Robyn Porter was cleaning out a cluttered back room in her home when she first learned that her son had been arrested.
She was listening to gospel music, dancing, and chatting on the phone with a girlfriend when her mom walked into the kitchen. Tears streaming down her face, she told Porter that Porter’s 20-year-old son, who had had no previous criminal record, was being held at the police station.
“It’s that call that no mother, especially a black woman in America, wants to get,” Porter recalled on an interview on WNHH FM’s “Criminal Justice Insider” program. “I was devastated. But I was also rooted and grounded in my relationship with God.”
Ten years after the experience, Porter now helps make laws governing when people get arrested and how the criminal justice system handles them, as a Democratic state representative from Newhallville’s 94th General Assembly District.
Porter said her son’s crime involved a gun and earned him a 13-year sentence that was ultimately suspended to seven-and-a-half. The experience gave her insight into how arrests affect families of those arrested.
Porter grew up in New York City, raised by her grandmother in a crowded three-bedroom apartment that housed herself, her mom, her three sisters, and her mother’s two youngest brothers. After a brief stint in Atlanta, she moved to New Haven in 2000, where she got a job as a secretary for the Communication Workers of America international union.
As a divorced single mother, Porter said that she has always been aware of the specter of the criminal justice system hanging over her children’s lives. She said that she had to be extra vigilant and brutally honest with her children in the hope that they would never become “just another statistic caught up in the system.”
One of the most important strategies she had for keeping her son out of trouble with the law was a recurring conversation that show co-host Babz Rawls-Ivy said is all too familiar to black parents throughout this country. That conversation centers around what to say and how to act around a police officer.
Stay out of trouble, the script goes. If you run into the cops, answer each question with a “Yes, sir,” or a “No, sir.” Be respectful. Keep eye contact. And, no matter what, call your parents first if you need help. They’re your best first line of defense.
Despite Porter’s best efforts, her son found himself engaged in criminal activity, and then arrested and on his way into the criminal justice system.
“I felt defeated,” Porter said. “Because I had told him: The one thing you should never do is get arrested. Because, if you ever get arrested, there’s nothing I can do once they take you into custody. You belong to the state.”
After the arrest, Porter hardly ate or slept. She lost a lot of weight. Her sisters and mother tried to console her, but she felt utterly alone.
Disappointed by the lack of support coming from her church in Bridgeport, she burrowed deeper and deeper into the Bible and into her own personal relationship with God.
“The only thing that I’ve ever experienced in life that I can compare to that phase,” Porter said, “is death, and mourning, and the loss of someone.”
On top of the shock and stress of her son’s arrest, Porter said that a mother’s involvement with the criminal justice system is also filled with myriad practical problems that add up quickly.
First and foremost: where to find an attorney whom she could afford, and who would treat her son’s case with compassion and expertise. She decided against using a public defender, because the office’s high caseload meant her son might not get the attention he needed. She asked her friends, took a referral, and eventually came up with the money to pay for a private attorney.
She also had to figure out when and how to break the news of her son’s arrest to her daughter and to her grandmother.
After the initial arrest, her son was released on a promise to appear in court (PTA). She spent the next two weeks shuttling him to and from court while keeping up the appearance at home that everything was as usual.
When the judge said that her son was being taken into custody for good, Porter finally had the conversation with her daughter, and then drove all the way down to Atlanta to tell her grandmother in person that her first great-grandchild had been sentenced to over a decade in prison. That was not something that she felt that she could tell her grandmother over the phone.
He was incarcerated at the Whalley Avenue jail for a little over a year. Porter watched with fear as his bail rose from $250,000 to $450,000. She said that she was fortunate that her manager at work was lenient and that her son was imprisoned so nearby, allowing her the time and capacity for frequent visits.
Eventually, her son was transferred to Garner Correction Institution in Newtown, where he would be held for another six and a half years.
Porter said that, as a parent of an imate, she almost always felt a certain level of humiliation, shame, and disrespect in her encounters with the criminal justice system.
“When you go into a prison [as a visitor],” she said, “they treat you like you’re the criminal.”
She distinctly recalled one moment when she was made to feel like a person worthy of respect. She met Garner Warden Scott Semple (who’s now the state’s commissioner of corrections) while waiting to enter the visitation area to see her son. She said that Semple exuded a warm and compassionate aura, and spoke with people in the room with kindness and respect.
She never forgot that feeling, especially when she became a state legislator and had to vote on Semple’s appointment as commissioner. She said that she gladly voted in favor, in what she described as a true “full circle moment.”
After her son was released, he went straight to the Walter Brooks halfway house in New Haven, then spent time on probation. She said that he was ambitious, was saving money, and even started a new business. Yet the hurdles faced by ex-offenders have made her son’s attempts at rehabilitation and reintegration into society a great challenge.
“No matter how good your intention is,” she said, “no matter how good your effort is, no matter how much you want to do what’s right, the real is that you’ve got these barriers saying: no. You can’t do this. You can’t go there. We can’t hire. We’re not going to give you housing. The reality check sets in.”
Porter said that she her experiences around her son’s involvement with the criminal justice system have played an important role in her own development as a person, and as a state legislator. She said that she never aspired to become a politician, and that, after being presented with that opportunity and winning a special election for her current seat in 2014, she spent a good while feeling very out of place up at the state Capitol.
“But over the past almost four years,” she said, “I’ve realized that my life experiences have prepared me for this seat, and this position that I sit in right now. Along with what I went through with my son and everything else that I’ve gone through in my life, it really has shaped me into the person that needs to be at the table to give voice to the issues that are oftentimes not heard.”
In her time in office, Porter has pushed for legislation that would significantly restrict the use of solitary confinement and enact stronger penalties for police officers who use excessive force. She is the chairwoman of the Labor & Public Employees Committee, where she has fought for an increase to the state’s minimum wage and for the establishment of a paid family medical leave system.
“Criminal Justice Insider” airs every first and third Friday of the month on WNHH at 10 a.m. Listen to the first episode by clicking on the audio player or Facebook Live video below.