The heavy doors slam and lock behind me. I am assailed by the brightness of the sun on this beautiful winter day in Florida. I rush to my car, eager to put on my sunglasses. You are only allowed to take one pair of glasses into the facility; when I entered at 7:30 this morning, it was barely light.
I follow my usual routine when leaving. I have been holding back the tears, so in the safety of my car, I let them flow. Tears for the grown man in that building, tears for the child he was and will always be to me.
My son was born into a home with a very young mother, a sister two years older and a father who left before he turned 1. During sleepless nights, over and over in my head I play the "what if" game. What if his father had been there? What if I was home more instead of working two, sometimes three jobs to make ends meet? What if I had waited until I was older to have children?
It is in the dark times, and there are many, that I go there, blaming myself. My son tells me over and over that it was his problem, his addiction, that I was a wonderful mother. But even though my rational mind understands that, I will always blame myself for not being able to save him.
The man I left behind this morning, the man whom the prosecutor and victim laughed about not seeing daylight until he was 62, is my child. He is a son, a father, a brother and an uncle. He is not a worthless piece of trash who deserves to be locked away for the rest of his life. He is a drug addict who needed help.
It is prevalent now to be tough on crime, to lock them up and throw away the key. This is how the law that is taking my son away from us for 30 years came to be. It is called minimum mandatory sentencing. No time off for good behavior. You must serve every day the judge sentences you to. Many of these people are addicts.
My son, very likely in a psychotic episode due to methadone withdrawal, walked into a drugstore and robbed it, with the only thought in his mind being to end the pain once and for all. I fully acknowledge the terror and fear the pharmacist must have felt. No one was physically injured.
While sitting in court waiting for my son's case, the judge gave 30 years to a man who beat an 80-year-old woman nearly to death. In his next breath he gave my son the same sentence.
I will continue to visit. Inmates are placed as far away from home as possible to discourage visitation, and it works. Each way is eight hours, but the drive is not the hardest part. The hardest part is walking away into the sunshine, knowing that my beautiful little blond-haired, blue-eyed boy will be an old man and I will probably be long dead before he has the chance to hear those doors slam behind him and at long last walk out into the sunlight.
Janet Goree, whose granddaughter died in 1993 at age 3 due to shaken baby syndrome, has spent the years since educating the public about its deadly effects. Her efforts helped move the Florida Legislature to pass the Kimberlin West law, which requires hospitals to expose new parents to the danger. She now wants to focus on ending minimum mandatory sentencing and increase treatment and rehabilitation in the correctional system. She lives in Clearwater.