The first time I visited my nephew Jay in a prison in Central California he was at the start of an over 20-year sentence. He was then twenty-nine years old. If I wanted to continue to be involved in his life, I would have to learn how to make visiting him in prison normal; it was now his home.
A drunk driver killed Jay’s mother when my nephew was seven years old. He was born in Alaska, where I grew up, and after his mom died, he moved in with my father and stepmother. One month after his thirteenth birthday, Jay moved to California, where I then lived. I became his legal guardian. He got into trouble right away, skipping school, stealing things, running away, and nine months after he arrived, he became a ward of the juvenile court. Wherever the court placed my nephew—group homes, a boys’ ranch—I was there. Once he lived in a group home in another wing of juvenile hall, and on Jay’s fourteenth birthday, I brought a cake and enough soda for all the kids in his unit.
Arriving to see my nephew at prison, fifteen years later, I wasn’t allowed to bring anything with me. I opened a door that seemed to be where to start. Looking around the small, crowded, poorly-lit room, I felt uneasy. I didn’t want anyone to know it was my first time. I wanted cues on how to maneuver through the space. There were many people, mostly women, standing in a long line that faced a desk staffed by several guards who were checking in visitors. I stood in the line and then noticed everyone had a tiny piece of paper. I watched a woman at the front of the line hand the paper to a guard at the desk.
“Where did you get that?” I asked a woman in front of me, trying not to talk too loud, as my voice always rises when I’m excited or nervous.
She pointed to a counter on the left side of the room.
I filled out the form with my name, relation to “the inmate,” and Jay’s California Department of Corrections (CDC) number, and returned to the back of the line. Then I noticed a line in front of a change machine. My nephew had told me that I could bring up to $40 for the vending machines, which takes dollar bills and quarters. I stepped out of the check-in line and stood in the change-making line. I had 20 one-dollar bills, and 2 ten-dollar bills, which I changed into quarters. I returned to the check-in line, again at the back of the line.
When it was my turn, I showed a guard my ID and the form. He entered some information into a computer and confirmed that I had been approved to visit.
Then he ordered me to stand back, pull up my black T-shirt, and pull down the waistband of my black cotton-polyester skirt, which included the top of my black slip.
“Turn around,” he said, as though he wanted me to twirl.
I think now of the movies I’ve seen of a woman dressed in a low-cut blouse, or short dress, visiting a man in prison. The movie version of what you can wear to visit seems far from reality. On a visit at a later date, I was almost told to “go change,” because the hem of my black skirt was slightly above my knees. I pulled my skirt down so it covered most of my knees. The guard then told me, “Okay, but don’t wear this skirt again to visit.”
There wasn’t much talking during the exchange, and I usually talk too much when I’m anxious, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.
Next the guard asked to see the small, plastic cosmetic bag containing my money. He counted it to make sure that I didn’t have more than the approved amount.
“Take off the earrings, and your shoes. Everything goes in here,” he said, pointing to a plastic tub. My heart was beating as rapidly as if I was about to board a plane, and I’m afraid of flying. But of course I had to fly across the country to visit my nephew, and I would do it again and again.
The guard stamped the back of my left wrist. I walked through the metal detector and put on my shoes and earrings. When I was ready, another guard buzzed me out the door.
Once outside, I wondered, But where do I go? I wasn’t going to go back inside and ask for directions. I felt some relief that I made it through the check-in process.
I followed a group of women ahead of me who seemed to have done this before who had come together. I looked up and saw a guard in a tower watching us. How easy it would be for him to shoot us, I thought. I didn’t want to do anything wrong to not be invited back. As I was walking, I reminded myself why I am here, to see my nephew, and this was the only way to see him.
When I approached what appeared to be the visiting building, I noticed that there were two doors: the one to the left was marked Yard A, and the one on the right was marked Yard B. At least I knew which yard was Jay’s yard. I walked in the left door and stood at a desk staffed by a guard with his head down as he talked on the phone. He looked up and laughed at something the person on the other line said and then finally he acknowledged me. He asked for my ID and the form. He examined the ID and then looked at me. Shaking his head in disbelief, he said more like a statement than a question:
“You came all the way from New York?”
“Yes,” I said and nervously smiled, knowing that he held the power to allow me into the visiting room. He picked up the phone receiver and called someone elsewhere in the prison and said my nephew’s name and his CDC number and then he hung up the phone.
“Show me your wrist,” he said, and I held it under a light sensor.
He smiled and said, “Have a good visit!”
I heard a loud buzz and the door opened.
The visiting room was large and starkly furnished with startling, bright overhead lighting. Jay had told me that the lights are always on in prison. Some visitors were already seated at small tables and tiny chairs that seem designed for a children’s classroom. I looked down as I walked to the front of the room to check in with the two guards. I felt small as a child in a room of strangers. The floors reminded me of the linoleum floors of the elementary school I attended in Alaska. While this prison was relatively new, the floors appeared worn-down, even tired. I handed the guard my ID and the form. He examined my ID and then looked at me and looked again at the ID.
When Jay was first arrested and in jail awaiting trial, the woman who checked me in at the front desk practically swooned when she saw my New York City ID. “I LOVE New York!” she said. “I went two years ago with friends, and we saw Broadway shows, shopped, and walked everywhere! We’re going again next year,” she said, smiling as she handed me back my ID. “Yes, it’s a great place,” I said, smiling back. It felt surreal to talk about New York when I was getting ready to see my nephew in a California jail.
I stood still and patient while the prison guard continued to study my ID. I didn’t move my body, only my head, as something caught my eye to the right of the guard’s station. I noticed a mural of a place that was so far from here: a painting of the sky, the ocean, and palm trees. It didn’t look like a real place, but I imagined myself staring at the mural for hours if there was nothing else I could see.
Now, as I write this, I can see a picture on my refrigerator of my nephew and me. We are standing in front of a mural that looks similar to the one I saw on the first visit, but it is seven years after that visit, and by then my Jay had been moved from the original prison to another prison. I’m wearing a red cotton shirt. My hair, which I then dyed a light red, appears highlighted; it always lightens on my annual visits to California. My nephew’s dark brown hair is cut very short, buzz-cut style, and he sports a well-trimmed mustache and goatee. He’s wearing a clean blue shirt that appears to have been pressed, though I don’t think that’s allowed. You can’t see our legs in the picture, but I know I’m wearing the same plain black skirt I always wear. Jay is wearing blue jeans that he hand-washed in the sink in his cell. He is obsessed with cleanliness. We are smiling genuinely. We are at ease. But it would take years to get there.
I looked away from the mural in the prison and back at the guard.
“Table number twelve,” the guard said handing me back my ID.
I found the table. I sat in a chair, and waited for Jay to be brought out. When my nephew was at the group home located at juvenile hall, I was allowed to bring some things from home: a small rug, sheets, pillows, and his comforter. Then the staff permitted me to see his room, which looked like a cell, but with his personal things, it became his room. While I wouldn’t see it again, I had a picture always in my mind of him and where he lived until he would come home.
Though I would have liked to see my nephew’s cell in the prison, there are strict rules for what we can and cannot see and can and cannot do. Some of the rules are clear and some are implied. When Jay arrived and before he sat down, I started to move the chairs so that we could sit facing each other.
“We have to face toward the guards, with our legs and body forward,” he said, adding that we aren’t allowed to move the chairs or the tables.
We are always being watched, I thought.
Everything seemed orderly in the visiting room. How was it possible to keep the calm in this room with the violence and chaos that came before? I didn’t know the lives of the others in the room or the crimes the men have committed to get here, but this is a level-four yard, the highest level of all prisons.
I asked my nephew, “Has anything bad ever happened in the visiting room?”
“This is family time,” he said, “and you don’t mess with family time.”
“But has anyone ever messed with family time?” I asked.
Jay said, “One time a guy, who never gets visits, walked up to a mother of another inmate and spewed racial slurs. The inmate whose mother was insulted would have done something, but a guard overheard and took the inmate back to his cell.”
“After the visit,” my nephew said, “the guy would be taken care of for it.”
He then gave me a look of you-know-what that means. He’s getting a beating, Jay said without saying it.
I looked around the room and thought to myself, I hope there isn’t any trouble today.
I saw families huddled together, as close as they could while abiding by the rules. I saw a visitor crying and an inmate holding his head in his hands. I saw a young child looking at her father as her father pats her on the head. I saw an inmate gently stroke the arm of his girlfriend or wife as she smiles at him.
Though the room was missing all the furniture of home—couches, coffee tables, and pictures on the walls—it reminded me of a living room. While I found the many people in the room, and the volume of voices all speaking at once distracting, I pretended that my nephew and I were sitting at the small table, with two chairs, in the tiny kitchen of the duplex where we lived when Jay was a teenager. In the living room of that apartment was a beige-colored brocade thrift shop couch; next to the couch was a small table that someone had given us, and on the floor was a television that we bought together at the mall and brought home on the bus. Two stacks of record albums leaned next to a bookshelf that looked as if it were about to tip over. I had so many books. At a low point, Jay sold some of the books and the albums to a local used book and record store. I knew someone who worked at the store. As I bought back my favorite books and records, I told the clerk, “Please do not buy anything my nephew tries to sell.”
“Is the visiting room used for anything else when we aren’t here?” I asked Jay.
He told me that inmates meet with their attorneys during the week.
This is a multi-purpose room. During visiting, the room is a kitchen and a dining room. Inmates aren’t allowed to have money or to directly make the food selections from the vending machines. As the guest, I’m the one to insert the quarters into the vending machine, and then my nephew tells me what he wants. He is allowed to heat his food in one of two microwaves. We carried the food to our tables. He got back up to get a stack of tissue-thin napkins, a paper plate, and a spork. No forks or knives are allowed. When we finished eating, we cleaned up after ourselves. I wiped the crumbs into a napkin. Everything went into the trash. Cans were recycled. There were no dishes to wash.
The table was just a surface, void of a colorful tablecloth, or a vase of flowers. Things we always had in the home we once shared.
I looked down at my plastic cosmetic bag, which held my ID and the money I had brought. Friends have asked me if I could bring anything for Jay. No, nothing, I’ve said. They’ve never visited anyone in prison, so it’s hard for them to fathom that I’m not permitted to bring my nephew, at the very least, one book.
After lunch in the visiting room, I told my nephew that I needed to use the restroom. “I’ll be right back,” I said, though I wasn’t certain how long it would take, because I knew it wouldn’t be as easy as walking down a hallway and opening a door by myself. I walked up to the door that I had come through. The guard sitting at the desk on the other side had his head down. I waited patiently until he saw me, and when he did, I smiled at him. I smiled more than I expected to while visiting prison, even more than I smile in my daily life.
The guard buzzed me out. I thanked him.
The guest bathroom was across from the guard’s station. He could see when we went in and when we came out. It was old, cold, and musty-smelling. There was a place to change diapers. The napkins I used to dry my hands were paper-bag brown and stiff. The water trickled out of the tap. I would use this restroom two more times over the course of the six-hour visit, finding it a respite from the restrained intimacy of the visiting room.
When I retuned to the room and at the table with my nephew, I told him about the sign I saw taped to the inside of a stall: “Our sons clean up the bathrooms. Please don’t make a mess.” Jay laughed.
“Who cleans the visiting room?” I asked.
My nephew said that was an inmate’s job.
I watched a prisoner as he wiped down tables, pulled out chairs.
Jay explained that the men who have the jobs don’t get visits, and once they secure the job they tend to keep it for a long time. It’s an opportunity twice a week to be out of the cell. They also take pictures, at two dollars a photo, of inmates and their families in front of the paradise mural that I saw when I first arrived.
I noticed an inmate moving around the room with a small towel in his hand. He seemed to be watching people more than cleaning.
“Something about that guy,” I said, nodding my head in the direction of the man, “makes me feel uneasy, but don’t know what it is,” I said to Jay.
My nephew closed his lips tightly and he shook his head as if to say, I know.
“That guy is scared of me,” he said.
“What? Why?” I asked, but he refused to answer.
“Restroom break,” the guard at the front of the room announced.
This is when the inmates can go, one at a time, through a locked door. During the visit, my nephew didn’t want to go—he didn’t want to leave me—but this time he got up and took his place in line. I looked at him in the line of men, and he smiled and I smiled and he waved and I waved.
As I watched my nephew standing in the line, I remembered how we used to say goodbye when he was in juvenile hall or a group home. I would flash him a peace sign and he would peace me back. Even if we’d had a rough visit, we always came back to wishing each other some sense of togetherness through the symbol of peace.
Jay was getting closer to the door to the bathroom. I saw him turn and say something to the man, who had been wiping surfaces with a cloth.
“What did you say to him?” I asked, when he returned. My nephew shook his head no.
I insisted, “tell me.”
“I told him, ‘I’ll talk to you later, in the yard.'”
“No, don’t do anything to lose the visits,” I said.
He promised he wouldn’t, but somehow I didn’t believe him; “no, please,” I pleaded.
“How about I go over and say something to him?” I asked.
Jay loudly laughed.
If we were in an actual home, and this was the living room, I would have talked to the guy and maybe even asked him to leave. It’s absurd to imagine that I would disrupt the prison visiting room when I wanted to visit again.
When he was a teenager, my nephew had been living in a group home that cared more about the money they received for each kid than the welfare of the kids who lived there. After a few weeks at the home, Jay hadn’t been enrolled in school, and hadn’t been taken to his therapy appointments. I stopped by to visit three times, knocked on the door, and no one answered. Where was my nephew? Did he even live here? I was worried and so was his social worker, who pulled him out of the home.
“I know of a better placement,” the social worker said. “Get some clothes. I’ll be back to pick you up in an hour,” she said, dropping us off at our apartment.
It was the strangest feeling, entering our place together. We hadn’t been there together in months. For one hour, we were home. I felt giddy as if we were getting away with something. I knew my nephew couldn’t come back yet. He would have to stay in a group home for at least six months. Maybe this new placement would work out and then he could come back to me. The thrill of it raced through our fragile home as he packed some things.
“I wish I had a birthday cake,” I said.
Jay smiled, and said, “Yes, me too.”
It was his fifteenth birthday.
When we first arrived at the group home, my nephew saw the huge, log cabin house and later told me it reminded him of “crappy-ass Alaska.” The living room of the home was as large as a small barn, with a ceiling, heavenly high above. We sat on a brown velvet couch sinking into cushions worn to comfort. The logs holding the home together were shiny, as if they’d been given a loving coat of varnish. That day he moved into the house. I visited him often and we could pick where we wanted to visit: in the living room, in my nephew’s room, or in the big back yard. It was a family home. The wife and husband, who ran the home, cared for the boys who lived there as if they were their own. I remember thinking, I wish I could live here too.
Nearing the end of the first visit to prison, a guard bellowed loudly, “Say your goodbyes.” Jay stood up. I stood up. I looked around the room and I saw inmates and their loved ones hugging and kissing. I stood closer to my nephew and we hugged goodbye.
I think now of how the eleven years my nephew has spent in different prisons, and the years before he lived in juvenile hall, and group homes, have taught us that we can make home anywhere. We already have.