During community listening for Canopy Atlanta’s South DeKalb issue, a DeKalb County Sanitation worker expressed concern for his co-workers who had not been receiving adequate pay based on their past convictions. This story was informed by his firsthand experience.
Bankhead Senior Fellow Ann Hill Bond is Canopy Atlanta’s inaugural Reporting Resident. Learn more about the Reporting Residency here.
When I moved to Georgia in 2009, I landed in South DeKalb—specifically, exit 65 off I-20, for Candler Road—with three small babies, the desire to love and be loved, and the need to find work. I found a job announcement for a clerk in the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office. I applied and received a call back to take a typing and competency test.
I remember the day I reported to the sheriff’s office, at 4415 Memorial Drive in Decatur, being a very gloomy day. Unsure of where I was going, I followed my MapQuest directions as I merged onto I-285 and then exited the interstate. To my surprise, there was a huge building to my left as if on top of a hill. I was in awe. Who worked there? What happened there? Why is it placed in such an awkward location, on a hill next to a major interstate highway?
The traffic light turned green. I snapped out of my thoughts, and I turned left. My test location, inside makeshift trailer offices, was toward the rear of the building that I had so many questions about. I learned this building on a hill was 4425 Memorial Drive—DeKalb County Jail. I failed the test and went home.
The truth of the matter is while I needed a job, I was not ready to work in a jail or near a jail. Two years prior to my move to Atlanta, my third oldest brother was sentenced to 13 years in prison. My wounds were still fresh, and I wasn’t ready to uncover the reality of the jail systems while waiting for my brother to return home.
As the years passed, I got used to seeing this building as I drove on and off 285 or down Memorial Drive. I stopped being surprised by the size and the location. As I learned about the size and placement of other city and county jails in the metro Atlanta area and in South Carolina when I visited my brother, DeKalb County Jail is actually small. Later, my brother was transferred to Connecticut, and I moved into the city of Atlanta. The initial shock of seeing DeKalb County Jail became a distant memory as my family drew closer to being able to welcome my brother back home.
It wasn’t until my brother came home in 2019 to no fanfare, showing up without warning one day, that I considered that the concept of the welcome home party could also be bittersweet.
What does it mean to be welcomed back home? There are cookouts, family, joy, laughter. These are celebrations that are based in physical love. I’ve seen this love, no matter a person’s color, culture, religion, gender, or class.
I have witnessed families anticipate the moment of their loved ones returning home from jail and/or prison. They figure out who’s in charge of making the potato salad and mac and cheese. They decide who’s going to be there when the jail gates open to squeeze them and welcome them back to their children, mother, father, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandmas, grandpas, and cousins, too.
They carefully plan how to welcome their loved one back to people who address them by their name and not a number; who see them for their humanity and not their crime.
This celebration can be as joyous as homegoings and birthday parties, because we are grateful that our loved one didn’t die behind those prison walls. Families figure that this is their rebirth.
As a family, we moved around the country and even to other countries by the time my brother came home. So a welcome home party would have taken a lot of coordination, and it mostly would have meant that we would be returning to the same community that my brother called home before being incarcerated. Thinking now, that’s probably why he came home with just an opening of the door, no phone call of his arrival or email that he was being released—not because he didn’t want to see his family, but because he wasn’t eager to return to the same community. Where the welcome would be, there would also be captivity.
I never asked my brother if that was his reason for not allowing a party. As we reported on the lack of reentry programs in DeKalb County for those released from DeKalb County Jail, South DeKalb fellow Dominique Harris told me that even though he is from South DeKalb, he does not have the desire to return to South DeKalb. He drives longer routes to avoid going into the same neighborhoods he once called home because of the memories that led him to be incarcerated. These same streets they used to travel become road maps to the unknown.
As we welcome our loved ones home with grand gestures of food, music, and games, we don’t know the horrors that they’ve endured while incarcerated.
However, the lights dim and the cooking ends. The next morning, I imagine the journey to freedom truly begins—to reclaim one’s integrity and innocence. Human and civil rights have been taken away, and the road to restoration of those rights lives in the abyss.
Our welcome home galas are expressions of the hope that we have for each other. But I don’t think the wounds ever heal.
Driving past DeKalb County Jail today, I’m certain that my three babies won’t end up there. I’m clear on the future.
I see how those who have been incarcerated need to feel at home every single day, and not just once they leave prison.
Although there was no cookout for my brother, as family, as his baby sister, I take joy in being able to speak to my brother daily and hear his smile. Visiting him and seeing my children, his children, and his grandchildren roam though his home is a love language that we are still discovering as a family. And we welcome the unknown of his journey because he is home. And wherever his freedom carries him next, we will be there to welcome him to us.
Editor: Christina Lee
Fact Checker: Adjoa D. Danso
Canopy Atlanta Reader: Genia Billingsley
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