For many young men from Horner, the courts represent their first contact with the outside world. Often, it constitutes a humiliating encounter, as everyone has too little time to devote to the accused and can treat cases in impersonal ways, with apparent lack of care for the impact of their actions on the young men’s lives. At the courthouse, Audrey Natcone walks up to the state’s attorney handling Terence’s case. She succeeds in convincing the attorney to lower Terence’s sentence to eight years. Even though Audrey would prefer six years, she understands that this is a pretty reasonable offer, given that Terence’s fingerprints were found at the site of his most recent robbery.
Even though the legal system is supposed to bring justice and be fair to its citizens, internal problems (such as the number of cases) prevent dedicated lawyers from doing their job with the care and efficacy their clients deserve. For young people from Horner, this can leave them even more isolated than they already are. An unjust and impersonal system shows young people that the outside world is just as unfair as the life they already know, which would then prevent them from seeing authorities outside the neighborhood as trustworthy and just.
This time, Terence has asked LaJoe not to come to court, since he feels that he has let his entire family down. The last time, two months ago, LaJoe came with Pharoah, who was interested in all the details of the proceedings, and Terence’s trial was postponed. LaJoe and Pharoah were still able to see him, and he told them that he lifted weights in prison, showing them his strong muscles, and also insisted that he would not accept to stay away ten years from his family.
The change that prison has had on Terence is physical, as his muscles demonstrate, but Terence’s horror at the idea of ten years indicates just how mentally and physically harrowing prison is for him. His feelings of having disappointed his family seem to mirror his own father’s feelings.
Before the trial, Audrey meets with Terence and tries to convince him to accept an eight-year sentence, arguing that it is even more likely that Terence could get over ten years. Audrey sees Terence’s despair and knows that he has changed in prison, adopting a defiant, potentially menacing attitude, in stark contrast with the fragility he had exhibited before he was sent to prison. In the end, the judge gives Terence a two-week period to allow him to talk to his mother about his offer.
Terence’s physical changes are accompanied by psychological changes, which are precisely what Audrey had initially feared for her client. Terence has given in to the impulse to appear tougher and hide his emotions—even, perhaps, with people he used to trust, such as Audrey. Terence’s family proves a slight relief, as he knows that he can count on LaJoe for counsel.
In the meantime, LaJoe has had trouble with Keith, a man in the neighborhood who makes sexual advances toward her and has threatened to attack her physically if she refuses. One day, when she returns home after an interaction with the man, her son Weasel overhears her talking to Rochelle about it and decides to take the matter into his own hands. At Horner, family is always in charge of exacting revenge, and Weasel goes to grab Keith, who is high on drugs and begins punching him, ultimately letting him go after hearing Keith’s vulnerable, childlike pleas.
Although Keith has not yet touched LaJoe physically, his verbal threats are equally harrowing and make LaJoe feel unsafe. Weasel’s violent reaction shows that people at Horner not entrust family matters to authorities, but adopt an attitude of retaliation. Weasel’s behavior aims to show Keith—and perhaps the rest of the community—that certain behavior is beyond limits, even in a pervasively violent and insecure place such as Horner.
LaJoe remains shaken and enraged. She is angry that Keith could make her feel insecure and, in her anger, snaps at Lafeyette. Then, she begins to cry, angry at her husband, Paul, for ruining her life and expressing her desire to get out of the ghetto. Her friends hug her while Pharoah feels that he is going to cry and Lafeyette decides to sweep the room. LaJoe eventually calms down apologizes to her friends and family for her reaction.
LaJoe’s anger against Paul shows that this particular event is not the full cause of her anger, but that she is expressing deep-seated feelings that she has probably experienced for a long time. This behavior leaves her children helpless, as they feel that they can do nothing to make their mother feel better.
Over time, to cope with the stress of living in the projects, LaJoe begins dreaming about leaving Horner. At the same time, she begins to spend more time away from her family, spending more time playing cards or talking with Rochelle, seeking support in her friend. While her children claim that they understand her absences and succeed in taking care of themselves alone, they also worry about her, knowing that she is all they have.
It remains ambiguous whether LaJoe’s decision to spend time away from her family is incidental or intentional—whether it shows her need for adult support through her friend Rochelle, or, perhaps, hidden, unconscious resentment toward her family, similar to the anger she previously directed at Paul.
On April 4, Terence is sentenced, on the very same day that the new mayor is elected. LaJoe is angry that these two events are so unrelated to each other, since she feels that if politicians cared about neighborhood children, some of Horner’s children could have been saved. LaJoe went to the jail a few weeks earlier to convince Terence to accept the eight years, arguing that he could end up getting out after four years if they counted the years he had already served. Terence, who always listened to his mother, accepted.
LaJoe’s anger at the separation between Terence’s fate and politics shows that she understands Terence’s case as one that is representative of the common fate of young boys from the neighborhood. In other words, LaJoe recognizes that what has happened is part of a structural problem, related to the neighborhood’s isolation from helpful institutions and political life, instead of a problem due solely to individuals’ behavior.
Three days before Terence is sent to prison, his family goes to visit him at the jail to say goodbye. Terence is shocked and impressed to see Lafeyette so grown up, but the rest of the meeting is awkward, filled with silences, and lasts no more than thirty minutes. Although LaJoe tries to convince herself that prison might be better for Terence, keeping him away from the dangers of the street, she also knows that it will make him lose his gentleness and feels, more generally, that he has disappointed her.
The uncomfortable moments in the meeting illustrates the distance that will inevitably grow (and, perhaps, already has) between the family members, due to Terence’s incarceration. Despite feeling that this legal decision is unfair, LaJoe tries to rationalize it for herself, as she tries to convince herself that, perhaps, it can be seen as a good opportunity for her son.
LaJoe keeps her grief for herself, having decided that she does not want to make Lafeyette more worried than he already is, and hopes that neither Pharoah nor Lafeyette will end up like Terence. Terence sends a letter from prison three days later, sending his love and telling LaJoe not to worry about him but focus on her other children instead. Lafeyette and Pharoah both seem to accept that they will not see their brother in a long time, but they also worry about him.
The strength and unity of the Rivers family, evident in the love everyone feels for each other, is admirable in such trying times. At the same time, LaJoe has also realized that she cannot depend on her young children for comfort, because that will only deprive them of the possibility to enjoy the present and to live their own lives as fully as Horner will allow.