That is, if your loved one is housed in a particular prison in California’s Central Valley. Assuming his building isn’t on lockdown or under quarantine for swine flu or–as it recently was, for rhinovirus, which last time I checked was the common cold.
Visiting is permitted from 8:30 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays only, and it’s advisable to make an appointment which you do by requesting it two weeks in advance by calling long-distance during phone hours which are 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m., Monday-Wednesday. You begin to dial Monday at 11:00. Busy. You dial again. After an hour, you begin to wonder how many phone lines they’ve got for more than 5,000 inmates. You dial again. At 1:00, you think how lucky you are that you are self-employed and can actually sit at the phone for two hours straight and you wonder how family members manage if they have more ordinary jobs. You dial for two hours on Tuesday. When a friendly voice answers at noon on Wednesday, you’re momentarily speechless with surprise. “All appointments are already taken,” says the voice.
You know how much a visit means to someone who’s locked up. And you know that one of the major factors that prevents recidivism is for a prisoner to retain family and community ties. So you set the alarm and get up early and out of the house by 5:00 a.m. to drive the three hours up the Central Valley so you can be one of the first non-appointment visitors milling around waiting to be called. It’s been snowing. It’s cold, and you remember before he was transferred to this prison, he was in another that didn’t allow visitors to wear coats. So you dress as warm as you can without a coat and take along a book to read while you’re waiting and you’ve done well. You’re one of the first to arrive. You wait outside shivering in your sweater for more than an hour, your hands too cold to turn the pages of your book, until a guard comes out and hands you a numbered pass. But what’s this? There are sixty people ahead of you?
Sixty families — mostly women with babies and young children — arrived outside the prison gates at 1:00 a.m. They slept out there, in the cold, by the side of the road, bundled in blankets while traffic whooshed past. At 7:30, a guard went outside and gave them passes. You didn’t see them when you arrived because they’d all driven the five miles to the nearest McDonald’s to wash up and brush their teeth. Now they begin to show up, to wait. A woman with a baby tells you she does this every week.
People with appointments will be let into the building at 15-minute intervals until 10:00. It’s pretty clear you won’t be called till 11:00 at the earliest. You’re shivering so you walk back to the parking lot to wait in your car and read. A woman stops you. If you’re caught in your car instead of outside in the cold, your visiting privileges are terminated. So back you go to the crowd milling around outside, stamping feet to keep the circulation going, holding babies wrapped in blankets, keeping their toddlers and children close because any child wandering away from Mom is grounds for termination of the visit.
You talk to a woman who’s brought her three children to see their Daddy. She’s driven four hours and now she’s turning around to go back. The guard says she can only go inside with two and she can’t leave the third unaccompanied. No visit.
You talk to a woman who used to come every weekend but now it’s once a month because she can’t afford the gas.
You talk to a woman and her high school daughter who hopes her uncle will be out in time to see her graduate.
You talk to a woman who works in a hospital and can rarely get a day off on a weekend.
And you realize all the visitors are what would ordinarily be considered Good People. Convicted felons aren’t allowed to visit. These are all Good People.
You shiver and wait.
Someone says the guards are being nice. Usually they make you wait all the way back, far from the building. But you think the reason you’ve been allowed this close is that the guard would rather call numbers from the doorway than walk out into the cold to get you.
A friendlier guard does come out. He explains they really would like to have an indoor heated waiting room, but it would cost $19,000 and it’s not in the budget. You bite your tongue, thinking if they let your loved one out, they could afford heated waiting rooms, educational programs, decent medical care, therapeutic intervention, re-entry preparation, and so much more.
When you’re finally allowed inside the door, you sign a document stating that you aren’t sneezing or coughing or running a fever. You’ve brought quarters, which is all you’re allowed to bring inside for the vending machines. You’ve also brought four single dollar bills, which is the only way you’re allowed to pay for the two photographs you plan to get of you with your loved one. But the woman ahead of you was told she’d only be allowed to carry quarters. She doesn’t have the paper currency she needs to get a photo with her husband, so you give her two dollar bills of yours.
You stand in line, waiting to hand over your pass. The guards behind the counter are wandering around. One of them is changing money for another. They are looking at the photos in a wallet. They are talking on the phone. They aren’t looking at you.
Finally they take your pass and tell you to wait.
When your name is called, you approach the counter. You put your shoes and eyeglasses and the Ziplock bag with your ID and quarters in a bin. You go through the metal detector. Your hand is stamped. You go out into the yard and stand by the control fence.
The gate opens and you walk to the building that holds your loved one. You hand in your pass. You wait.
At 11:30, you are inside the visiting room, at a table. You wait for the guards to bring him to you. You think about how many years he has been waiting for freedom. Your wait is nothing.
At 12:30 he walks in. You both talk fast. You get your picture taken. By 3:00, they make you leave and it’s just begun to dawn on you it’s a holiday weekend. You think about traffic. You wonder how many hours it will take to get home.
As you leave the visiting room, you need to use the bathroom. It’s locked.
You’ll have to wait.
Diane Lefer’s new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change through activism and art. It will be published in the spring by Lantern Books.