“You go through life thinking things like this won’t ever happen to you.”
Though Connie is the one to say it, every person present nods in agreement. Gathered in a circle of chairs in the middle of the near-empty Open Door Cafe at the Cathedral Weakland Center on a Saturday morning, they are clutching coffee, swapping stories and shedding tears. They are grandparents, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and cousins. Some have been coming for years, others a shorter time. They hail from different backgrounds and communities, and though they are meeting next to a church, there is no stipulation that they be Catholic.
They never thought it would happen to them, and yet, here they are: someone they love is now or has been incarcerated. Though the folks gathered in the Open Door Cafe haven’t spent any time in a cell themselves, make no mistake: they’re doing the time all the same.
On the second Saturday of each month, they make their way here — some from great distances — to attend a support group for loved ones of current and former jail inmates. The group, called Doing Time Together, was the brainchild of Deacon Tom Hunt.
A volunteer chaplain for the Milwaukee County Jail for the past two decades, Deacon Hunt said that the idea for the group came from a visit he shared with an inmate nine years ago.
“He stated to me, ‘I don’t feel as sorry for myself as for what I did to my family,’” recalled Deacon Hunt. “That got me thinking. I had never thought about this — that not only is the alleged offender hurt, but he also hurts the community and his own family. The stigma travels with the family … they can become closed off from society. It’s not something you can go to the public and say, ‘Hey, I hurt just as much.’ And they do.”
When Abby started attending the group eight years ago, it was soon after her son was convicted for sexual assault. She didn’t say anything during the first session.
“And then, all of a sudden, she started talking — and the tears started flowing,” said Deacon Hunt.
“It was a relief. The people here understood me,” she said. Abby and all other group attendees shared their stories on the condition that their real names not be used. “I was just able to let go.”
Daniel said he stayed quiet during his first session as well, not ready yet to share details of his own painful story. “My first impression was that it was too good to be true,” he said. “You come in after rattling around in the outside world, where nobody understands — they look at you like you’re crazy.”
For Carol, the group is one of the precious few places she can speak openly about her situation. Her son was arrested for sexual solicitation, and she has kept it a secret from many of her friends and family for fear of judgment.
“Some people at my parish did find out, and I was snubbed like you wouldn’t believe,” she said.
Attendees are also able to share frustrations with one another that they cannot vent anywhere else. Most of their peers have only a fleeting acquaintance with the justice system from television and movies. The realities of unequal sentencing, racial bias, too-short visiting hours and mistreatment at the hands of authorities are not concepts the general public can relate to — but they are part of the daily life of everyone who attends the group.
“Somebody once told me, it’s not ‘Law and Order,’” said Abby. “This is a totally different system.”
And indeed, the stories told at Doing Time Together are not as clean-cut as the script of a prime-time procedural drama. Joy and Richard’s grandson was convicted of a non-violent, drug-related crime, when what he really needed, they said, was rehab. Carol’s son was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, in treatment for his marital and emotional difficulties when, in her words, “an entrapment” took place on the part of law enforcement. The crime of which Abby’s son was convicted occurred after the man, then age 50 but with the mental capacity of a second-grader, accidentally took two Ambien; he did not harm anyone, she said. He was sentenced to 20 years.
“He’ll be labeled even after he gets out,” she said. “Someone in his capacity, where will he be able to get services?”
All of the men were first-time offenders, say their families.
The group doesn’t offer answers, and it doesn’t offer solutions — about this Deacon Hunt and his associates are clear. But what they can offer is fellowship, feedback, and a complete lack of judgment — three things most families of convicted offenders will be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
“It’s sharing the story — key word there is sharing,” said Daniel.
“Coming here made me realize that other people are dealing with these problems, too,” said Abby. “It didn’t happen to just me.”
For more information about Doing Time Together, contact Deacon Tom Hunt at 414-276-9814 or Project Return at 414-374-8029. A Spanish-speaking support group for families of the incarcerated is hosted by the archdiocesan Intercultural Ministries on the last Sunday of every month; for more information, call 414-769-3398.