October 9, 2018

From Shannon Turner, MSW, LCSW

At the time of writing this blog, there are two million, two hundred-twenty thousand, three hundred adults currently incarcerated in the US. In thirty-five states analyzed in a study, one in every ten inmates has served at least ten years in prison. My brother is one of the over two million inmates currently incarcerated in the US.

Outside prison walls are the families of inmates, mothers, fathers, partners, siblings, cousins, grandparents, and children. Families often have histories of multiple family members incarcerated over generations and carry the tension, shame, trauma, and stigma with them throughout life.

The majority of prisons maintain some form of a visitation program. What visitation looks like in each prison depends on the state, state policy, crime committed, and security level of the institution. The institution where my brother resides is in one of three states that allows for extended family visits. The state governor recently amended the policy to include “lifers” serving time with and without the possibility of parole depending on their crime. This amendment in policy presented my brother and me with an opportunity we had only dreamt about in the past. We applied for our first extended visit and it became reality shortly thereafter.

What Does Visitation Look Like?

I obsess over a list sent to me of what to bring and not to bring. I recite the packaging rules, measure my new duffel bag, and take great pleasure in purchasing toiletries more expensive than my usual purchases. I cannot wait to see his face light up at the smell of ocean breeze body wash and honeycomb shampoo. I spend hours carefully spending the maximum sum on our food and meals I order through an approved vendor. I daydream about the house on the prison grounds and our time together where we will sit outside the house, share food, and freely talk without the intense observation of guards.

The amount of logistical information prison staff provide me is endless but there are no trauma informed and/or support resources. I am about to walk into a situation I have no experience with. I have the perfect size duffel bag. I have my identification. I have a board game that excludes dice and play money.

I do not have context for the situation I am about to embark upon. I go in blind and for the next four days I hear, see, and experience things that take me back to my own history of trauma. The confinement stirs childhood memories I have tucked away. Therefore, I am here, writing of my experience in hopes someone out there with a bit of influence will hear me and therefore hear us.

I arrive on prison grounds early in the morning on the day of check in. I had already prepared myself to have hands on my body searching for contraband. Knowing I would be touched allowed me to prep and tap into coping skills that I would need to breathe. I wish I could say I had the knowledge of what to expect about the conditions of the visit overall.

Spending that time with my brother and seeing him experience the most freedom he has had in over two decades brings me an indescribable amount of joy. Being in a tiny refurbished storage closet that is in a cage and provides a visual finality that my freedoms are gone is hard. The night is the worst of all and panic attacks engulf me. Every two hours between the hours of ten p.m. and six a.m., we go outside and report to guards. Powerful lights light up a gray brick retaining wall at night and a watchtower looms over the enclosed area. There is some sort of walking bridge high up on the retaining wall and guards walk back and forth throughout the day and night. The sounds of alarms, all meaning different things and all going off at certain times of the day, not phasing my brother, make me want to drop to the floor and cover my head every single time. The mattresses for the “beds” are so hard that I have bruising all over my thighs from lack of circulation. Pillows are the same, a concoction of hard plastic filled with what feels like cement. At night, my panic attacks are so bad I feel on the verge of losing sanity and being outside of my physical self. During the day when guards walk by, some know my brother and greet him by his inmate number and not his name. Over the days I observe just how programmed my brother has become. He answers to his number as if it is his given name. Throughout the days, I avoid using the nickname I have for him and instead say his birth name as often as possible.

I left our visit tired, confused, sad, and traumatized. My first day back to reality was difficult; I was overwhelmed with the knowledge of how four days affected my well-being, and my brother, who is there indefinitely.

Importance of Family

Families visiting prisons are civilians not an extension of the crime committed. Families are the foundation of a prisoner’s existence and the very interaction that research shows lowers recidivism and helps inmates reintegrate back into society with more ease.

Extended family visits are important to both the prisoner and family, making sure to share information and support resources with families can help to improve the experience. Many of us cannot properly imagine what a four-day stay with our loved ones will look like. So tell us. Prepare us.

Tell us in our letter of rules and regulations that the house is in a cage and we will not have freedom of movement outside of the house. Tell us that from ten p.m. to six a.m. a phone will ring every two hours and we will go stand outside and wait for a guard. Tell us guards address the incarcerated people we love by a number and never by their birth name. Tell us alarms sound at different times of the day to let inmates know when to go to work, eat, shower, lock down in place. Tell us that if this is our first experience with an extended stay that we might feel stressed out by the confinement, conditions of housing, and loss of freedom.

While I cannot speak to the experiences for all those that have incarcerated loved ones, I write of this experience with a purpose, knowing that all too often society assumes our voices will remain silent and our needs will go unheard to avoid the stigma and shame often placed on us.