A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
Conclusion of a two-part column
The author has a son serving a life sentence, currently at the Stillwater Correctional Facility. The first part of this column described a prison visit when “the anticipation, the anxiety, the control, the possibilities…it all causes many emotional and physical changes in my body.” Here she shares her understanding of what these prison visits mean to families and communities.
I only wish I could go back in and do it over. Now I remember all that I had to share. Now I can hear all of his words. Now I know he had something important to say. And now I need to listen, but can’t.
The next time it will all have run astray, his words gone away. Again and again and again, the pain never goes away. It is the same every single visiting day as the time rushes away.
I tell myself that next time I will be calmer, I will prepare, I will write on my arm to try to remember my thoughts to share. I will be quiet and listen, hear him, be present. I will be present with him in that 60 minutes, or in 120 minutes. We will not let it slip away.
Again and again and again, another day, another visiting day. It is only a moment, so very precious a moment that slips away because of all the emotional and physical reactions in my body. Not a day, but an hour of time with my son who is serving life and is now at year 15… This is the mental process that happens prior, during, and after every single visit.
I know we are not alone in this experience. There are other people who visit their loved ones: spouses, mothers, children, family and friends. What we go through we see others go through, too.
It is a difficult time for anyone having this experience, and what makes it more difficult are many of the rules and policies set forth by the Department of Corrections (DOC). One of the most psychologically impactful rules is that only immediate family members can be on more than one inmate’s visiting list.
This rule alone has devastated my family. For the last 15 years, I have been able to visit my nephew, who is like my son, and members of my family have been able to visit him as well.
We are a family of 14. Others in my family — my siblings and their children — were initially authorized to visit both my son and my nephew. This permission allowed us to stay connected and kept up support for our incarcerated family.
We know for a fact that this has contributed to both their and our well-being. It has allowed us to support them, and it certainly affected their incarceration: how they coped with and actually excelled on the inside.
Over the last 15 years of my son’s incarceration, I have lost many family members near and far, celebrated many family achievements, come through many family crises; but these two of our young men, our sons, our cousins and uncles, and yes, our fathers, they had everything to do with our success. Our cohesiveness, psychological and emotional well-being, our development and support of our family continues despite this policy that provides one inmate only one visiting authorization.
Last August, one of my family members passed away, and during the same month of his death my entire family and I were all removed from both my son’s and my nephew’s visiting list. We were advised by the DOC that we each had to reapply for authorization and approval all over again, and we were made to choose who we want to continue visiting. It was a devastating blow to my family.
These two young men are serving life sentences for crimes they were convicted of, and we have been visiting both of them as a family for 15 years of their sentences. Now our family members must choose to see only one of them again. We only have us, and that is everything, but now we have been divided and cut off from both of our sons because of rules that don’t serve to help and only hurt.
We have been forced to choose, and because of this and its emotional impact, our two young men have had fewer visits and more struggle in serving their time. Again, my family is reminded that we, too, are incarcerated, and we too must face the ramifications of both the physiological and psychological effects. When we visit, we too are bound and trapped in our bodies’ emotions and our minds and no one walks away with wellness from the impacts of the one-hour visit.
We need not be reminded of the reasons for the choices made or unmade of those who are incarcerated. What needs to be recognized is that mass incarceration impacts all of us. Our families, our communities, our institutions and our people are less healthy overall.
The visit is a catalyst to keep families connected so that re-entry is healthy, our communities are connected, and recidivism is reduced. My sons (my nephew is my son in my mind) may not come home. However, this story is the same story for short timers who must one day come back home. They will unfortunately return to the DOC if they are unable to maintain family and community relationships and stay connected to those who hold them up through it all simply because of a DOC policy that only immediate family members can visit more than one inmate in a Minnesota institution.
Rehabilitation? Corrections? No, the current policy does not speak to those attributes. It actually severs relationships and breaks down support.
Michele Livingston is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.