The first time that I was in the Family Visiting unit waiting for my wife Emelia to be brought in was the first time in 15 years I felt alone. In prison, each day is exactly the same; very little changes and when it does it happens slowly and gradually. I live in a world of constant control, guards, fences, concrete walls, razor wire; always watched. Suddenly I was in a situation where the guard simply left me by myself without instruction. The feeling of being alone was alien, and frankly, it became overwhelming.
To get to the Family Visiting area, the guard had to escort me in handcuffs off the prison yard I live on. To do so, he had to first process me through the check point where one either enters or leaves the prison yard. This meant going through two locked gates, two locked doors, a strip search, processing through a metal detector and verifying my identity. Then there was a long walk through the prison grounds before processing through a second check point. This one only had one locked gate, two locked doors, and another verification of my identity. Next we took a shorter walk to the Family Visiting unit and through a single locked gate. That was where the guard unceremoniously left me as if it were normal. To me, there was nothing normal about being left alone. It felt like the most freedom I had been given in 15 years.
To be waiting for my wife by myself in a new place was a shock, I felt like it took forever. I was constantly checking the clock, each time realizing only a minute or two had passed. Then finally I heard the rumble of the cart my wife must push, bringing all of our supplies: clothes for the weekend, hygiene supplies, cooking/eating supplies, bedding, and our food. Once I knew my wife was coming, my heart raced. I was so excited for this moment, something we never thought we would be able to share until I was free. As I heard the rumbling of the cart it seemed to go on forever, I knew she was coming but where was she? The concrete wall outside in the yard blocked my view.
Then I saw her, she was there! My wife was really there for our first Family Visit, time together that we had waited and waited and waited for.
Before we knew it, our first Family Visit was over. The time we had waited so long for, and felt so amazingly good to share was gone. It was over before either of us were ready to say goodbye. But let’s be honest, we are never ready to day goodbye.
To date, we have been lucky to get 8 Family Visits so far and each time this is true. We cannot wait to have our time together, we eagerly anticipate the time we are blessed with. Emelia works so hard to prepare, securing her day off work, filling out and returning the confirmation paperwork for the Family Visiting Officer, packing all our items, and waking up at 3 am to drive down to Corcoran to wait to be processed into the prison. She has to literally come to prison and remain inside for us to have this time together, leaving all the comforts of freedom behind. Then the 46 hours we are given seem to slip by long before they should be able to.
“Approximately 46 hours” is all CDCR allows for a Family Visit. Families wait several weeks, sometimes months for a Family Visit. The longest we have had to wait was 3 months, which is short compared to many other facilities where families may wait up to 6 months or more. Scheduling here all depends on the number of eligible inmates requesting a date.
The time between Family Visits is hard. Having been in prison for so long, I had forgotten how spending real time with someone you love can feel. Real life had faded for me while in prison in a way I did not understand. I had lost touch with feeling free without even realizing it had happened. Being in prison is so isolating and confining, having this time with my wife is an escape to freedom. At Family Visit we are free to be ourselves in a way we have previously never been allowed to under the control of regular prison visiting.
During one of our Family Visits we watched a thunder storm in the distance. The storm gave us an amazing show of lightning flashing from intense clouds which lasted several minutes. Another time we were the audience at a performance of over a thousand birds dancing and diving in the sky as they flew in sync. Like a school of fish in formation, swimming in the air. The way these birds flew together over and over as one was breathtaking. A few times we have seen the moon and stars in the dark night sky; finding the constellations of Orion’s Belt and the Big Dipper. Stargazing in prison is a rare treat due to the high intensity lighting that normally drowns them out; seeing them with my wife is priceless. We delight in finding tidbits of actual nature during our time together; flowers, ice, sometimes even creatures.
I have also found great happiness in being able to cook for my wife. Before I was wrongfully incarcerated I loved to cook, I even considered the possibility of going to culinary school. In prison there is no opportunity to cook. What inmates generally consider ‘cooking’ is adding hot water to pre-cooked freeze-dried beans, rice, pre-packaged meals, and processed foods. At Family Visit we have to use some of the same items but we have access to a real kitchen and certain foods we do not get inside prison. My favorite thing to cook for Emelia is my scrambled eggs, she says they are the best. I love to watch her eat them as we sit together enjoying our breakfast. The breakfast I made.
The moment of goodbye always comes too soon. It’s the hardest part of every Family Visit, especially when we have to use our last fleeting moments to pack everything up and clean the unit. Then we wait for the officers to come, hear the gate crash closed behind them. Their keys jangle loudly when they approach our sanctuary. My heart aches knowing the best part of my life is about to be ripped away from me.
Officially we are allowed one last kiss before Emelia must push the loaded cart down the walkway and out the gate. If we are lucky, she is able to stand at the fence while the officers collect the next family visitors. When we can, we take these moments for our fingers to intertwine through the fence. I am still locked inside while she is almost free. We steal a kiss and share a few more words of love and I always tell her I will be praying for her as she drives home. Then we hear the officers coming and we break apart, not wanting to be seen as breaking the rules.
This is where my wife must really walk away. I se the resolve and strength in her face as she fights back tears. It is crushing. I hear the rumble from the carts fade away and slowly walk back into the Family Visiting unit, not knowing when my wife will be allowed to come back, praying it will be soon. I fight back tears of my own as once again I find myself alone.
Written by Sean, October 2018
Sean’s original writing