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Phone Calls From My Incarcerated Uncle

Esquire logo Esquire 12/29/2020 Kai McGee
a flock of birds sitting on a wire: When news trends about other Black men fighting mental illness and addiction and it reaches my uncle in prison, I’m on the other end of the line to help him make sense of the senseless. © Mike Kim / Getty When news trends about other Black men fighting mental illness and addiction and it reaches my uncle in prison, I’m on the other end of the line to help him make sense of the senseless. a flock of birds sitting on a wire © Mike Kim / Getty d

Every Sunday at 3:00 pm I listen for the phone to ring. When I answer I hear the voice of an automated, nameless woman: “This is a free call from an inmate at New York City Department of Correction.” There’s an awkwardly cheery beep and then, “Hey Niecey, what you been up to?” The voice sounds erratic, whimsical, and desperate.

Uncle P is the youngest of my maternal grandmother’s nine children and has battled drug addiction since he was a teen. The crack epidemic of the 1980s swept him up, consumed him, and left him with PTSD in the South Bronx community he calls home. He’s now in his late 50s and continues to battle addiction while managing a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

a person wearing a costume: d © Getty d

During our calls he shares his jailhouse updates: “I’m going to sue for violation of my right to due process.” Or, “I’ve been reading about the fourteenth amendment and my rights are being violated, I haven’t seen a judge since January... Oh yeah, and I’m also firing my lawyer.”

Every week he’s planning a new legal action against the State. A few Sundays ago, he added a new suit to his law and order chronicles. He says a prison doctor who treated him for a fall on a slippery floor gave him the wrong antibiotic, which made his limbs swell. The guards clamped down on his swollen wrists, tightening the cuffs until his skin bled, cutting his circulation. I felt him grimace as he described the pain. “I’m tired of being treated like an animal!” he raged. “I’m just ready to go home.”

Despite decades of unspoken trauma and minimal financial resources due to long bouts of unemployment, he remains filled with an unaffected hope that there will be a home waiting for him. I listen with deference even though we both know that whenever he gets released, he’ll be back in a homeless shelter without a reliable support system.

As he rambles, my mind drifts, recalling news reports about the treatment of Daniel Prude, a Black man with reported mental health and addiction issues who was allegedly killed by police in Rochester, New York while having a psychotic episode. The agony that exists for poor Black and Brown families who don’t have access to reliable mental health advocates, and don’t have resources to help loved ones who’ve been discarded by a society who only wants to be compassionate from a distance—is immeasurable.

Our weekly conversations are unpredictable and sometimes turbulent. Due to his bipolar disorder, I never know which version of my uncle will be on the line. On this day, he is lucid and eager to discuss current events. He brings up Walter Wallace Jr., the 27-year-old Black man who was recently shot and killed by police in Philadelphia. His family called the police because they were worried that he would harm someone or himself. When they arrived, Mr. Wallace’s mother pleaded for law enforcement to lower their weapons, but they fatally shot him in the middle of the street in front of his family.

“They didn’t have to shoot that young man fourteen times in front of his mama.” Uncle P says somberly. There’s no doubt he understands that could’ve been his fate. Black men are more likely than their white male counterparts to be killed by law enforcement while having a mental health crisis. I cannot imagine the pain Mr. Wallace’s mother continues to endure as she mourns the death of her child. The family called law enforcement as a last resort to deescalate the situation, not for their kin to end up in a body bag.

d © Getty d

By the mid-1990s my grandmother was at her wit’s end, trying to find treatment for my uncle. She searched for mental health allies, for affordable treatment centers, for a lifeline. She found comfort and guidance from a God who sustained her while she waited faithfully for answered prayers. Every Sunday, Nana would sing melodically, in unison with the choir, her tear-stained bible in her right hand clutched under her bosom while her left hand raised to the sky, willing the heavens to pour down a healing that she could pass on to Uncle P. She would discover that the fee the world wanted to charge to corroborate her son’s humanity was outside of her means. She was a small fish swimming upstream with the rest of her disenfranchised community, desperate to be saved by the very system that was created to destroy, not rehabilitate. Nana soon learned that there was more interest in the criminalization of her sick child rather than guidance on how to help him.

My heart aches when I think of the sleepless nights she spent silently wailing for her baby boy who she couldn’t save from himself. There were times when Uncle P would bang on the door of my grandmother’s apartment for hours. Nana would rest her forehead on the cold, steel door, hand on the knob, vacillating between letting in fury or maintaining pained distance until his episode would dissipate. Uncle P’s rantings about being a worthless burden would sting, and his unwillingness to apologize after embarrassing her by begging for money after Sunday service was hurtful. Even though on occasions Nana was terrified that he may harm himself or others, calling the police was a last resort. She simply could not bring herself to put her son’s life in the hands of officers who were not trained to deal with his episodes. She was aware that a call for assistance may result in his death and that was a gamble she wasn’t willing to take.

Many police departments in the inner cities are not equipped to handle mental health calls. The risk of being killed during a police incident is 16 times greater for people with untreated mental illness than for other civilians approached or stopped by officers. The racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system for the arrest and conviction of non-violent drug users has disproportionately ravaged communities of color and continues to be an inhumane way to treat people who haven't been given agency to use their voice.

a hand holding an object in his hand: f © Getty f

Uncle P tells me that he’s been sober for ten months and that he’s gained a significant amount of weight due to his medication. I ask him how he’ll manage sobriety when he gets released this time. The anger in his voice is palpable as he recalls being prescribed opioids after a work injury which led to a relapse he’s yet to rebound from. I gently say, “The opioid epidemic is now considered a public health crisis, there’s got to be a reputable program available to support you.”

After a condescending chuckle he responds, “Not for poor Black and Brown people, we’re considered trash not worth saving.” He adds, “When I win my lawsuits, I’ll have enough cash to get in one of those places where they will know my name.”

I tell him about Measure 110, a law passed in Oregon that will decriminalize the personal possession of illegal drugs such as opioids and cocaine. He agrees it’s a good start but doesn’t think that type of law will ever pass in New York. “There’s too much hate for drug addicts in this city” he says, “A law like that would mean they’d have to acknowledge that we [drug addicts] are sick people not criminals and they’ll never admit that.” After years of being in and out of the criminal justice system he understands that the law is equitable on paper but equity is rarely distributed to people that look like him.

He gives me messages to give my aunts, his sisters. The solemn intonation in his voice is filled with understanding and disappointment for the times his calls go to voicemail. He yearns for connection to family but the loved ones who avoid him have endured decades of an emotional roller coaster that no one is willing to ride any longer. The granted requests for money so he could attend trade school only to find out he never enrolled. A Christmas holiday where outrage replaced cheer because he stole all the presents before the sunrise. The incessant banging on Nana’s apartment door during the wee hours of the morning until weary neighbors called the authorities, his heart-rending appearance in an orange jumpsuit with wrists and ankles shackled, escorted by correction officers so that he could pay his last respects at my grandmother’s funeral. There’s nothing left for them to give him but pity and prayer.

a close up of a piece of paper: d © Getty d

One sister writes letters, scared to give him her new phone number, one talks to him occasionally, both manage to keep money in his commissary. The other family members wish him well but won’t engage. Too much history and wounds that never developed scabs cause his perceived empty apologies to do a lifeless dance to nowhere. I struggle to blame them after so much turmoil. So, I make Sundays something he can count on. It’s our time for me to hear him, to be a witness that his life still has value. I listen as he reminisces, excited to tell me again that he wanted to play third base for the New York Yankees. He was a talented youth baseball star and his favorite player was outfielder, Roy White. His voice drifts as he remembers playing baseball in the park and being the middle school home run king. “I was good, Niecey. I was really, really, good…”

I ask him if he’s been able to locate a phone number to reach out to his son. His voice becomes a pained whisper and he responds, “Nah, but I’m still trying.” I often think about my cousin, who carries my uncle's name. I wonder if he knows the depth of his father’s pain or if he struggles with mental illness, addiction or both. I wonder if he’d be able to show grace to a father who wasn’t present or give forgiveness to the broken man who never showed up for him. I hope the wounds he inevitably carries don’t leave him with bitterness, anger or the poison of resentment but I understand if they do.

Even after a lifetime of drug abuse, overdose, recovery and relapse, Uncle P remembers details like the exact date the all-star catcher, Thurman Munson died in a plane crash, taking the Greyhound bus to spend summers in Virginia as a child, the smell of my grandmother’s sweet potato pie filling the hallways, his first kiss and the day I was born. He tells me that I lit up the world when I made my debut and that I still do.

He asks if his attorney called with updates about court reopening, worries about getting Covid-19 because the jail where he is being held is filled with the virus. He leaves messages for his public defender every day angry that his age, diabetes and asthma haven’t been a get out of jail free card. He’s been incarcerated since December of 2019 and wants the opportunity to prove his assault charge was self-defense. I remind him not to discuss the case over the phone, but he continues to tell me in detail why he’s innocent and why he’ll refuse a plea deal. I give him updates about my son and he tells me he wants to come visit Florida, swim in the ocean and watch his great-nephew play soccer when he gets released.

a circuit board: uh © Getty uh

“I’m a human being, Niecey; all I want is peace.” He sighs heavily into the phone, “do you think that’s too much to ask?”

Anonymous automated voice lady interrupts, “You have one-minute left.”

Uncle P asks, “Do you think you can put money in my account tomorrow? I need new batteries for my radio so I can listen to baseball games.” “Did I ever tell you I wanted to be a Yankee?”

“Yeah, Uncle P, you told me” I respond.

There’s a wistful tenderness in his voice when he murmurs, “I would’ve been really, really good.”

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