Los Prisioneros Pequeños (The Little Prisoners) by Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz

My son escaped my attempt to kiss him though I pleaded for him to come back. “Un beso, mijito." Just one and I won’t ask again, I bargained.

But Frankie ran to Esmeralda, scampered up her body and into her waiting arms. As I approached, he screwed up his mouth like he was going to cry. He shook his head a stubborn, stubborn NO! before he turned and buried his face in my sister’s neck.

I reached out, but Esmeralda waved my hand away.

She patted his back, murmured into his ear. As she swayed, she looked over at me and said he was tired. She said that every time.

I then waited for the second thing she said every visit without fail.

“I’m not sure how much longer we can do this." Esmeralda added a sigh. Her eyes tired, frustrated and angry no longer held sympathy.

I stared at Frankie, longing to touch him, but I dared not make a move; I didn’t want to send him into hysterics. I looked at my feet.

“Five minutes," a guard barked.

I glanced up to see Esmeralda roll her eyes. She moved around me, picking up our area while balancing the two-year old on her hip. The crayons Frankie was scribbling with, the toy truck she brought to keep him occupied when he became disinterested in me, his ABC book with Elmo on the cover. She picked up a bottle of juice, the rubber nipple fairly chewed on, and handed it to him. His whimpering stopped as he slipped the nipple between his lips and sucked on it.

“He’s too old for that, Ez," I said. “He’s not a baby anymore. You’re gonna mess up his teeth." I’d read that in a book on child care that the social worker had loaned me.

My sister cut me a look; she’d had enough. “I don’t want him crying on the way back," she said. “He cries, Delilah, like all of the time. Miguel can’t stand it. I can’t stand it. It keeps Vanessa and Belinda up at night; they fall asleep in class." She shook her head. “You’re not there; you don’t have to hear it." She was suddenly shoving his things deep into the baby bag. Frankie swung through the air with her every move, swaying outward, bouncing back against her.

“I’ll give him a bottle," she informed me simply, “anytime I want to."

“Okay," I murmured. I asked when she’d be back. Her visits to the prison had dwindled to every couple of months.

“It takes gas to get here. It’s not like you’re down the block. Miguel has to make sure he’s not scheduled to work . . ."

Mentally I echoed the litany Esmeralda recited every visit: A babysitter for her daughters because she would never let her children step into a prison. Lunch on the road because the drive was so long. Breakfast, too, if they started early. The prayer that, after all they did to get here, they would be allowed in because any reason was reason enough to deny visitation. While she was in here, Miguel was out in the car, bored, becoming more irritated by the minute. Then, there were the body searches -- even little Frankie.

“They searched his underwear!" she told me the first time it happened, her tone incredulous. “It’s disgusting."

I had simply nodded as if I cared what she would have to go through.

“Cuando regresas" I asked again.

“I’ll check the calendar, Delilah," she said. “And let you know."

I reached out and let my fingertips graze Frankie’s dark curls. He’d inherited his father’s thick coarse locks, unruly like Kiki’s spirit. “He needs a haircut, but not too short, okay?" I loved his curls like I loved his father’s.

“The money we get for him, feeds him. It helps buy the clothes to cover his butt, but just barely." My sister glared at me. “I’ll take him for a haircut the way you want as soon as you send me the money."

I put up with my sister’s attitude because that was the only way she’d continue to bring Frankie to see me. There were some mothers who never got to see their kids.

Like Helen. She has three kids. When she was first arrested and couldn’t make bail, she called her ex-husband, asked him to pick their kids up from school and keep them until she knew when she’d get out.

From the schoolyard, he took their kids straight to some place in Arkansas, to his mother’s. He went and saw Helen when he returned, told her what he’d done. He told her that to explain her absence; he’d told their kids she’d been killed in a boating accident. When the children asked about the funeral, he said there wouldn’t be one. It happened in the ocean and the body wasn’t found.

I gathered up the papers with Frankie’s rainbow scribbles, along with a picture of him, taken on his second birthday. He was dressed in a miniature black tuxedo, though he wore shorts. He wasn’t smiling, but he wasn’t crying either. He just didn’t seem too interested in having his picture taken. But birthday photographs were a must for Esmeralda. She was always taking pictures of the children doing all sorts of things. I rarely accepted the photographs she brought of Frankie. I preferred to remember him the way he was when he visited.

I liked to recall the way he was always shy when he first arrived. How eventually he could be coaxed from Esmeralda’s leg, relenting and finally coming to me. I liked to recall how Frankie grinned when we covered our faces, then dropped our hands unexpectedly, simultaneously, both giggling when I say “Boo!" I didn’t want the pictures because I liked to keep the image I had of my son alive in my head; there, Frankie was always smiling.

On the way to my cell, I tried not to grin too much. It might have brought me unwarranted attention from a guard and that would have meant that I’d get busted with the contraband my sister slipped in through the diaper bag.

In my cell, I waited until the guard had moved on before I taped my son’s drawings and picture on the wall, although I knew when they were discovered, they’d have to come down. The warden had limited us each to one item on the walls. But for a little while, I could act like most mothers and proudly put my child on display.

I pulled out the clear plastic container where I kept my personal items and slipped the contraband-- four sanitary napkins -- into it. I laughed to myself. The guards must not have thought it unusual that my sister was on the rag every time she came to visit. We were never issued enough; our bloody uniforms were perhaps the intended entertainment for the guards. And if you were lucky enough to have a prison account, it could easily be wiped out from buying all that you needed at the prison commissary.

No use complaining, because I had few rights. Everything from speaking to my family to adequately catching my monthly flow had become a privilege. And privileges cost, generally benefiting those running this place. Again, who to complain to? Privileges were easily snatched away.

I still couldn’t believe I was in prison.

It was, after all, my first offense. I was five months pregnant. The drugs were not mine, although they were in my possession.

My mother told me I watched too much Judge Judy, but, for real, I thought I would go to court, and the judge would call me a fool for messing around with a man like Kiki. My lack of judgment in men would be good for a few laughs. The judge would remind me of the precious gift I was carrying, tell me to raise my child responsibly, and then SEND ME HOME.

But, in the case against Delilah Louisa Gonzales, for possession with intent to distribute, I was found guilty and the sentence came down like a gavel on my head. Ten years. Minimum.

Behind me, my sisters gasped. My mother’s tears were audible. ¡Ay Dios¡ My court-appointed attorney put her arm around my shoulders and shook her head in sorrow. I wasn’t sure what I felt at first, and then it came to me.

It was like the first time Kiki hit me a quick smack across my cheek because I dared to talk back to him in front of his friends. That’s the way I felt in the courtroom that morning: surprised and angry, but somehow, deserving.

I’d only been in prison a month or so when I was called from yard duty because I had a visitor. It wasn’t a scheduled visitation day. Exceptions were never good news.

I found my other sister Yoli on the other side of the plexi-glass in the visitation room. My heart raced wild. Though I’d put her name on my visitor list, I didn’t expect to ever see her.

Yoli hesitated then picked up the phone. She smiled at me, funny-like, and I knew there was reason for my heartbeat pounding in my ears.

I picked up the receiver on my side. “Qué hay?"

“It’s about Mama," Yoli said.

“Is she back in the hospital?"

“She had been, but . . ."


“She . . . she died, Delilah. Mama’s dead."

“What?" I screamed, the receiver almost slipping from my hand. “When?" I demanded. I had just talked to her. She was excited about the baby, couldn’t wait to hold him -- her first grandson.

Yoli put the receiver down and rummaged through her jacket pocket. She glanced around to see if anyone was watching her visitors weren’t allowed to bring anything in then she pulled out a folded paper, which she straightened and held against the divider between us.

There was a picture of my mother when she was younger, when she wore her black hair flowing across her shoulders, had time to paint her lips and eyes, when she smiled freely in the center of the ivory-colored paper. Below her picture was the date for her memorial service. It had been celebrated the week before.

I slapped the counter in front of me. “She’s already buried?! You didn’t tell me! Why didn’t you tell me before? I missed her Mass! You should have called!"

Nodding her head to my tearful complaints, Yoli mocked me, used a tone like I was an unreasonable child, when she said, “Do you not understand where you are, Delilah? Since when are you free to come and go? And even if that had been a possibility," she said, rolling her eyes, “how would it look with you in shackles. You at Mass, pregnant and all chained up? Como friegas. What about Father Thomas? You want to embarrass Mama on her way to Heaven?" “Besides, even if you could’ve gone, there were probably all kinds of forms . . ."

“¡llgame Dios!" I prayed daily. It had been my mother’s strength that I had been depending on.

The child moving inside me, full of energy and spirit, became the answer to my divine requests. My son would become all that I’d lost and I then chose his name, altering my mother’s and bestowing his father’s: Francisco Enrique.

“It will be a long while," I had once whispered to the baby as I ran my hand across my swollen belly. “Until we see your father again."

Esmeralda had told me that Kiki was sentenced and sent to prison as well. Thirty-five years. Because of his past, I was sure. What had I calculated? That Kiki would be fifty-eight years old when he got out?

“You’ll be a man by then," I whispered to my child. “And so many years, without a father."

But my son, I decided, would not be without his mother.

About a month before my child’s birth, I was taken to see the prison social worker. In her office, she sat at her desk and gestured to the chair across from her. I sat down, crossed my feet at the ankles and put my hands in my lap. I waited quietly, wondering why she’d brought me here.

“One moment," she said, as she ran her pen across a paper before her. She looked the page over, before closing the file and setting it aside. She looked at me and said, “This is about your baby."

“It’s a boy," I gushed. I told her I was naming him for my mother and for Kiki.

The social worker smiled at me patiently. “What we need to discuss is the placement of your child following its birth."

My eyes opened wide in surprise.

“I’m not sure why you look bewildered, Miss Gonzales," she told me. “You will not be allowed to keep your son. I need a family member or another responsible relative that will take the baby following his birth or your child will end up in the state’s hands."

My breath caught.

“Do you know where the child’s father is?"

“He’s, he’s in prison too," I said, although I didn’t know which one and his family wouldn’t tell Esmeralda when she asked for me.

Picking up her pen and placing a pad of paper before her, the social worker wrote for a few minutes and then asked who else might take him. “Your mother?"

“Dead," I told her.

She crossed the word from her list. “Father?"

“My mother threw him out years ago. He was caught messing with my little cousin."

She shook her head. Another line dashed across the page.




“Two. Yolanda and Esmeralda, I told her.

The worker looked hopeful. She asked if either of them would take the child I was carrying.

Yoli wouldn’t.

Following my arrest, after my mother put her house up so I could get out on bail, I told my family that I was pregnant.

Yoli sprang from the couch. Her face just inches from mine, she yelled, “It’s not enough to shame us when you go live with Kiki, the biggest dope dealer on the block! No, you’ve got to get yourself arrested, your name in the paper for drugs, and now you’re pregnant! Pendeja! Don’t you know que los hombres no m¡s quieren meterse en los pantalones de las mujeres? And what do you have to show for it but un prisionero pequeño?"

Yoli, I explained, was going to school and working. She didn’t have time for children. “Trust me," I told the social worker. “You cannot pay her to babysit."

“And your other sister?" she asked, looking down at the notes she’d written. “Esmeralda?"

I didn’t know, I said. Ezzie was married, but she already had two daughters of her own.

Ask her, the social worker told me. “Beg her. Right now she’s your only hope."

Esmeralda wasn’t planning on having any more children, though Miguel was disappointed that he didn’t have a son. Vanessa was nine, Belinda, eight. She and Miguel had just bought an SUV with the idea of taking frequent family vacations. They liked the idea of being able to just go when they wanted. No worries about changing diapers on the road. No running out of formula miles before an exit. No basket of miscellaneous toys to amuse a cranky, crying baby who wouldn’t be amused. Just “Va¡monos, chicas" and you’re off.

“I just don’t know, Delilah," my sister said.

“Ezzie, please. Please. I’m begging you."

“I just can’t say. I’m not a single woman; I’ve got to have Miguel’s okay on this."

“Then ask him. Beg him for me. Tell him his nephew will have to go live with strangers if he says no."

“Delilah, please. I am making no promises, but I’ll talk to him and let you know," Esmeralda told me.

“You need to get your ass up, Gonzales," the guard told me as he wrestled with the lock on the cell door.

“I can’t," I moaned. “It hurts to move."

He stomped into the cell, ready to yank me from the bed, I’m sure, if he had to. As he approached, I said, “I think I’m having my baby."

“I’m having my baby," he mimicked as he stood by my bed. “Looks like your excuse for lazying around is finally coming to an end. Now get up!"

Unsteady, I did, made my way out of the cell and trudged down the hall, one hand against the wall, the other supporting my swollen belly, bearing the weight of it. Each time, a pain passed, I stopped and almost every time, the guard prodded me in the back with the club, pressing me on as I inched to the infirmary. There, I twisted in discomfort on the examination table.

“Legs open Gonzales," the nurse practitioner told me, snapping on her gloves. She pressed my knees apart. “About seven centimeters." She stepped back from the table and pulled the gloves off. “I say we get you to the hospital. I’ll call an ambulance."

My joy rose above the pain. My son, my son, my heart cried inside me as I was transferred to the stretcher and put in the ambulance. My son, my son, my heart beat the words all the way to the hospital.

In the delivery room, I remained on the stretcher because I was shackled to the railing. A nurse worked the belt for the fetal monitor onto me as best she could. When the doctor on duty came in for a physical examination, he found it impossible, what with the lack of stirrups and the ankle cuffs.

“What the hell?" he yelled. “How’re we supposed to work around this?"

The nurse told him I was from the prison.

“Find the guard!" the doctor yelled. The nurse went in search of him.

“How’re you doing?" the doctor asked me.

“It . . . hurts, so much . . ."

He assured me that it would be over soon. “I don’t think this baby is planning to stay put much longer," he said as he read the monitor output.

The nurse returned with the guard. He had been, I learned from the conversation going on around me, outside with the hospital security people.

The doctor insisted I be unshackled
“She’s from the prison," the guard said. “Regulations state that she must be restrained."

“I don’t give a damn where she’s from!" the doctor exclaimed. “Right now “ in this hospital she’s a woman about to give birth. Her health and her child’s are being greatly compromised!"

The guard said he’d need authorization. The doctor instructed the nurse to take him to a phone. “And hurry," the doctor added.

When the guard again returned, he removed the cuffs and chains. I was transferred quickly onto a delivery table and propped wide. I could feel my child bearing down, pressing his way into the world.

I was pushed down the hall to a delivery room. It was all so frenzied. Tears clouded my eyes. “Kiki!" I called out, without thinking. As if he could hear me, or even help.

I stayed up the afternoon and early evening, watching my son sleep. Everything about him fascinated me; his eyes moving beneath the closed lids, the way his nose twitched and how he seemed at peace in spite what we’d been through. After I’d fed him, I sat up in bed, holding him as close as I could, what with one arm handcuffed to the bed. The guard was, after all, authorized to remove only so much.

I loved the peace of the hospital. I slept deep and long. On the third day of my stay, the nurse woke me with another green pill.

“What’s this?"

“It’s iron," she said. “You’re seriously anemic."

“Oh, I know that," I told her, sitting up and taking the tablet and paper cup of water from her.

That had been discovered during my pregnancy and doctor’s orders allowed me to have iron-rich foods come in the quarterly package that Esmeralda put together and sent me. My prison diet was supposed to include green leafy vegetables and citrus fruits, but it never did.

“Will you be bringing me my baby soon?" I asked as I gave her back the cup. I was looking forward to spending another day with my son.

The nurse stared at me, clearly surprised by my question.

“What?" I demanded in response. “Tell me what?"

“I’ll get someone here to talk to you," the nurse said, collecting the tray she’d brought in.

I called after her, but she continued out the room.

Time passed. I picked up the remote for the television mounted on the wall. Though I was in control of the channels, there was nothing on I could find to interest or distract me. I tossed the remote on the nightstand by the bed.

I waited.

The door opened. My head jerked in its direction, but it was the nursing assistant with breakfast and the day’s menu. I weakly returned her smile.

“I have to go to the bathroom," I said.

“I’ll get the guard," she told me as she left the room.

When I came out of the bathroom, a woman was sitting in the chair by my bed. She stood, walked over and assisted me as I got back into bed. The guard, also waiting, put the cuff back around my wrist and left.

“Miss Gonzales, did you not understand that your son was to be picked up following his birth?"

“Picked up by who?"

She flipped through a file. “Esmeralda Mendez."

“That’s my sister," I said. I waited for the lady to continue explaining. When she didn’t say anything, I said, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?"

“Miss Gonzales, you had signed the papers allowing your sister to take your child into her care. Once a child is born, it is placed as quickly as possible with the foster parent. I’m sorry if no one at the prison made sure you understood the procedures."

“But I’m still here!"

“Because of your health. Most incarcerated mothers are back in prison the day following birth. You’ve had more time with your child than most prison mothers, and your child has been placed with blood relatives, consider yourself lucky," she told me.

I was called to the social worker’s office and found Ezzie sitting there. I wasn’t expecting her for a month or so, so I was suddenly delighted. My joy turned to fear, however, when my eyes scanned the room for Frankie and he wasn’t there.

The social told me to sit down, that there was something important to discuss.

“What’s happened to Frankie?"

My sister moved to calm me down. “Nothing’s happened to him?" she said.

I let myself breathe. “!Qué alivio!" I uttered.

I sat and waited.

Esmeralda glanced at the social worker, took a breath and turned to me. “Miguel’s gotten a promotion."

I offered my congratulations.

“We have to move," she said. “To Michigan."

Michigan was half a world away. More than half.

“You want to take Frankie," I said.




“I will not let you take my son from me."

“He calls me Mommy," my sister said.

I wanted to slap her.

The social worker intervened. She told me that letting Esmeralda take Frankie to allow her to legally adopt my son was really in the best interest of all concerned.

“I just can’t give my son away; I love him."

“Love, the caseworker said, “will not feed, clothe and house him. Those are his immediate needs."

I started to explain that once I was released, I planned to work and take care of my son, but the social worker stopped me, saying it might prove difficult.

“How so?" I asked.

She explained that when my prison sentence was up, and I walked out the gates, I would do so owing the state an astronomical fee.

“I don’t know what you mean," I said.

State regulations, the social worker said, were imposing me with a child support debt, even though I was incarcerated and unemployed. The money Esmeralda received to care for Frankie, my son, would be asked back of me once I became a taxpaying citizen. My paycheck would be garnished by the state; it would take up to half of my wages, if it damn well pleased, as well as redirecting any and all of my anticipated tax refunds, federal or state, to its municipal coffers."

“You will also owe ten percent interest on top of that," the social worker said. “If you give your son up now, your debt will stop accruing now."

“After ten years," Esmeralda said, “You will owe gazillions of dollars, Dee. You don’t have that. You won’t have that. And when you get out, what are you gonna do to make a living to take care of you and Frankie and, at the same time, pay off the state? You never went to school; you never learned how to do anything. Just living with Kiki, off his drug money. So when you get out, what will you do?" She asked where I would go. “A dónde! Mom’s dead; the house has been sold. Yoli won’t take you in."

“I could go on welfare," I offered, adding quickly, “For awhile."

The social worker negated my idea. Federal regulations would bar me, a former felon, from receiving any government aid in the form of public housing, food stamps and other benefits.

“Then I’ll go to school," I suggested. “I’m smart, you’ve always said that, Ez. Go to school and get your degree. Isn’t that what you told me? Stop wasting your brain and your time with Kiki."

"I’ll go to school," I repeated. There were grants and loans, lots of money for people wanting an education so they could get a good job and care for their families.

Again, the social worker shook her head. Federal regulations might bar me from receiving federal government aid for educational purposes. There were conditions under which I might be eligible, but my status would be contingent, she said, on the time of my conviction and the exact charges against me.

“I won’t give you my son, Esmeralda. I won’t!"

The social worker sighed. Then Frankie would have to enter non-familial foster care.

“I don’t want him with strangers; people who’ll take him just to get the money."

The social worker shrugged. With no family members available or willing to take my son, he would automatically be placed in the foster care system, and after 15 months, federal regulations required the state terminate my parental rights.

“I don’t believe you!" I yelled.

The social worker went to her bookshelves and pulled out a book. She flipped through it and then held the open pages to me. “Public Law 105-89," she said. “The Adoption and Safe Families Act, passed by Congress, authorizes it."

“Do you want him to go to strangers?" Esmeralda cut in.

“¡Claro que no! What I wanted was my son with me."

“You’re here for another seven years or so," the social worker said. “You can argue and tell your sister no, but, believe me, you don’t have a great many choices. If nothing else, the system will work against you. This time next year, I’ll be preparing the papers to take your son."

It isn’t fair! I screamed. I stood, walked away, my back to them.

“I don’t deal with what’s fair and what’s not," the social worker said, adding that she was sorry. “I can’t make miracles; I can only work with what I’ve got."

Papa. Kiki. Mama.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Dee," Esmeralda told me. “But I love him and I don’t want to give him up now."

A flood of tears gathered inside my head. Neither do I, Ezzie, I wanted to tell her. Neither do I.

Another Christmas and I received my sister’s yearly newsletter. I didn’t attack the envelope the way I used to for years and years. No, I waited until after dinner to open it. In my cell, I sat on the bed, staring at the handwriting on the envelope for a few moments, before turning it over, slipping my finger under the flap, running it carefully across, breaking the bond free. Pulling out the folded paper, I thought it looked different, then, unfolding it, I realized there were no photographs. As if she anticipated confusion, Esmeralda had scribbled across the top of the page, “Our digital camera won’t work with the computer we have! Sorry, no pictures this year! P.S. We look the same!

I passed over the paragraphs describing the accomplishments and honors, the deeds of the past year and the aspirations for the upcoming that related to Ezzie, Miguel and the girls. Francisco Enrique Mendez, I sought out and when I found his name, my heart pounded.

Over the summer he was the star pitcher for the little league baseball team sponsored by Miguel’s company. He recently lost both of his front teeth and the Tooth Fairy (feeling rather generous) left him $10, which he planned to save for a new game for his Game Boy Advance. He still loved to read, and next year he planned to win the annual spelling bee for his grade . . .

I read as much as there was about him and then sad, but satisfied, I folded the newsletter, slipped it back into the envelope and decided, later, maybe the next day, I would read the whole thing. Send a short note to my sister. Congratulate her family on all they’d done the past year. Send my nephew my eternal love.

I had tried to find someone else to take Frankie. I tried people in Kiki’s family, those who would accept my call, but they all said no. Those who had refused my call, the social worker contacted. Some heard her out, but still said no. Esmeralda was my only choice, though there was a moment when I thought about just giving Frankie to strangers so my sister would not have him.

As I was signing the adoption papers, the social worker told me I was doing best thing for my son, reminding me that there were over 55,000 children bouncing around in foster homes because a parent was in prison. The odds were against them, she said. Chances were five times greater that these children, at some point in their lives, would come in contact with the judicial system.

Frankie, she thought, might not be one of them.

Thinking of him as I always did before I went to sleep, I realized that I could not imagine Frankie at age seven. Missing his front teeth. His crooked, mischievous grin accentuated by their absence. I could not imagine him without his thick curls, his hair short now, Ezzie had written, with gel induced spikes and golden highlights.

As always, I tried to put it into .... perspective, like the social worker said: I tried to imagine Frankie safe, but every night, it was somehow never, ever, enough.

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