CW: Infant loss and Maternal death**
I moved from the squishy yoga mat out of my downward dog pose at the sound of the mailman rapping on the front door. The undoing of all the locks always proved to be a lengthy process, but one I’ve embraced anyway as it meant I had a home.
One of my oldest friends from college remarked once, ”Freya it’s as if you are forcing yourself into your own kind of prison!” Heather lived in a community where screen doors acted like revolving doors, with children whipping in and out of them at all hours of the day with joy and freedom. The welcome squeak on repeat was a sign that Heather lived a childhood unrestrained from street rules.
I lived a life with my adopted parents where I was loved and cherished but behind the clunk and sliding of locks. Deadbolts, chain locks, sliding bolts, they all held an extra stronghold against external dangers. The locks were a way for my parents to say, “We love you so much, and this is how we will keep you safe Freya. Drink your orange juice sweetie.” The bars on my doors were a latch on the love, the vitamin C was just an added bonus.
It was easy for me to tell her that it’s not really imprisonment if you are free to leave as you please. Everyone in my neighborhood is friendly and nods their heads when you walk by their yard. There are sturdy iron bars on the exterior doors and all of the windows protecting the people behind them and not the objects within the houses. A visit down to the local tax assessor might show that the actual iron protecting the houses on my street were worth more than the houses themselves. It would be naive for those of us who live in this neighborhood to mistake this type of friendliness of a head nod with trustworthiness. These traits are not one in the same here in the poorer parts of Youngstown. What we could trust for certain of others was to say hello. I grew up learning the most important rule of all is that the rules in the streets still apply to those of us who live here whether we have the proclivity to hold doors open for someone else or not.
I was awarded this house by the state when I turned 21. On the cusp of my graduation from college without any idea of where I might ‘settle down,’ the universe handed me this house. The details around it were sealed under state ordinances, which despite my best digging I was unable to get past any red tape. It seemed as if the same powers that held the details around my adoption, were the same that boxed up information behind the inheritance of this house with the bars worth more than the front porch itself. In this neighborhood owning a house was entirely unheard of, momma and daddy didn’t own this house. They were older when they adopted me as a little baby, and we all moved into this home not too long after they became my family. If they weren’t dead already they would pass away at the idea that one of their own was a homeowner.
Cracking the front door open slightly I scanned the porch for the gentle knocker, seeing no one I stepped back and noticed the fattened mailer left at the stoop of the door frame. I didn’t recognize the return address, it appeared to be somewhat local, maybe a town or two over at best. No name, just a mailbox.
I backed into the house eyes still on the street surveying possible threats. Back to the yoga mat my sanctuary, a place I always felt called to for no particular reason other than I felt I belonged there. My fingers passed over the angled writing, it looked like a man’s handwriting- sharp and abrupt. The envelope was dense and filled with a large stack of papers. On the front was a small handwritten yellow sheet of paper. It read;
I waited a long time to send you these notes. A very long time. Know that you were loved and that you were held, even if for a little bit.
A friend of your mother
A friend of my mother’s? The only thought my brain can wrap itself around is, ‘which mother?’ My heart stiff like a deadbolt being turned back and forth catching in the strike. This locking of my chest cavity at the possibility of these papers holding details about my actual mother slows the blood in my veins. As if I were a child minding my teacher during circle time on the rug, I place my hands at my side. I carefully place the other letter on the floor.
In the United States Department of Corrections for the Midwestern District of OHIO
CO Alexander ‘Ace’ Knutsen Interrogation & Evidence
V. No. 02-347822
WARDEN Pembrooke, et al:
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
July 22, 1999
Now before the board of the Department of Corrections, we request a deposition and examination of offenses. For the reasons discussed below, the deposition and examination will be granted.
This deposition arises from the events that led up to the date of June 23, 1999 involving Correctional Officer,
Alexander ‘Ace’ Knutsen and Sharla Denae Banks, inmate number 90374-066. CO Knutsen oversaw the C-Block at the Ohio River Department of Corrections when inmate Banks delivered a baby girl. CO Knutsen worked the graveyard shift when Inmate Banks required emergency medical services. Upon delivery of the baby, CO Knutsen would not allow medical correctional officers to remove the infant or allow medical personnel to treat Banks. Inmate Banks ultimately died due to complications related to childbirth. The following deposition will focus on questioning surrounding the events on June 23, 1999.
**These documents are sealed and not to be shared with any parties affiliated with the persons stated within.**
The only sign that I’m still breathing are the little gasps that claw their way past my lips. Blood brims on the edge of my mouth and I think for just one moment that my imprisoned air has cut me on the way out. My teeth clamp down and lock me into the a holding pattern. I have held back years of grief in not knowing my mother. Grief that is imprisoned changes people, it has changed me. Barred up with only a few moments of rec time each day, my emotions only get to come out and let me feel a little. Not too much, because I wouldn’t want my heart to get used to thinking about her.
Reading my mother’s name, Sharla Denae Banks lights the synapses in my head. Denae, that’s my middle name. That means I have something of hers, maybe not her eyes but her name at least. My adoptive parents, the only parents I really knew didn’t change my name when they took me in. They kept me as Freya Denae and gave me the last name of Kemp. If my mother were still here, would I be a Banks?? I cannot help but wonder. I read and read until the tears start to blur the words on the page. All that’s left is the anonymous letter.
By now you’ve read the entirety of the evidence memorandum surrounding your mother’s death.
I am the CO interviewed in this transcript. Now, before you curse my name and blame me for her dying inside of a prison cell I want you to know a few things.
I met your mother when she was brought to our facility at 6 months pregnant. The details about how she came to be sentenced to life can be told another day. I worked the C-Block and had done so for over a decade. I have seen things that my old tired eyes now can never unsee. So much wasted life and talent and mostly people who were served a bad lot in life that could’ve used a whole hell lot more of love and care. People aren’t born bad, sometimes they end up there surprised that they’ve been dropped into circumstances that they cannot undo.
There are tough women in prison who do crimes that are hard to repeat out loud to another person. You'll find these same women in art class making origami pleated flowers to liven up their cells. Your mother was one of those people, her crime was out of protection of her life and yours. But the crime was not her. She was origami sunflowers and a ruthless defender all mixed into one. The balance of hard and soft exists in prison, and I found myself wondering who these women could have been before their time in the C-Block.
It was against the policy of the correctional facility for officers to be any sort of friendly toward inmates. My life policy didn’t adhere to treating people that way, so I asked questions and often treated all my inmates like humans.
From the moment your mother Sharla walked onto my Block, I knew she wasn’t supposed to be there. She’d walk by my command station past the open layout of bunkbeds smiling and ready to chat every morning.
“Hey Ace! How you living today?”
Your mother was always rubbing that belly of hers, a gesture of a mother’s love perhaps or a desperate attempt at getting in as much touch with you as possible before you were to arrive.
Correctional officer or not, inmates can see emotion a mile deep in us. My wife and I had lost a baby full term, and I was back to work one week after the fact, Sharla could see into the depths of grieving well.
“CO Ace, you good?”
I was not good, Freya. Your mother all origami sunflowers and round with life reminded me that I was in a prison too. Mine looked like a life where I walked around never getting to hold my little girl again. I had all of my limbs on my body, but the phantom feeling of a baby being cradled in the crook of my elbow was real. The loss of a child leaves a tingling feeling in the body, and I don’t know if Sharla could feel that energy because she carried you in her body, but she stopped smiling like she knew.
She didn’t ask too many details, instead she spoke about her childhood.
She was an only child that loved hopscotch and orange pineapple popsicles in the summer. She told me how she got straight A’s once simply to prove a point. That she was smart if she wanted to be to her mean old daddy. Sharla talked about how getting out of
the system was far harder than being in it.
“I’m safer here. I’m away from people that would just add more to my current ruin.”
I told her my story, as she had just told me hers.
“My grief counselor said that I would have to center my breath when the pain starts to creep in. I’ve only seen Carl once, just last week. Carl told me to picture myself sticking my hand inside of a magicians velvet bag with my fingers twirling around inside, feeling the soft insides. I’m supposed to visualize my fingers feeling the softness of the bag in the way that my fingers ran alongside my babys’ jaw line, and between each of her fingers. All I get out of the empty bag is desperation Sharla. There’s no magic trick to bring my baby back. I end up empty handed and covered in snot."
I might have also told Carl that no one trusts a therapist that wears Birkenstocks and a man bun. Your mother laughed until she cried when I told her that.
Grief is funny like that I guess. One minute you’re pushing through all the phases of grieving and the next you’re right back on your ass in the anger stage cursing at your therapist named Carl, then laughing with an actual prison inmate.
Centered breath? HA.
Here I was crying about my dead baby, and your mother was looking at a life sentence carrying a baby she knew she’d never get to hold consoling me in my grief. There are rules in life, and sometimes they just don’t apply but you push past them anyway.
The night your mother went into labor we’d experienced a bad storm. Phone lines were down, emergency services were delayed, and your mother was in bad shape. She chuckled about how storms can bring a drove of babies to the hospitals. Damn that woman was tough as nails. You showed little mercy on her small frame as labor was fast.
There was a lot of blood.
The moment you were born your mother said, “Can I hold her?”
I watched your mother endure labor and deliver you on her own and she still asked permission to hold you as if you weren't hers. For a whole 45 minutes, she held you and whispered things to you that I couldn’t hear. Probably the same things I whispered to my own baby.
The door to her cell remained locked during the power outage, the only way to open it was with the master key I held on my belt.
Sharla didn’t look good. I made my way to open the door. She motioned to me to stop. A silent pleading in her eyes. I squatted to eye level, my eyes begging hers to let me open that door for the medics.
“What was your baby’s name? Will you tell me?” Sharla asked me.
No one had asked me that since we lost her, as if speaking her name would deepen my grief more than it already was. Her question stopped all attempts at me opening that door and your momma knew it. She was smart, because she wanted to be.
“That’s beautiful Ace, I bet she was as pretty as her name huh?”
I nodded and cried.
That was another rule we were meant to follow- “Do not show emotion to the inmates.” The thing is, once I told your mother about my baby there was no turning back. I cried and said her name, and every time I did a tiny part of my torn heart mended over, scarred but mended all the same. I felt selfish to rob your mother of this moment where she would only get to hold you but for a little while with all of my crying, but when grief comes it comes.
“Ace, do me a favor. Don’t unlock that door until I’m gone. Ok?”
I didn’t argue with her, her face told me I had better not even try. I had broken so many rules, what was one more?
The thing about prison is, it doesn’t matter if you are innocent. It doesn't matter if you have a baby, and that baby has your eye shape and color. It doesn't matter that you're smart. The rules in prison still apply to those that walk through the doors regardless.
I hope you'll forgive me, for not saving her. The prison was ultimately held responsible for the negligent death of your mother. In my testimony, I argued that her child should be given something. Maybe not money or a settlement, but a home might do. I hope your home is always yours Freya.
I wept, and cried for my mother lying there on my mat. My grief expedited its way through my body in the same amount of time that it took my mother to bring me into this world. It was swift and painful, and then there was just peace and love. There was no part of me that was angry at Ace. The rules didn't apply. I’d never know how I came to be called Freya had he not taken such a risk. I picture my mother in her last moments running her fingers along my jaw line, centering her tired shallow breaths, drinking in the last glimpses of me. Whispering, "There are rules in life my little one, don't be afraid to break them."