When ‘Not Guilty’ Is a Life Sentence

Despite Ann’s determination to betray no emotion, a drop of sweat rolled down her temple as a guard painstakingly examined her lunch items. That Sunday morning, she had taken two buses, two trains and a shuttle to get from her home to the New York state psychiatric facility where her son is confined. Frustrated, she pushed back a little, but just a little, when the guard took away two sealed bottles of fruit-flavored water, a special treat that Ann had made an extra stop to buy. She watched as he held them up to examine them and concluded that they must contain caffeine — which is not allowed — because they did not read, “Does not contain caffeine.”

“They’re testing you,” she said to her son, James, after she was finally cleared, metal-detected and led upstairs to the visiting room, a spare, linoleum-floored space inside the hospital’s high-security building. Ann, who asked that her nickname and her son’s middle name be used to protect their privacy, usually comes to see James three times a week. Obstacles like these are routine. James, a middle-aged white man with thinning hair and a thickening waistline, listened to her complaints in a routine way, too, glancing up from the newspaper his mother had brought, the two of them sitting at a table, the same arch in their brown eyebrows, eating homemade coleslaw and sandwiches. They’ve been doing this a long time.

At some point in the next five hours — while the three of us ate lunch, and dessert, and later snacks between rounds of Bananagrams and Kings in the Corner — James said to me, “I shouldn’t have taken the plea.”

– New York Times

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