Visitation Shut Down

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the view on the way to the prison

Hay bales and tractors. Flat fields and blue sky. That is what I saw on my way to the prison on Saturday at 7:45 am. Farmland with the distinct aroma of fertilizer and dirt. And right in the middle of it Corcoran State Prison. With it’s huge looming watch towers and razor wire topped walls. As I got closer I noticed something out of the ordinary. The loud buzzing of a helicopter circling before it landed and almost immediately another helicopter took off.

At first I didn’t really think anything of it. But as each car ahead of me that approached the security gate turned around and left instead of going straight through I realized something was really wrong.  I waited in the line of cars, my heart pounding in my chest, hoping that somehow I would still get in to visit. My stomach flop flopped. Please let me get in.

“Visiting is shut down today. There was a massive riot on A yard and individuals were stabbed.” the guard informed me

It wasn’t Sean’s yard. Thank God it wasn’t Sean’s yard.

I drove away, completely stunned. Nothing like this had ever happened before. With each visit I have had the knowledge that there is slight chance that something could happen to prevent me from getting to see Sean. But as time has worn on and it’s never happened I’ve become accustomed to just expecting I will get in. This was a firm reminder of the power and control of the D.O.C. It felt like a punch. We had waited 5 weeks for this visit, Sean’s Birthday visit. I missed him like hell.

They had shut down visiting for the entire prison, not just the yard that the incident had happened on. Punishing everyone for the actions of some. All the families that came hoping to see their loved one that day were turned away, all the inmates anticipating a visit were left to wait and wonder why they were still in their cells. All because some idiots decided to start a riot.

I felt deflated. The tiredness and headache that I had been pretty much able to ignore because I was so excited to see Sean quickly became a searing pain in the center of my forehead. My eyes felt heavy. I was supposed to be inside with him, celebrating his birthday and spending 6 long hours together. Finally together. Our happiest hours are spent in a room where the paint is peeling and you have to wait your turn to use the microwave. Because it’s like someone took a piece of my body from me and locked it up, and now I am only complete when I get to have it back. It is only then that I feel like a whole person again.

But I wasn’t complete. I was alone in a rental car on the side of the road with the other prison families in their cars. I noticed some of them were putting towels up in their windows and waiting for the prison to open visiting again. It was predicted to be 100 degrees that day. All I had in the car was a couple bottles of water, that surely wouldn’t be enough. The guard had said it would be shut down ALL DAY. The pain in my head throbbed. I could crumple. I could give up right now. 

I called Sean’s mom. Talking to her really helped, she helped me remember the main point: it wasn’t his yard, he was safe and we should be grateful for that. She offered for me to come down the following weekend with her and a family friend. I prayed about it. And ultimately I came to a decision. Even though it was a huge disappointment not to get to see Sean that day, at least he was safe. And hopefully they’d open visiting back up and I’d get to see him the following day. Even though it is far from easy to come down and spend my weekend at visit, let alone twice in a row; it is absolutely worth the time we get to spend together. Because all we have is right now, if I get the opportunity to spend time with the man I love, if we are lucky enough to be given that chance, then I am going to take it.  -Emelia-

“…Whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.”  Proverbs 29:25

My birthday landed on a Tuesday this year. My girlfriend, Emelia, was going to come see me that weekend. Visiting is Saturdays and Sundays for “6 hours” each day from 8:50 am to 2:10 pm, and yes I know that doesn’t really make 6 hours but nobody cares that they don’t even give us the whole visit we are entitled to.

I was so excited for our visit, I was counting down the days. I know it isn’t easy to make the 4 hour drive and do all she does in order to come see me. There is a lot of planning, preparation, and energy that goes into spending a weekend at visit, especially here where the rules are constantly changing.

Finally the morning arrived. I got up early and smiled as I got ready, knowing she was doing the same. We had waited 5 weeks for this day and I couldn’t wait to see her…

Then something began to feel off. Breakfast is usually around 7 am but it is not uncommon for it to run late.  By 7:45 I was beginning to feel a bit anxious. I couldn’t see any of the other buildings going to breakfast at the chow hall. Even though I was anxious, the worst possible outcome in my mind was that visiting would be delayed.  At about 8:20 the breakfast trays were brought into our building. As we lined up to get them  word spread that a serious incident had happened on A-yard and that several helicopters were life-flighting people. Still, I figured there was no way they would cancel visiting. I am on C-yard and we having nothing to do with A-yard. We will have visiting, just late. Many other people agreed because they never cancel visits here.

As we got our breakfast trays I managed to ask one of the officers what was happening with visiting. He angrily replied, “We’re not worried about visits right now!” All I cared about was my visit. Knowing how much it took for Emelia to come see me, and that at that moment she was in front of the prison waiting to come in. The emotions I feel when I am treated wrongly, disrespectfully, are multiplied exponentially when I feel that disrespect toward the people I love. That jerk wasn’t just talking to me in such a way. He was talking to my girlfriend that way. It can be so hard to bite my tongue, suck it up and turn it over to God. But that is what I must do because in prison I have no control.

Back in my cell, I waited.  I stood at my cell door looking out the little window willing the control officer to call me for my visit. Emelia must be here already. I refused to give up hope. By 9am the breakfast trays were collected. Visits must be called soon, right?  By 9:30 I had a terrible feeling. By 10 I knew there would be no visits. Not a single one had been called and I would have been one of the first. I stood at the door feeling nauseous and numb.

It was crushing. Not only for me, but knowing Emelia had been turned away. Was she scared? Did she know I was safe? What was she told, if anything? I had been told nothing, I prayed they would not treat her the same. For hours I was worried, upset, and stuck in my cell. It was difficult to deal with. Not only had we been denied precious time together that she had worked so hard to make possible, I had no idea what she was going through. All because of an incident that had happened on another yard. We had done nothing wrong, it wasn’t fair. I knew she would be able to call my mom and she would find comfort there. I just didn’t know if she knew I was safe and not affected by the A-yard incident.

These feelings lasted all throughout the day. Finally we were allowed to have our afternoon yard because whatever happened on the other yard had nothing to do with us. The situation was under control and our yard was back to normal program. There would be visiting for Sunday. I wanted so badly to let Emelia know we would have visiting the next day. But I had no phone call time. I need to let her know.  We had never faced anything like this. If it was devastating for me, it must have felt equally as bad for her. It was upsetting not to know.

When they let us out to yard I went outside, I had to get out of my cell for a little while. I still felt upset. But going out to yard was the best decision I made that day. On my way back inside a guy I know was just ending his phone call. It wasn’t my phone time but no one else was there to use it and I just HAD to call Emelia to make sure she knew I was OK and safe. I called and thankfully she answered immediately. It was such a relief to find out that she knew I was safe all day. She would come back to see me the following day and everything would be fine.

It was really hard to miss such important time together. But the most important thing is that were were both safe. We thank God for our safety and the love we share.   We are blessed to have each other and the visits we got soon after.          -Sean-

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About Sean & Emelia

In 2003 Sean O'Brien was wrongfully convicted in El Dorado County, CA and sentenced to Life Without Parole at the age of 16. We have been friends since grade school and are now married. Sean and I move forward together with the knowledge of his innocence, our faith in God, and hope that he will rightfully regain his freedom. Until then we embrace our journey wherever it may take us, cherishing each moment we have together and staying true to ourselves. This blog is about the past we share, our fight for freedom, life as it exists for us, and our path toward the future, whatever that may hold. Thank you for allowing us to be heard. God bless.
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