It was an ironic place to gather. Former prison inmates mingled with family of the incarcerated in an old police station in Longs. The room couldn’t have been three times bigger than a jail cell.
It also was a perfect metaphor as the people in the room know a prison sentence extends beyond the convicted.
“When a loved one is incarcerated, we’re all incarcerated.”
That message is shared early and often, one that lingers during the hour-long gathering. Those in attendance are learning more about what life is like in one of South Carolina’s prisons or what family members outside the walls go through when a loved one is inside.
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“It seems like you are at the end of the road,” said Lena Berkley. “You don’t know where to turn, you don’t know who to turn to.”
That is where those gathered in the room want to help. Berkley created a new group called Helpmates — for support, guidance and education for those with loved ones behind bars.
“It’s hard leaving that place and (you’ve) got to leave them there,” Berkley says of prison. She speaks with the combination of a Southern drawl and an authoritative Southern preacher.
“It’s very painful and I know from my personal experience I’m not the only one in this situation.”
Berkley’s son, Rodrick, is imprisoned and awaits sentencing after pleading to charges related to the high-profile North Myrtle Beach South State Bank bank heist in 2016. He and two others were charged not only with the robbery but firing at officers in pursuit.
After Rodrick’s arrest, Berkley said she could turn to her family and vent and process her emotions — something she hopes Helpmates can foster for others.
“If not, you might wind up losing everything you got and believe nobody cares for you. But, somebody do care,” she said.
What is Helpmates
Helpmates plans to meet again on March 23 at the Little River Library as it continues to grow and introduce itself to the Horry County and Myrtle Beach area. The group wants to provide education and information to help families understand the criminal justice system. Berkley joked that she has enough law books on her shelf that she could be a lawyer at the YMCA.
James Bellamy knows better than most on what to expect in prison. He served 23 years in prison for murder.
“It’s an unnatural environment!” James Bellamy emphatically told the crowd.
As families tackle life with prison, there are several things to remember, including to embrace disappointment — which he described as raising one’s hopes while they are in prison, Bellamy said.
“It does not make no difference if you get one day,” Bellamy said, holding one finger up, “or a life sentence. That record is going to follow you.”
The stigma of prison can also impact families where some might see them as failing to raise kids properly. Berkley said that is not true.
“People raise their children with morals and values. Once kids get grown, they have their own mind,” Berkley said. “But, because he went out an made a mistake, he is still someone’s child.
“We all make mistakes and sometimes we get off the wrong road. That don’t make a bad person. We sometimes do stupid things, but that doesn’t make us a bad person.”
There needs to be punishment for wrong actions, but that doesn’t mean love should stop, Berkley said.
Evanglist Grissett also knows what it’s like to leave a loved one in prison. Her cousin served 32 years for attempted murder. Each time they would visit, it was difficult to enter the facility and to walk out the door leaving him behind, she said.
“It’s painful and emotional when you get there,” Grissett said, “and when it’s time to leave.”
The three decades were particularly painful for Grissett’s aunt, who was her cousin’s mom, seeing her youngest child in prison.
That emotional support might be where Helpmates aids locals the most as it provides the ear to listen, the shoulder, the experience of what life is like for those impacted by a prison sentence.
“I do know we can’t save the whole world, but we might save 100,” Berkley said with a slight pause. “We might help 100.”