By: Elois Freeman
Arinetta has spent nearly her entire life in Tennessee. She was the youngest of three girls, raised by her mother who worked full-time at the local university. Arinetta said as a young girl, she could often be found browsing the stacks in the university library. Here she developed her love for books and the written word.
As a young teen, she volunteered as a candy striper at a local hospital. Her first paying jobs were in the hospitality and food service industries. She found early on that she loved serving others and was good at it.
Arinetta married at just 17 and gave birth to her first child, a son, at 20. 19 months later, she had a daughter. After seven years of marriage, she left her husband and set out on her own with her small children before meeting her current husband of 31 years. Their marriage in 1983 added three more children to the young mother’s heart.
Having so many little ones so close in age kept her busy, but her love of caring for others served her well, and she met this task eagerly. She quickly began passing along the same values to her children that her mom had instilled in her, taking them to Sunday school and church and teaching them to work hard, embrace challenges and never give up.
But even with Arinetta’s best efforts, in the early ‘90s, her oldest son Aaron began to experiment with a world outside of his upbringing. He got in trouble with the law and was in and out of prison. Arinetta refused to bail him out of jail as a general practice. She told him, “If you are big enough to get yourself into trouble, be big enough to get yourself out.” Still, his convictions had a negative financial impact on the family.
Aaron has been incarcerated now for the last eight years. Her son’s survival while in prison is dependent on the financial support and love of those on the outside. Without family putting money on his account, he would be unable to get certain toiletries and food when the cafeteria is closed. During prison lockdowns, which are frequent, he needs to have something in his locker so he will not be hungry. If there is no money on his books, he can’t call, buy stamps to write letters, or email family and friends.
Aaron is a bright, energetic and gifted 37-year-old man; however, those talents can’t be realized within the walls of a prison. While sitting behind bars, he continues to work on his dream of one day being a business owner. His artistic ability allows him to design shoes and clothing, and he is a gifted writer, so while he waits, he works. His pen creates beautiful designs and beautiful words.
Although his mother believes he should have to pay for what he did, she also believes he has paid enough. He is incarcerated for a nonviolent drug charge. He and his skills sit wasting away in prison. “It is a shame that we live in society where the justice system is not rehabilitating those individuals it has put behind bars,” Arinetta said. For now, his family waits patiently for laws to change and his sentence to be reduced, and they pray that soon he can come home and become a positive influence to others in his community.
When asked about her most pressing issue, Arinetta responded, “I think our judicial system is broken and needs to be fixed… I’d like to see greater attention placed on revamping drug laws. We know they are unfairly written, and that African Americans receive harsher sentences than Whites. It appears to me our leaders are taking the slow boat to China getting it fixed. “
“This experience has made me stronger,” Arinetta went on. “My faith has grown and my spiritual relationship with God lets me know that my son is okay and will be okay.” Arinetta has settled into a good place in her life finding happiness in her family and love of her heavenly Father and my belief that one day she will be a published writer.
The Center for Community Change, where I work as a Writing Fellow, is working on an economic justice project to bring to light the human stories and the injustices in our criminal justice system. We are working to show the value of human beings and the ways in which current practices are devaluing poor— and particularly poor, Black people. When we start to work toward a criminal justice system that treats everyone fairly, Aaron and countless others will have an opportunity to make contribution to America’s economic system.