We clutch hands, form a circle around the linoleum floor and metal tables. Our heads bow in tandem, like hammers on a xylophone.
"God bless the lord for letting us share with you this burden," an old white woman with a silver cross around her neck says, raising her vein-y hands to the fluorescent church ceiling in Norton, Virginia.
"Amen, amen," a sweet kind silence fills the room, like maple syrup pooling onto forest ground.
"It gets so lonesome, y'know," one of the black women who has traveled 8 hours to see her baby in the prison around here says, "It gets so lonesome carrying the weight of all this"
We chew on homemade mac n' cheese and red velvet cake. The children are quiet, fumble plastic forks on paper plates, stare at their phones. The woman from Norfolk who has come here to see her son Angel, who's locked up at Red Onion, rubs her rough hands together.
"I want to sleep, these waiting rooms get me so tired, what with all that dim light and damp air." She proceeds to tell me about her dreams, how she often dreams of parking lots and teeth. I knod my head, say I am so sorry she must get so worn, traveling so far just to get here.
"They moved him because his uncle became a C.O. at the place he was at before. Didn't want him to be that close to his kin, I guess."
Her two grandchildren place their elbows on the table. They are in 9th and 10th grade. When I ask how often they have had to make this trip they say four times. The vans only go twice a year. Their Dad has been locked up for who knows how long.
Almost everyone who has someone to visit a brother or son or husband at Red Onion or Wallens Ridge, the two prisons that rib the Kentucky border deep in the pockets of the Virginia mountains, almost everyone who must drive six or eight or ten hours to come here, almost everyone is black. This reality sits down in the room like a fat rain, heavy but unmentioned. The almost entirely white churchgoers reference salvation and christ and family when they speak but never race. They don't have to. The situation, the harsh reality, is obvious.
It is like a new underground railroad, the lengths we have to go through to let these people in Richmond and Lynchburg and Roanoake talk to their family members. It is beautiful, to try and build that bridge. So often Appalachian and urban poc are isolated from one another, so often systemic and interpersonal racism prevents white appalachians from building solidarity with black families dealing with the realities of mass incarceration. But it is a bridge that should never have to be built. It is a burden that should never have to be created or shared.
No one should have to live out their days in a cage. No one should have to watch their children grow old through the dirty glass of a visitation room. No one should have to call a radio station to send a message to their child. We are born free.