It’s currently 16 months since I’ve seen my partner, Michael J Moore. Not because I’m a busy mother of three. Not because we have a long-distance relationship. And not just because of coronavirus. Mostly, it’s because he’s in prison, and we have no idea when he’ll ever get visitation rights again.
In fact, lately, when Michael caught coronavirus, I was more concerned about whether I’d ever see him again. He disappeared for five days. His unit was placed on lockdown. Then an outage at the prison stopped all methods of communication. I woke each day, sick to my stomach, wondering whether he was dead or alive. I watched my phone like a wild lion watches its prey. I worried. That was all I could do.
Now Michael is out of isolation, and we joke it will be two years before we see each other again. By that time, our eldest will be seven feet tall and eclipse the both of us put together (he was only five feet at the beginning of this nightmare; he’s now six feet two). We estimate and guess and discuss and hypothesize about various possibilities, but really, we don’t have a clue. It could be later this year or even 2022 before we hold each other again. We are at the mercy of coronavirus, along with a prison system which barely makes sense to either of us.
I understand the need for isolation and quarantine. It’s vital for the health and safety of the prison population. Furthermore, I don’t want to risk getting on a plane with the inevitable chance of acquiring a virus that may give me a cold or place me in a morgue. I also don’t want to put Michael or any of his neighbors at risk.
Still, I just can’t bear the separation. The physical touch that only a prison visit can give me.
Every day I think back to my last visit. My trip from England to the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state: the four glorious seven-hour days in his presence. I was able to talk to him, eat lunch, play board games and laugh for hours without having to watch the clock. Our daily phone calls are twenty minutes long. For fifteen of them, I feel free to talk as I need to, then a timer in my mind goes off, and I have to finish my thoughts before a familiar woman’s voice counts down and the call is ended. At nearly $3 a call, talking too freely is not a luxury we have. Yet, in a visit, we do. We can chatter for hours on end, with no agenda, about anything and everything and even throw in an argument or two, just to feel like real partners again.
Our visits are indelibly inked on my mind. The effort to get to them, whether overseas or not, is overwhelming, but the hours spent are magical.
Do you have any idea just what is involved in a prison visit? It’s not as easy as just driving up and visiting a relative. My first time was a baptism by fire. I arrived too early to the intercom system, which joyously advised me to return at the allotted time and to stay in my car until the loudspeaker allowed me to leave.
At the moment I heard the words from the watchtower, I saw a woman sprint-walking toward a building, as if it were the Wife Olympics. Little did I know that the faster I got upstairs, the quicker I got a ticket, and the quicker I got to see my loved one. Queues are horrendous on a busy visit day, so the faster I was, the better it would be for me. Once that loudspeaker let me leave my rental, I did everything I could to make sure I won that Wife Olympics.
In time, I learnt the tricks of “a visit.” Park as close to the car park exit as possible, arrive early to drive in and grab that perfect spot, race toward the visiting room, then pull the numbered ticket from the machine on the wall. Next, dart around the room like a crazy woman, make sure to top up the vending machine card, hang up any disallowed clothes (like my hooded jacket; even my hat!) on a peg and complete the prison’s visitation paperwork, all before my number is called.
What I haven’t been able to get used to is the feeling that overcomes me when I ascend the stairs to the front desk or approach the check-in counter with the ticket clutched firmly in my hand. The stares I get from prison employees make me feel like I’m a major character in the hit show “Money Heist” — one who has escaped the Royal Mint robbery and just stopped off to visit on my way to Majorca. I sense I’ve done something wrong just by turning up. I feel as if I’ve committed a crime because I’m in love with someone who is behind bars. It’s highly likely these thoughts are all in my head, as prison buildings can be scary, imposing structures. But as a woman whose highest offense is a parking ticket, I am terrified of anything that resembles authority.
When in the waiting room, I notice a myriad of visitors patiently waiting to see husbands, brothers, sons – their loved ones. Nobody wants to be denied a visit, so it’s like we are all on our best behavior even though we’ve not done anything wrong. The last time I felt like this was back in seventh grade when my cat knocked over my birthday cake and I thought my birthday party would be cancelled.
Before I first visited Michael, I had this unsettling feeling that a visit waiting room would be an intimidating place. It’s not. It’s full of support. I’ve chatted and nodded and shared stories with people from all walks of life. They notice my British accent and have all been respectful and kind. If I tried to play detective as to who lived where or did what, I’d lose magnificently. After a few visits, I now feel a part of the “visit room family” – a feeling I haven’t even felt with my own parents. It surprises me that my fear has turned to comfort. Now, like everyone else, I sit in anticipation of the treasured hours I will have that day sitting opposite my partner, surrounded by happy visitors.
But I have to pass security first, and that terrifies me. Will something I be wearing not pass the test? Will I be sent back to my car? Only on one occasion was my headband considered contraband. Common issues always arise with dress lengths or jeans being stretch pants. Relief floods through me when, with my identification and vending pass only, I’m allowed through the metal detector without mishap. I then make my way through the hall to the first locked holding room, then the second, before showing my psychedelic stamp at the final room, the visit room. I enter, find my table and run to the vending machine to get us both a soda. Food will follow shortly, but we have to chat about our morning first.
Occasionally, however, the prison visit room perplexes me. I look around at the couples and families at the tables sitting in neat horizontal rows and my mind boggles. If the men weren’t mandated to sit on a specified chair at the table while wearing matching white t-shirts and khaki trousers, we could be all sitting at a local Starbucks. Husbands pull out chairs for their wives. Children toddle around the room. Couples hold hands. Friends with hearing difficulties use sign language and laugh continuously. Vending machines spit out a veritable array of delights: chocolate bars my favorite, with the turkey salad sandwiches coming in a close second.
What brings me back to reality are the men in dark blue uniforms parading around the room. The guards peering at us intently through two-way glass. The counts that occur at various intervals throughout the day. The fact that my partner and I are always put in front of the two-way mirrors stationed by further guards due to his previous infractions and that prison photographs can only be taken in the poses allowed on the wall. My partner and I have had long conversations about what we long for: to be truly alone one day, as the visit room is always so busy. We are only allowed one kiss and hug at the beginning and end of the visit, and hand holding is the only other physical act allowed. Sometimes, we get a warning if we forget and touch each other’s faces or upper shoulders.
Yet each visit is precious. When I met Michael years ago, we talked endlessly about what was important to us. We concluded that there must be a connection. There must also be physicality, spirituality, emotionality and intellectuality. With the miles of sea that separates us now, physicality is undeniably as vital as a key to a lock. We are able to satisfy all our other needs with phone calls, but the most important relationship requirement of them all can only be met by a visit. How will we survive being so far apart? Normal relationships barely survive distance without all the other prison related restrictions.
So, each morning, when I wake up, I pensively open my eyes, check my phone and wonder about my family. When will I next see my partner in prison? Will the incarcerated community ever get visitation back? True, free video calls have been made available by JPay (a prison internet service) in many states, including Washington. I’m lucky enough to have a computer, even if it is 10 years old and always disconnecting. Technology, however, is not a replacement for true physicality.
Consider the power of human touch. The effect that visitation can have on the morale and rehabilitation of men and women who have unfortunately made mistakes. Does it really need to be 24 months before I see my partner in prison? Will it be 24 months before you see yours? I truly hope not.