Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work


On September 10, 2001, I flew from Boston's Logan Airport to Santiago de Compostela via Madrid.  At the time, we were living in Spain and I had spent the summer in Massachusetts with my family.  I was 5 months pregnant with my boy, Javier.  I can't remember why I was flying alone that day - for some reason Jaime and Edith had returned to Spain earlier.

When I got to Santiago, it was 1:00 pm on September 11th, about 7:00 am EST.  Jaime drove me back to his parents' house where we had been invited for lunch.  I was exhausted and I went straight to sleep.

Jaime and his family were watching the news, which comes on in Spain at about 3:00 pm, when the first tower was struck.  He came into my room and woke me up, "Amy, one of the World Trade Center Towers is on fire!"  My reaction was, "Jaime, can't you see that I am sleeping!"  I was pissed that he had woken me up.  Still, he insisted that I come to the kitchen and watch the news.  I stumbled out of bed and saw the black smoke coming out of the Tower.  I figured it would be a busy day for the NYFD.  I went back to bed.

I can't remember what happened from there.  Maybe I couldn't fall back asleep.  Maybe Jaime came and got me again.  Somehow, I made it back to the television set and by then we knew that it wasn't a plane accident.    The Towers had fallen.  We didn't really know what this was.

Everyone has a 9-11 story, that's mine.

I wonder how the events of that day were experienced by people who were incarcerated in the US at the time.  What does it feel like to be incarcerated when the free world outside the prison is in chaos?  Does it feel safe to be locked away or do the isolation and claustrophobia of incarceration become particularly acute?  As is often the case, the lived experience of incarcerated people on this momentous day is largely invisible and unknown.

For me, the strangest part of my 9-11 experience was not that I had flown out of Boston the day before or that I basically slept through the events, but rather that I was absent from the process of community mourning and healing that followed.  We didn't have a TV or a radio in our apartment in Santiago.  Internet was slow and undeveloped - no Facebook, no YouTube.  So, I never saw the TV specials about the 9-11 widows or read the newspaper articles about items discovered at Ground Zero.  I was living in Santiago, walking my daughter to school, finishing up a research project, getting ready for my baby boy.  I don't think I really understood the depth of what had happened.  Maybe, in this way, my experience was similar to those who were incarcerated at the time.  Without actually living in the society that had experienced the attack, we couldn't know the extent to which fear, sadness and disbelief had engulfed the community.

When I moved back to the US in 2002, I started to get it.  I was greeted in the airport by soldiers with machine guns, American flags were hung everywhere.  The conversation was about war and getting even with whoever had done this.  A lot of people seemed sad and tired, both about what had happened on 9/11 and what had happened since.

Similarly, people coming out of prison would have noticed that things had changed.  One change that is particularly relevant to this population:  the omnipresent "background check" that has become a routine part of our post-9/11 lives.  It is now acceptable to run a background check on everyone for everything:  to get a job, to get housing, to go to school.  Never again will a young terrorist be able to sign up for flight school undetected.  What about a young man with a drug felony?  Will he ever be able to get a job, a home or financial aid?  I met a man in his 50s last month who had been to prison in the 1980s.  The offense was relatively small and had not created barriers for him until the last 10 years when the onset of the "background checks" now made it difficult for him to find work.  His past was suddenly visible for all to see and contemplate.

Now, coincidentally, I find myself living outside of the USA again on this, the 10th anniversary of 9-11.  Once again, I will miss the ceremony and storytelling that goes with remembering and recovering from an awful event.  And maybe that is as it should be, as I didn't really experience the event the first time.  Still, today I will certainly take time to think about, and mourn, all that we have lost.