Only Ever Knowing Your Brother Behind Bars

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader in Chicago details her first memory of her older brother—“behind the Plexiglas”:

Across from him is where I sit on the counter with my parents. There is snow on the ground, but I can’t see it. The only thing I see is my brother in his uniform, assigned to him a number—his name lost with countless others.

The mood is light, and the elephant in the room is being successfully ignored. It’s Christmas Eve, so why can’t I hug him? Instead I talk about what I asked Santa for Christmas and my mom is talking about the midnight mass we’ll be going to that night. My dress itches and my tights are uncomfortable. I hate this place, I hate the uniform, I hate the terrible lighting, and I can’t wait to leave—but I want him to come with me. He promised he would take me to Disneyland.

The elephant is still successfully ignored, as if it will no longer exist if we ignore it long enough. But that is not the case, and it won’t be for the years to come.

***

My brother has been in prison for 21 years, since I was 3 years old. The crime? Double murder due to gang affiliations. In most circumstances, that would divide a family, but it brought us closer.

While serving his time, my brother was allowed five visits per month—and my parents made sure that all five were met. He would help me with my homework when he could, and he would listen to my ranting about the latest drama. He is an artist, a syfy enthusiast, a Cubs fan. He is 13 years older than I am, but we are as close, maybe closer, than most siblings with less of an age gap.

One of the biggest questions I get is, “How long is he serving?” He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and he was 15 when that sentence was given to him. Recently, his case was been brought back to court due to the Supreme Court ruling [in 2012] determining that a life sentence for a minor is unconstitutional. The judge ruled that my brother would no longer have the possibility of receiving a life sentence, so it was the first time he received a glimmer of light in his 21-year tunnel of servitude.

My brother is probably coming home—to the dismay and anger of his victims’ family, as to be expected. I am not ignorant to the fact that he is not completely innocent; he was part of a criminal lifestyle that took the lives of two innocents. But I do feel that his own innocence gets neglected, as well as the lives that were affected by him losing that innocence.

I have another brother who is a war hero and a college graduate. I myself graduated with two majors in four years and have begun my search for graduate schools. Not all families breed criminals and not all criminals come from broken homes. My family is close, and although we have a member that has done something terrible in the eyes of the law, he is still a kindhearted individual even through his years in the DOC.

I believe in rehabilitation and I believe in redemption. I just hope the court finally sees it that way.