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Rebirth in Rodeo: A Mother’s Struggle with a Son’s Incarceration

New America Media, News Feature +Video, Ketaki Gokhale, Video by Mike Siv, Photos by Charisse Domingo Posted: Jul 07, 2008

Editor's Note: Issues like recidivism, reentry and juvenile incarceration get a new urgency when it's about your own son. New America Media's health and environment reporter Ketaki Gokhale profiles an advocate for incarcerated youth, who is also the mother of a young man in maximum security adult prison. NAM's coverage of the national Equal Voice for America's Families campaign is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Photo credits: Charisse Domingo. Video: Mike Siv.

RODEO, Calif.—“I’m waiting for him to come home,” Joyce Cook says, gesturing at the photograph of her son, Edjuan. Now 24, but a teenager with an insouciant smile in the photograph, he’s been in prison most of the years since the picture was taken. Joyce CookJoyce Cook

Edjuan is serving 10 months in San Quentin, his first stretch in a maximum security adult prison. Previously, he was shunted among California Youth Authority facilities. He’ll be freed any day, but without a high school diploma or vocational training, and toting a criminal record that will make it nearly impossible for him to find work.

Last year, 35,981 people under the age 29 were released from adult facilities in California. With recidivism a probability, time outside prison is an opportunity to turn their lives around.

“He’s going to be coming home, and I want him to come to a place that’s safe and not chaotic,” Cook explains. She would like to move from the East Bay city of Rodeo, “away from the drama and violence,” to an environment more suitable for Edjuan’s return. With poor credit and meager savings, finding a home within reasonable distance of her Oakland job is difficult.

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Cook is employed as an advocate for incarcerated youth. She was one of the many struggling parents who came to an Oakland town hall meeting as part of the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign. The campaign’s aim is to bring the concerns of low-income and working families into a national dialogue. Oakland area attendees included single mothers, care-givers, and immigrant youth. All were articulate in their calls for health care, and reform in the prison and welfare systems.

In a roundtable discussion, Cook was full of ideas. “The tax burden needs to be lifted off our families, and we need to move to a less consumerist culture,” she said. “There needs to be after-school programs, something to replace football when the season’s over -- something that can lift a child up.”

Issue

At home later, some of Cook’s brass has worn off and a raw, fidgety anxiety seeps through. She’s all out of political solutions to her problems; her worries about Edjuan seem to consume everything. She’s just another mom trying to raise her kids.

Coming of Age in Prison

Edjuan’s family has a hard time understanding how or why it has come to this. Cook remembers Edjuan as the most biddable of her five children. “He was always a standup kid, ever since he was little. He played three sports in high school and kept his grades up reasonably well.”

After the 2000 football season, 16-year-old Edjuan was arrested for carjacking. He had been “joyriding,” stealing cars and taking them to chop-shops to make money. He fell in with the wrong crowd, Cook says.

Prison took a harsh toll. Edjuan was sucked into fights and “group disturbances,” and had time added to his sentence. In Chaderjian, CYA’s “gladiator school,” fights would break out between blacks and Hispanics. Edjuan rarely attended school.

He was released in 2004, but probation violations on gun charges sent him back more than once. Though acquitted of a serious charge, Edjuan’s most recent sentence was for coming into “police contact” during his probation period.

On the Home Front

Cook takes care of Precious, Edjuan’s 16-year-old half sister, and his teenage cousins, Rennie and Pushpa, whose mother died when they were children. Cook’s three daughters frequently visit with their own children in tow.

Rennie’s dreams are to be a rapper and to make a lot of money, “so I can support my family -- my auntie, sister and nieces and nephews.” Day to day, he struggles to keep out of trouble, according to Cook.

Pushpa attends community college. “I appreciate everything she do for me and my brother,” she says softly of her aunt. “If anything was to happen to her, I don’t know what I’d do. She’s everything to us.”

Cook hides a lot from them, though, rarely discussing her health problems and the medical bills. “I try to give them what they need,” Cook explains. “Not a whole lot of what they want, but what they need. I think they understand.”

Homecoming

In prison, Edjuan and friends might have celebrated a birthday with “pruno,” an alcoholic beverage made from fermented juice and fruit. They would talk, maybe buy a card for everybody to sign, or even “make a cake out of muffins and candy.”

Edjuan was released in May. Having had few recent birthdays outside prison, he looks forward to a normal celebration this September when he turns 25.

He knows how hard it’s been for his family. “If we’d all have been together, I could have been working, contributing,” he says. “Since I’ve been gone, without a brother and father figure in their lives, it was hard on them … They’d have had me in their ear, like my momma was for me.”

Joyce Cook has been the one constant in his life. During incarceration, friends visited occasionally, but his mother made the trek every week. “I thought about my mom a lot when I was locked up… If she was supposed to come for a weekend and she didn’t, I’d get worried.”

In his view, having a strong mother may be his saving grace. “A lot of my friends’ parents, if they aren’t dead, they’re running the streets still trying to be players and pimps and hustlers. They’re still doing drugs. I’ve got friends and associates who are like my mother, who want the best for their kids…doing productive things, and [who] have jobs.”

Sometimes, Edjuan would come home high and find his mother waiting, livid. “She’d tell me to ‘stay in the house and stop running the streets. Everybody isn’t your friend. You can’t just trust everybody. You are good at football, boxing. You are good at music… Don’t let these people, these streets, get you caught up.’ She’d give me a verbal lashing.”

“But I never got mad, I just soaked it up… It’s easy for us to get along.”

Edjuan is looking for work. He plans on getting his GED, maybe studying business in college. “She says try to learn from your experiences,” he says of Cook. “Don’t be set back again. Just hold your head up. Make something of yourself; don’t go to jail again and be away from your mama.”

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