One-way ticket

Editorial Notebook

October 15, 2005|By ANN LOLORDO

The child's hands in the black-and-white-photograph could just as easily be those of Terry Booska's son. At least that's how she felt looking at the image. Splayed against a bus window, the small hands telegraphed a desperate plea: Don't go, Mommy. Don't leave me!

New York photographer Andrew Lichtenstein shot the picture in Manhattan as families boarded buses to visit relatives imprisoned upstate. It is part of a documentary pictorial at Baltimore's Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center that chronicles, in the photographer's words, "the true cost of prison." Terry Booska first saw the photo of the child's hands in a packet given to her at a Baltimore halfway house for abused, addicted and formerly incarcerated women. Her response was visceral and she wrote it down:

When I went to prison for a 10-year sentence I left behind two boys, ages three and nine, and the Department of Social Services took my three-year-old away and put him up for adoption. He is now eight years old and I don't know where he is. I had to tell my three-year-old son `goodbye' but I didn't know it would be forever.

The photos are Rorschach images for Ms. Booska and other ex-offenders now outside the wall: A guy in Huntsville, Texas, waiting at a bus station with a one-way ticket in his hand. Two men carrying their belongings in trash bags, slung over their shoulders.

They are a slide show of what awaits thousands of ex-offenders released every year in this country, which is to say not much. When Mr. Lichtenstein discusses the true cost of prison, he talks about the $20,000 annual cost of keeping someone behind bars (multiply that by the estimated 2 million in prison). But his lens is actually focused on the hidden costs - about 2 million kids who have at least one parent in prison, the vast underclass of African-American men populating our prisons, the fractured families left behind.

Terry Booska's contribution to this exhibit is her commentary. She and 15 other Baltimore-area ex-offenders and recovering addicts were interviewed about the photos by Art on Purpose, a community arts advocacy organization. Their statements, which frame the Lichtenstein photos, are conversation-starters. And this is a conversation that should be going on outside of gallery spaces, think tanks and political forums. This is a conversation that more people need to engage in because the impact of the nation's lock-'em-up corrections policies of the 1990s affects schools, communities, whole cities.

About 9,000 inmates will be released from Maryland prisons this year. Reforms are under way here and across the country to change the recurring cycle of imprisonment. Treatment, education and job training can help end that cycle, but support systems on the outside are just as critical to curb the impulse to reoffend.

Ms. Booska has been there, standing outside a prison in Jessup with a check and no place to go. How do you cash a check without identification? How far will $35 take you? Who to call? Where to sleep? How to live, again?

"After being incarcerated for so long, you don't know anything. I was so full of anxiety. I was lost, scared, overwhelmed. Five years may not seem long, but it was a lifetime for me."

Ms. Booska, a recovering crack addict, got out June 20 after serving time for burglarizing the home of her oldest son's godfather. It took her a while - 35 calls - before she landed at Marian House, a transitional housing program run jointly for 23 years by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy and the School Sisters of Notre Dame. "Most of the rehab places have 18-month, two-year waiting lists. Most of the transition houses are for men," she says.

At 40, she's training to be a diesel mechanic, a job that will pay her $18 to $22 an hour. She is working weekends now at a pizza parlor. "I'm going on my sixth year of being clean," she says. "Without structure in your life, you fall back into the cracks."

Terry Booska may have lost custody of her son, but she hasn't given up on seeing him again. "I don't want my son to grow up thinking I threw him away like a piece of trash."

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