The American criminal justice system consists of 2.2 million people behind bars, plus tens of millions of family members, corrections and police officers, parolees, victims of crime, judges, prosecutors and defenders.
WBEZ is partnering with the Marshall Project to tell some of their stories. It’s part of The Marshall Project’s series “We Are Witnesses” exploring the nature of crime, punishment and forgiveness through portraits of Chicagoans who have been touched by the criminal justice system.
Julie Anderson told her story to The Marshall Project as part of their series “We Are Witnesses.” Portions of her interview are transcribed below. They have been condensed and edited for clarity.
My name is Julie Anderson. My son Eric has spent 23 1/2 years in prison, and as his mother, I have served that time alongside him.
I grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago. My husband and I were high school sweethearts — we got married right after we graduated. Probably 3 or 4 years later, we started our family, so Eric was our firstborn son.
When Eric started high school, he kind of changed friends, he started skipping school and it was a real battle. He was in a gang — The Almighty Popes was their name. And he was forbidden from seeing any of those friends but, you know, when you go out to work or whatever, it's hard to forbid 15-year-olds from doing anything.
Dec. 15 of 1995, Eric was with two other gang members and they had stolen a gun out of a police woman’s house, and that night, there was a van that had been coming in the neighborhood, I guess, from another neighborhood that they didn't want in there. And Eric and these two other guys — Eric had the gun, and he shot into this van from across a park about 300 feet away and struck and killed two girls inside the van.
Eric spent most of his time in Menard prison, which is 365 miles from my front door. He was allowed five visits a month, and I just always picture those times as the dark years. I drive there and it's dark, it’s 6 hours away so I visit Eric and I drive home in the dark just thinking, ‘This really can't be my life,’ but it is.
The visits were two hours. So it takes you about a half hour once you get in there just to kind of, ‘Hi, how are ya.’ And then maybe get a good hour of conversation, and then the officers are coming over saying, ‘Oh, you got like 15 minutes,’ or something, which kind of puts you in a whole like, ‘Oh, now we gotta go,’ and I gotta watch you walk away.
Prison is such a bad place in the United States and in Illinois; it's such a bad place. You wouldn't want anyone you care about to even spend one night in there.
It's horrible; it's horrible that those mothers lost their daughters. I also lost my son. There's no going backwards. If I could give them back their daughters, I would. I wish I could really tell them, face-to-face, that I'm so sorry.
You can see more of the “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” videos at https://www.themarshallproject.org/witnesses. This story was produced for broadcast by WBEZ's Alyssa Edes. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.