Daughter of the Mob–Final post of the series
The first time my mom, sister and I went to see him, it was early on a cloudy spring morning in 1999, nearly four years after his indictment. Driving northbound on I-83 for just under an hour, we passed the Pennsylvania line in good time. The roads were bumpy in Pennsylvania, with lots of potholes and very tall, wide highway dividers. Silos punctuated the endless landscape of farmland before we arrived at 10:30 a.m. in Lewisburg, where fences that were topped with coils of barbed wire reached into the distance and glistened in the morning sun. We drove up to an intercom and were asked to identify ourselves and state our business.
“I’m here with my two daughters to visit an inmate,” said my mother. Zzzzzzt.
“Which one?” said the guard. Zzzzzzzt.
“Yick Man Chiu. Last name spelled C-H-I-U,” she replied. Zzzzzzzzzt.
“I can’t do anything with that information ma’am. I’ll need his inmate number. We don’t do nothing with names,” said the guard. Zzzzt.
Upon entering the penitentiary, we had to go through several metal detectors and our hands were dusted for drugs. Lip balm is a no-no. So are open toes. Tank tops, absolutely not. Photographs, nay. Jackets aren’t allowed either. Asthma inhaler? They promised to rush me out of the visitation room if I needed it. After we had demonstrably proven that we were not trafficking drugs, nor in possession of weapons, nor too scantily clad, our left hands were stamped with ink detectable only by black lights, and a guard led us from the check-in point through a few chambers connected by automatic sliding doors. I couldn’t help but notice that the guard checked our hands at every door and took a headcount, even though we had not for an instant left his sight.
The visitation room was different than I had imagined. The movies always depict cells separated by glass with phones through which people talk, but what I saw in the minutes before dad came in was not like the movies at all. I saw an open room with tables and chairs set up, one set per family. Some families played Uno with cards checked out from officers on duty. Much to my surprise, inmates don’t wear orange here either, they wear blue. Fifteen minutes had passed when dad entered the room from a door on the far side of the room, opposite the visitor’s entrance. His eyes looked weary and his countenance pallid. Seeing him in his pressed institution-blue jumper brought tears to my eyes.
As I looked around, I noticed a room full of many different kinds of people. There were people who did very bad things, people who were believed to have done very bad things, stern guards, wives, babies, lawyers, and even a priest. Looking my father dead in the eye from across the table, I couldn’t tell if he was one of the people thought to be bad, or if he really was one. The laundry list of charges flashed through my mind again.
I paid close attention as he told us that he was broke by this point from his two previous trials. The first trial alone cost more than $70,000. During our brief exchange of words, dad revealed to us his desperation. His only hope now was to leaf through legal texts provided by the penitentiary in order to find a basis upon which he could justify another pro se appeal. My father was nearly illiterate in English; his downcast eyes showed his sad understanding of the mess that had become of his life.
“Visitation hours are over people, it’s almost three o’clock. Say your goodbyes. Smith, party of three, come this way,” hollered a fat guard with a buzzed haircut. “Chiu, you’re next.” And in an instant, we were again being engulfed by sliding doors and stared down by suspicious guards. Just like that. It would be another few months before we’d make this trip again.
The process of visiting him has become less emotionally draining over the years. When I see him, I don’t cry anymore, even though sometimes the lifeless daze that he seems to be trapped in worries me. I wonder how he spends his days there, fascinated every time that I sit in the visitation room that the room is full of people who have done terrible things, some of whom are his friends. Does he have a bedtime? Do they let him work out? Is it true that each cell has cable? I never muster the nerve to ask these questions. I remember a time when I asked him what solitary confinement for six months was like—he looked me straight in the eye, shuddered and said nothing. Now, I keep my questions to myself.
By the end of our biannual pilgrimages to Allenwood, where he is now, I generally conclude that the trip wasn’t so bad. The hardest part is waking up at 6 a.m., but after that initial hurdle, I usually feel pretty damn good that my father that day will know that someone on the outside cares about him. In the car, my sister, mother and I pass the seven hours roundtrip in any number of ways. We counted road kill once. A lot of the time, we’ll make fun of rural Pennsylvania. Sometimes we’ll gush about boys. Conversations often lead back to memories that we’ve shared as a family over the years. It’s always funniest when we are almost there. By then, I’ve always had at least two cups of coffee and jitters flow through my body. My sister is usually irritable after waking up from a nap she’s been taking since we crossed the Pennsylvania state line, and my mom is highly prone to cynicism, wishing there was some other way she could spend her day off.
“You know, today’d be a good day to make a run for it,” said my sister facetiously once as we approached the penitentiary. “With all this fog, I bet the guards couldn’t see anything.” As it turns out, she was on to something. That day, the inmates were under lockdown, that is, not permitted to go outside for that exact reason. And I’ll never forget the time the guards wouldn’t let my mom in because they detected traces of narcotics on her on her palms.
“What do you mean, I can’t go in? I don’t do drugs,” said my mother. “I’ve never done drugs in my life.”
“I’m sorry ma’am. You have to leave the premises. The girls can stay, but you’ll have to wait outside.”
“This is wrong, officer. You’re making a mistake,” she said, half laughing. “We drove almost fours hours to be here.”
“Ma’am,” he grunted. “Please.”
Mom went out to the car to smoke a cigarette while my sister and I went in to see dad for a short while, just to let him know what had happened, promising that we would be back next week. We all laughed about it because my mother is the last person on earth who would do drugs. Because the guards wouldn’t take our word for it though, now we all wash our hands with rubbing alcohol before going in. She’ll never live down that day.
In my life, it’s been these experiences that have shaped me. What people don’t realize is that having an incarcerated parent is a lifestyle. Except for my sister, my mom and I, no one has taken this burdensome lifestyle upon themselves. Even among us three, I’m always the one reminding my sister to send him a Father’s Day card or trying to coordinate three extremely busy schedules to make time to see him, not because I particularly want to, but because it seems like the right thing to do. My sister was only five years old when my parents divorced. I don’t blame her for rolling her eyes when I gently remind her of her duty. But for me, before dad wore a blue uniform every day, he was a son, brother and father who needed human affection as much as anyone else. For now, duty calls two to three times a year. I still send cards on holidays.
Choosing cards for my now estranged father usually results in me welling up with anger and frustration. It’s always so hard to find a card, mostly because I don’t want to lie to him and give him any wrong ideas of where our relationship stands. That rules out all of the “For the father who was always there” and “From your favorite princess” cards; it rules out all the “For the dad who loves tools and gidgets and gadgets and golf” cards. After an exhaustive and tedious 25 minutes or more, I often decide on a card that reads something like this: “See this hug?… It’s for you. Happy Birthday!” or a card that says “I miss you father… on Father’s Day.” It breaks my heart that I can’t honestly say anything more meaningful or compelling to him, especially because I don’t write as often as I should. On my most cynical days, I wonder if I can get away with sending a blank card that covers his birthday and Father’s Day all in one, since they are only 16 days apart. For the next 27 years (that’s if he lives to 72 years, the average age of death in the U.S.), I’ll be scraping around card stores for the perfect card for a dysfunctional relationship on his birthday, Father’s Day, and Christmas. That’s 2,025 minutes of my life spent in search of 81 cards.
“B” was a friend that dad made at Lewisburg and was his last hope. While doing time together, they had come up with a plan to get dad extradited in exchange for insider information about some unsolved crimes when “B” got out last year. All “B” needed was upfront payment of $10,000 to set up a meeting between his lawyer and one he would hire on my father’s behalf in the United States to witness the transfer of information. “B” and dad assured us that there was no way this wouldn’t work, that the information they had was irresistible. So, my mother, maternal grandmother and his sister Irene came up with the money and wired it to Macao where “B” was now living.
Then nothing. Days and weeks passed and we heard nothing from “B.”
My Aunt Irene, not knowing any better, suggested that we contact “B’s” grandmother, since she probably knew of his whereabouts. That’s when my mother decided to tell Irene a story about her cousins in Hong Kong.
All her life, she knew of her cousin Yu as the black sheep of the family. He was the oldest boy in his family, and as would be expected, he had some excessively paternal qualities that often got him in fights and other trouble. His brother Xian owned a small air conditioning company in Hong Kong, a fairly lucrative business in a tropical zone. When Xian decided to expand his business to mainland China, he had to make several business trips, the last of which he never came back from, leaving a wife and several young children behind. The family later found out that he had been framed for serious crimes by the businessmen with whom he met and is now serving out a long-term sentence at a prison in the Guangdong region. This devastated them everyone, but only Yu set out to make things right again. As the story goes, Yu traveled to China to meet with the businessmen that he knew his brother had dealt with to ask for money to bring back to his sister-in-law, since they had taken Xian away from her. One week later, they found Yu’s dead body in a barrel of crude oil.
“There are no rules in this world,” said my mother to Irene. “You don’t mess with people like ‘B’. My life, your life, our families—none of it is worth it. Let them take the money.”
Until recently, my family has been somewhat optimistic about my father’s appeals and the work he’s been doing from the inside. Just two months ago, his fourth appeal requesting a retrial was denied. With the help of other inmates, he’s managed to get this far, but he knows that his resources have been exhausted.
My relationship with my father currently stands as a fusion of many emotions. He had always been somewhat absent from my life when I was little, over which I am still embittered. Then after the divorce, the relationship became strictly obligatory. The indictment itself evoked shock and anger from me, which has faded to sympathy over time. Today, I am torn for a man whose life is over. In many ways, my father is a dead man, fated to a life that offers only inevitable death. In other ways, I see that he is reborn, ready to make a clean life for himself if he were given another chance. The problem is that it’s too late for him. There’s nothing left to be done. I cry from the insides for him all the time because ten years later, my eyes are cried out.