*The names of the individuals who are incarcerated and their family members have been changed throughout this article at their request.
He happened to be in the basement when the phone rang that day a few years ago.
His grandson, Luke, was on the line.
“He said, ‘Grandpa, I just wanted to call to tell you I love you and to say goodbye…’,” said Joe, a parishioner at Good Shepherd Parish in Menomonee Falls. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? Where are you going?’”
To attend meetings
“Doing Time Together” meets from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. every second Saturday of the month at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, second-floor meeting room, 831 N. Van Buren St., Milwaukee.
“‘Well, I did a bad thing,’ he said, “and I just wanted to say goodbye. Goodbye. I’ve got to call my dad now…’” Joe, in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald, recalled the conversation he had with his grandson the day he was incarcerated.
“When this happened, it was really a shock and (Joe) was absolutely devastated,” said Sarah, Joe’s wife and Luke’s grandmother, who was also on the line.
Luke had a successful sales job, owned a house and established himself before drugs and alcohol led him to do things “out of character,”and to lose it all, his mother, Kathy, told your Catholic Herald at her home in a suburb of Milwaukee.
“When someone does something and ends up being incarcerated because of it, regardless of how big or small it happens to be, it affects the whole family and friends and neighbors and the larger community,” Sarah said.
It was a shock for the everyday, middle-class family.
“When something like this occurs, you’re really embarrassed, you’re like, ‘That’s not us,’” Kathy said.
Source for hope, strength
They’ve been able to share the shock and the gamut of emotions they’ve experienced since Luke’s incarceration through support from family, friends and parishioners, and by attending “Doing Time Together,” a free and confidential interfaith support group for family members of loved ones who are incarcerated. Deacon Tom Hunt, who has been a volunteer chaplain at Milwaukee County Jail for 14 years and founded the group, facilitates the meetings at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on the second Saturday of the month.
“Part of what Tom’s group does is people can come and tell those stories in confidence,” Sarah said. “And so it’s a way of being able to get it out and get it off your chest and relieve some of those emotions without having to worry about the whole world knowing.”
Kathy said she has benefited from the support she receives from the group and the reassurance that her family is not alone in its struggles.
“It gives you the sense of hope and the strength to keep on going, knowing that Deacon Tom is so committed to the group,” she said, noting that Deacon Hunt met Luke while he was ministering in the jail, about five months before she began to attend the meetings.
Many of the people, mostly men, whom Deacon Hunt ministered to in Milwaukee County Jail, made him wonder how their families were reacting to their incarceration and how to reach out to them.
“They would always talk about how their family is hurting, is feeling distanced from them…and I thought, ‘Wait, how do the families feel?’” he said.
He spoke about the idea of a support group with people from Project Return Milwaukee, an interfaith ministry that helps men and women who have experienced incarceration to make a positive and permanent return to community, family and friends.
They hope that the group will help to connect families with those who are coming out of incarceration, ultimately decreasing the rate of recidivism, Deacon Hunt said.
The group was there for Kathy when she had questions about what she lacked as a parent and why she didn’t see this coming.
“They helped me to see that my son’s addiction is not my fault. …” Kathy said, explaining that the members of the group quickly identified with the feelings she was experiencing – shame, anger, sorrow, guilt, fear of being judged and how happiness while her son was incarcerated felt wrong.
“During the meetings, I was able to recognize that everyone has problems. It is how we choose to deal with them that matters,” said Kathy.
Her eyes are rarely dry at the meetings as she talks about her son’s life before incarceration, and what he has missed since. They filled with tears as she recalled memories, like his frequent after-work visits with his grandmother.
“He’d sit with her and they’d watch a movie together or they would play cards because he knew my mom enjoyed the company, even though Luke had his own house about 10 minutes away….They were real close,” Kathy said.
Luke was in jail when she died.
“When the funeral came around and Luke wasn’t allowed to attend, he wrote a letter which Grandpa read and the entire funeral parlor was in tears,” said Kathy, who visited Luke every Saturday when he was in jail, using one of the two weekly visits he was alotted. “So, during this time you not only deal with the incarceration of a loved one, but you deal with daily life as best you can also.”
She felt worse knowing that Luke felt helpless behind bars when his grandmother died, again when his grandfather had a stroke – though he recovered, and again when a family member committed suicide.
Life continues for family
But Kathy also learned that life must continue – holidays and all. Even Luke encourages Kathy to continue the family’s traditions when he’s gone so they don’t lose them, assuring her that soon he will be back at his usual post to carve the turkey, she said.
“The part that I had to really work on was that I couldn’t put my life on hold until Luke gets out,” she said, noting that they communicate via phone calls and email now that he’s eight hours away. “That I needed to continue living for the rest of my family.”
Luke isn’t physically home for the holidays, but Kathy tells him when to call so he can pray with his family at the start of the meals. They talk to him on speaker phone or pass the phone around until his 10 minutes are up.
“Some days are harder than others because I don’t like to show him how much this still hurts for me,” she said, crying. “So, I always try to be upbeat for him.”
Kathy said even though Luke’s sister still feels a lot of anger, the whole family has been supportive of Luke.
“My family has been so supportive, too, knowing what transpired and not giving up on him. No one has given up on him,” Kathy said, noting that friends and even his neighbors still ask how he’s doing. “Everyone just knows he’s going to come out a better person, and that’s not always the case.”
Instead of dwelling on the past, Kathy and Luke talk about the future – of Luke coming home later this year. Luke, who has found a higher power and prays all the time, wants to put everything behind him and start fresh, and he’s worthy of a new, healthy and clean life, she said.
“I can start to visualize a little better that there is going to be an end to this journey that we’ve been on,” Kathy said. “And as one of the other men in our group said that the work starts when they’re released and that’s what I hope to gain by attending the group is information on what to expect.”
Buoyed by prayer, faith
Luke’s grandfather continues to pray openly for his grandson at church, saying, “I pray for all of the incarcerated and especially my grandson Luke,” like he has for the past few years. The parish is aware of Luke’s situation because Joe told them what had happened so they wouldn’t be surprised when the details were released, and because he needed moral and spiritual support.
“It’s still kind of unreal, despite the fact of how long it’s been,” Sarah said. “It’s still unreal.”
“Every day I think about it,” Joe said. “Sometimes I’ve got to turn myself off because it keeps me from running a normal life. … I try not to have it make an effect on my daily routine and my daily life.”
Luke has his concerns about his release into society, and Joe and Sarah have theirs.
“The concerns, too, are when people come out to be able to stay away from whatever circumstances got them into trouble in the first place and to be able to blend back into society so they feel like human beings that are worth something, which, of course, they are, but for them to be able to feel that way, to be contributors to society so that they have the self-confidence to stay clear of whatever it was that got them caught in the first place,” Sarah said.
But Joe and Sarah haven’t lost faith in their grandson or any young person who experiences incarceration.
“The fact that this could happen so close to home makes you realize – it makes you reach out to others or at least have more compassion for others who have things that happen,” Sarah said.
Joe, who visited Luke every Sunday when he was in Milwaukee County Jail, now talks to him a few times each week.
He said their conversation ends the same way about 49 out of 50 times – with prayer.
“He’ll say ‘I love you, Grandpa. I’m sorry for what I did,’ and (I’ll say) ‘I love you, Luke, don’t worry about it,’ or something like that, and then we end with the Our Father,” Joe said. Even if the phone beep signals that they’re out of time, Luke assured Joe that he continues the Our Father alone.
“Now that his situation has changed, he has grown spiritually, tremendously, from this,” Sarah said. “If he stays on the track he’s on, he’s going to be an amazing individual. He’s going to return to his former self before the drugs took hold of him.”
Hurt continues after release
As Luke’s family looks forward to his release, they hope the stories and experiences of other group members, like John, will help them.
John has relied on his Lutheran faith and the Doing Time Together meetings to help him through his feelings of guilt and hurt after his son’s longtime issues with drugs and alcohol led to a domestic dispute, resulting in his incarceration several years ago. John’s son has been released, but John’s family is still working through the hurt, guilt and finger-pointing, and trying to understand what happened.
“It’s one series of hurts after another. …” he told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview. “That’s why the support group is so important. It’s that you’re going through a tragedy is what it really amounts to, and staying together and keeping your faith as Christians is what really brought us together here. And you’re wondering why and what happened and what do I do now and that’s what I was trying to say was yeah, now we’re at yet another stage in this, but it still is a day-by-day project, a day-by-day working on your own feelings.”
Sharing his feelings with the group was hard at first for John, and still is to a certain extent, but Deacon Hunt puts everyone at ease.
“He doesn’t force things and all of us had our different timing on that, and some didn’t want to talk about it much at all and others would talk about it, but it usually takes awhile to get used to everybody and the group and to know that we’re not going to let a lot of this out,” John said.
Not alone in the struggle
Mary, whose son was incarcerated about five years ago for second-degree sexual assault, battery and robbery, after accidentally double-dosing on a sleep aid, didn’t say a word during the first meeting she attended. She just sat there and cried.
“The pain and everything from the whole ordeal was so, was still strong in me and I was there and listening to what other women were talking about, but I couldn’t talk about my situation the first time,” she said of her middle-aged son who is legally blind and has an 8-year-old’s mentality, likely from seizures he has had since he was 3 months old. “I just – it was just too painful.”
Mary saw the blurb about the Doing Time Together meetings in her parish bulletin a few times before she decided to attend one about two years ago.
“It’s a really great group,” said Mary, who now speaks freely about the situation that had brought her to tears.
She has realized, like John, Kathy, Sarah and Joe, that she’s not alone in her struggle.
She doesn’t know when her son will be released or what the future holds, but she has hope, thanks to her faith and Doing Time Together.
“The main thing is the feeling that you’re not alone and that you can talk about the problems and the things that are bothering you….” Mary said. “I mean everybody is there to help you and give you some suggestions and it just kind of pulls you through it.”