you've found a new girl in prison because Jen's long since moved on, as you probably knew she would. That the hollowness you feel without drugs somehow recedes. That you won't hear the call.
I'll try to visit again, as far as you are.
-Your White Girl