Family Visit 10: Take Care

Family Visit #10 was January 5th 2019. To hit the double digits in our number of Family Visit dates since beginning them in September 2017 is bittersweet; happy that we get to have this special time together and feeling grateful for it, sad that we are still dealing with this when Sean should have been home a long time ago. Family Visits to us are absolutely everything to us. They are our goal, what we strive towards and hold onto. Because we did not get to have a Family Visit in December, this time we celebrated Christmas; we even wore Christmas PJs for the first time ever! We both loved it.

Sean is the best husband I could have ever asked for. He says “I am ready to take care of us at Family Visit, because you take care of us every day.” This is true, I work hard to provide for us and by the time I reach Family Visit at the end of my work week I am very tired from waking up at 3 am to get to the prison. So Sean cooks every meal we share, even the cookies. He does all the clean up, including washing the dishes and cleaning the unit before and after. He keeps us stocked in iced tea because the tap water tastes weird. He gets us ready for our shower by collecting everything we need and bringing it all with us, he adjusts the water to get the temperature right and keeps the oven open to heat the place up so we are not freezing when we get out since we cannot adjust the thermostat. When we are ready to watch a movie he gets the couch set up for us by spreading out our sheet to sit on, making us a big pillow out of our blanket, and getting snacks out of the food box. He sets up our bed for us and gets us ready to sleep at night, placing water bottles on each side, making us our sleepy time tea and getting the lighting just right. We are a team together, we enjoy taking care of each other.

The lack of sleep at Family Visit affects us both. Sleep deprivation does weird things to one’s brain. It makes everything blur together and puts a haze over our eyes. The second evening of our family visit and I wasn’t feeling very well, I had a stomach ache. We were both utterly wrecked, attempting to sleep on the cheap, stained mattress- without actual pillows. Seeing my discomfort and distress, Sean asked me what I would do if I were at home. I explained my desire to be more elevated. He moved behind me, my head on his chest, while his back was supported by the wall from behind. I settled back into him, feeling comfortable at last. I quickly nodded off, using my husband as a pillow. It was much needed sleep. He faded in and out of sleep sitting against the wall until it was time for the 12:30 am count. That is just a small example of the tenderness I see in Sean every moment we are together.

Family Visit is another world entirely and anyone who has never been in that situation would have difficulty understanding the full experience. But I do my best to express what it is like and share our journey with those who wish to read it. It is also for us to have later on down the road as an account of what we have been through, to be able to look back and see how far we have come together.

Sean’s PJ Pants

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Merry Everything from Us

Christmas Card 2018

Our friend, Elyse Smith with Beautiful Disaster Photography, has given us these beautiful photos for Christmas. I sent them as a special surprise to Sean. Thank you to Elyse for helping make our family’s holiday brighter!

Merry Everything and Happy Paw-lidays!

Sean’s Christmas Card drawing of our family
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Sean’s Fall Semester Classes 2018

Sean’s Fall 2018 Semester College Courses through Bakersfield College:

Career & Life Skills, A

Economics, A

English, A

Geology, A+

Sean’s Geology Professor wrote him the above chrono. A chrono is essentially a letter of recommendation that goes into his file and can be used to show judge of character for parole hearings or anything having to do with his case.

I am so proud of him for working hard to get good grades in his classes, he is closing in on his goal of achieving his Associates degree in two fields of study.

The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” -Victor Frankl

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Those Around Me by Sean

We are in prison, we are supposed to do illegal things.” That was a statement I recently heard another man say as he walked past me in the prison day room. I still find such an attitude shocking, even though this is not an uncommon frame of mind amongst the prison community in which I live. Even with California Department of Correction’s public campaign claiming their move towards rehabilitation in response to the passage of Proposition 57 two years ago, many inmates fail to embrace the opportunities available- if and when they are available. And too many inmates do not have a desire for rehabilitative change.

From my observations, it seems many inmates view prison life and criminal activity as a rite of passage or a badge of honor. Even when presented with real opportunity for change, some individuals take pride in continuing their illegal activity and criminal lifestyle behaviors. I have personally seen men with opportunities for early release or reduction of their sentence under new laws continuously jeopardize their freedom by choosing drugs and alcohol over sobriety. One such individual was accepted into an early release program after spending 17 years in prison, only to be returned to prison less than 2 weeks into the program due to a dirty drug test.

Having had my freedom unjustly taken from me, it is hard to see so many men disregard the opportunities they are given. Especially because I know I would embrace those opportunities wholeheartedly and succeed. On a regular basis I see parole being given to men who are still using drugs, participating in illegal activities, and doing absolutely nothing to better their lives. If these men cannot remain sober or refrain from criminal activity in prison, they have no real chance of success upon release.

What I find most difficult to understand is that many of these men have no desire to change. I personally know an individual who under two new laws which recently passed, is eligible to be resentenced. Currently this individual is working on obtaining a resentencing hearing that he will most likely receive. Under the new laws this individual will be eligible to be released with time served or if the judge denies his request for a lesser sentence, the judge may reinstate the original sentence; which is up to life in prison. With such an opportunity available to this man I cannot understand why he continuously jeopardizes it. This man regularly drinks alcohol, uses illegal substances, and participates in criminal activity in a way he practically wears as a badge of honor. A single disciplinary infraction for any of his illegal activity would likely mean the denial of being resentenced. He is aware of this, yet his actions are loud and clear; he does not care. He prefers to drink and get high rather than fighting to be a better man in order to go home to his family.

Besides myself, I have seen some men make the right choice and rise above the negativity that abounds in prison. Men like us stand out within the prison walls. Everyone within the prison community recognizes who we are and generally gives us a level of respect not otherwise shown. I knew a man who served 29 years in prison on a ’15 Years to Life’ sentence who spent too many of those years involved in everything negative about prison; drugs, violence, gangs, and went to the SHU for over a decade (Segregated Housing Unit, where inmates go to be punished for not following the prison rules). Then one day, this man realized he needed to change. He decided prison would not define who he is and he spent the next decade redefining himself. For this true life change he was granted parole and is now a free man. Nearly a year later he is still spoken of with respect on the prison yard, not for who he was but for who he became and what he accomplished.

I see the culture of prison and the behavior of those around me; I do not understand why anyone would continue a lifestyle that will keep them in prison. Or worse, return them to prison upon release. I strive every day to follow the rules in prison in order not only to avoid the consequences  of breaking the rules but primarily because nothing within my control will prevent me from going home to my family.

Written by Sean, November 2018

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Family Visit 9: Two Suns

Family Visit: November 3, 2018. Sean and I stood together at the fence line outside our Family Visit unit. The sun was setting with vibrant pink hues bouncing off the clouds on the horizon in front of us. The air was still and quiet. As we watched, we munched on ice cream sandwiches we had just made. Ok, not so much munched as drizzled and dripped with the warm gooey cookie mixed with melting vanilla ice cream. It was absolutely blissful. Sean made a silly joke and I nearly choked from laughing so hard. We finished our treats, smiling and enjoying the sunset. Then he made another joke, assuming I could not ‘get him’ as I was holding our plate and spoons. But to his surprise I dropped everything I had from my hands to chase him around the dry grass and tickle him. We howled with laughter echoing off the cement walls. It would end up becoming a memory we held onto for weeks to come.

The last day of our wonderful Family Visit was painful as always and I looked forward to his usual phone call on my drive home or once I had arrived, to let him know I had made it safely. But his call never came. As soon as Sean had gone back into the prison he was put on a prison-wide lockdown and was unable to call me for 17 days. But at the time we no idea how long it would last.

From his letters, I could tell he wasn’t doing well with the lockdown so I came for a sunrise visit the following Saturday, November 10th. He was relieved and tearfully happy to see me and we had one of the best regular visits we have ever had. As I drove back home, the smoke from the Northern California Fires, including the Camp Fire, became thicker and the sun appeared red and angry in the sky. Before reaching Sacramento, I stopped at a Walmart to buy N-95 masks. When I came home, it was barely recognizable. Gray grainy smoke blocked out the sun, it’s smell was inescapable.

November 10, 2018

The smoke would end up forcing everyone to stay inside as it blanketed our skies for more than 12 days. The air quality became hazardous, no one could step outside without wearing the masks, and even then it was recommended not to go anywhere. I was on my own kind of lockdown. A sense of urgency and chaos took root, the fire department ran out of the free masks they had been handing out. Stores changed their entrances in an attempt to keep the smoke from getting inside. Public schools closed early for the holiday on November 16 due to the smoke.

While this was happening, Sean had no idea because of the lockdown in place at the prison. The local news channel in his area didn’t show what was going on here and my letters took a week to reach him. In an unfortunate turn of events, I developed bronchitis and a sinus infection from the smoke and was too sick to go visit Sean for Thanksgiving as we had been planning. By the time his phone calls started up again and the rain came to wash everything clean, the serious damage had already been done. We were then faced with spending Thanksgiving weekend painfully separated by the distance and sickness.

“Sometimes only when bonds are tested do we understand their strength… we can step into the future, blessed and stronger than before because when faced with change our love held fast and didn’t break.”

Smoke in West Sacramento Nov 15, 4:30 pm

Local Fire Stations gave out free N-95 masks until the supply ran out

Local Library changed their entrance due to the smoke

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Prison Cell Layout

Layout and writing by Sean November 2018

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I have been visiting Sean in prison at Corcoran for over 5 years now, so I have had a lot of time to get to know the area. The town of Corcoran is very small, and vastly different in comparison to what I am used to from living in Northern California all my life. Corcoran is not a place anyone would choose to go if traveling for just fun,  so that presents an interesting dynamic.  It is not a place many people have heard of, nobody ever knows what I am talking about, I have to tell them it’s  between Fresno and Bakersfield.

The town of Corcoran is mostly known for it’s prisons: California State Prison Corcoran and Corcoran Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF), which are two separate facilities but share the same piece of land back to back. According to Wikipedia: “The prison inmates are counted as city residents by both the United States Census and the California Department of Finance, the incarcerated persons in the two prisons comprise just over 43% of the total population of Corcoran.”

The first time I traveled to Corcoran what stuck me most was the smell of cow manure. At times it is so strong that I can just about taste it, the pungent air scratches my throat.  Sometimes it’s barely noticeable, and my brain only registers it when I first arrive. Sean says he barely notices it anymore, that he might smell it if the breeze is just right, but it doesn’t bother him.

Then there is the fog. In the cooler seasons, there are often large patches of dense white fog hoovering about a foot above the fields like a strange ghostly cloud. In the winter months sometimes the fog suddenly envelopes my moving vehicle, leaving me in a complete white-out and I am forced to inch my way along the road cautiously until I come out on the other end. The prison even has a specific protocol for foggy days because it is so commonplace and problematic that time of year. They take it pretty seriously because it is a “safety concern”…as if someone could just disappear into the fog.

The crops grown in Corcoran are mainly cotton and corn. As I pass by the cotton fields, stray fluff lines the sides of the roads in harvest season. The town holds an annual Cotton Festival to celebrate the area’s biggest crop. The roads to the prison are bordered by nothing but cotton , hay fields and tall corn stalks. Most of the time I will encounter a large tractor sharing the road with me.

The actual town of Corcoran is tiny, even in compassion to the small rural town Sean and I grew up in. I go there to get ice, suppliers or use the restroom when I get out of the prison visiting because it is the closest place for quite a while. We used to have friends living in Corcoran whom I would stay with on long weekend visits and my sleep was always interrupted by the loud trains that roll through. Amtrak passes by many times throughout the day and night as do huge freight trains that seem to go on for miles. We regularly hear the trains from the prison.  It is commonplace to encounter the trains while driving on long stretches which always puts me in a strange space where it feels as if I am no longer moving, it’s really disorienting.

I have been driving by myself to Corcoran for about 4 years now and these days I travel there about once a month, leaving my home at around 3:30 or 4 am. On the long drive as I get closer to Corcoran I can feel my excitement building as the telltale signs slowly start to appear. The sun rises, and the day begins with hay bales, giant tractors, old run down farm houses, barns and tiny road side markets.

Despite being a pretty insignificant blip on the map in the middle of nowhere, Corcoran holds a lot of special meaning for Sean and I. We have so many memories there. We have spent countless hours at regular visit and Family Visit (46 hour visit), it would be impossible to try to calculate how many. It is where we fell in love, had our first kiss, got married, where we spend our time and live out our lives. It is a place where we have shivered in the cold and sweat out the immense heat together, where we have struggled and overcome, where we have slept and dreamed together.  It is a place of pain but also great happiness. It is my other home, the place where we get to be together.

“Home is not simply a mark upon a map, any more than a river is just water. It is the place at the center of the compass from which every arrow radiates, and where the heart is fixed.”

Photos taken in or near Corcoran, CA on my travels

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