real life

'I never thought my boyfriend would go to prison. I've visited him 73 times over four years.'

Content warning: This post deals with themes of sexual assault readers may find triggering.

My legs spread apart, arms outstretched, fingers splayed and separated, I stood there and wondered if I’d be able to do this again and again.

His hands slid slowly down the curves of my ample hips. The contempt I felt collected as a sour bubble of anger in my stomach, inching its way up my throat. His toothy grin reminded me of a leering jackal sizing up innocent prey. I counted to 10 and tried to ignore his fingertips making rubbing motions near the crotch of my jeans. My back was damp with sweat, face splotchy red with embarrassment, teeth clenched in frustration while I prayed that this would soon be over.

He had the power, and I had no voice.

A gravelly voice crackled through the ancient, rusty metal megaphone mounted high above our heads, “That’s enough, Hawk.”

The buck-toothed oaf grunted in response, but he did remove his hands from my body. The sore muscles in my chest relaxed, and I released my breath, trying to control the hot, angry tears, trying to calm the bile rising in my throat. I refused to give this man the satisfaction of knowing how deeply he had rattled me. I refused to cry in his presence. And I wondered if things would be like this every time I came here.

This was the first trip to visit my boyfriend in a federal correctional facility, his new home for the next four years — thanks to an impulsive, short-sighted decision and mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.

What am I doing here? How did I get HERE? My life plan hadn’t included me — as a 19-year-old, third-year student — visiting the love of my life in federal prison.  I wasn’t naive enough to think that your entire life went just as you expected it to, but this detour was a shock. It felt more like drowning in quicksand than a minor speed bump. My love was responsible for many of the beautiful firsts in my life to date — first date, first kiss, first boyfriend, first sexual experience. Conversely, he was also related to the darker firsts that I’d rather forget — the first time a gun was pointed at me, first time wearing police handcuffs, first time visiting a federal prison.

prison
"When I arrived at the prison, I was confused. I’m not sure what I expected, but this wasn’t it." Image: Unsplash.
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When we met on the first day of year 11, there was an undercurrent of magic. We were both young and new to love, and we’d found something extraordinary in one another. Our family and friends weren’t quite as sure since we appeared to be opposites, but we naively and innocently dug our heels in and pushed forward. I showed him the proper way to tie a necktie, and he taught me the fine art of shooting dice. We had a connection that seemed illogical. Humour was one cornerstone that united our hearts, and laughter stayed at the core of our relationship, through all the highs and lows of a 20-year relationship.

This moment, this actual trip to an actual prison to see my actual boyfriend is the toughest thing I’ve ever had to manage.

When I arrived at the prison, I was confused. I’m not sure what I expected, but this wasn’t it. The outside of the prison looked like a neat and well-maintained park services building. It was a low, single-story brown brick building with enormous picture windows facing the parking lot. The aesthetic outside was that of a neighbourhood park with benches and low, wooden two slat fences. Barren trees lined the driveway to the parking lot, and the pathway to the front door was spotted with perfectly pruned green shrubs. Things looked and felt calm, the setting serene. It seemed that at any moment, a hummingbird might land on the hand-carved sign to serenade us all.

Was I expecting barbed wire? Definitely. Was I expecting dirty, grey bricks that looked like it was in a cold, depressing situation? Absolutely. This didn’t look or feel anything like I had anticipated. I smoothed my hands over my clothing, grateful that I had carefully and copiously taken an hour to review the four pages of wardrobe guidance. My jeans were not so baggy as to seem sloppy, but looser than I preferred to wear them. Paired with a loose cotton sweater, “understated” makeup, athletic sneakers that were easy to remove and slip back on, and a small purse stuffed with three rolls of quarters for snacking, I felt like I was ready.

I walked toward the entrance with a small group of women and wondered who they were all visiting. Walking along silently, most avoided making eye contact, and I couldn’t stop my mind from manufacturing a backstory for each person. The petite redhead with the clingy sweater dress had to be visiting her older fiancée who was inside for running a meth lab. Something in the way the older Black woman glided down the path told me that her husband was in for trading insider stock information.

Side note - The Quicky podcast investigated how celebrities prepare to go to prison in the podcast episode below. Post continues after audio.

Over a dozen women - girlfriends, wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters - pushed the pause button on their daily lives to share a few hours of connection with loved ones. No one else seemed anxious or nervous. I sensed I was the only newbie, and I slipped to the back of the pack to follow their leads.

The inside was sterile yet still more dignified than I had pictured. Six grey metal folding chairs with a tall, fake, potted plant surrounding them as bookends. A simple wood-grain desk, bare except for a slim three-ring binder and a single pen. The women knew to stand to the left side, directly in front of the chairs, and they each leaned down to remove their shoes. This was not covered in all the literature that had been sent to me, so I copied their actions. Shoes off, they each rummaged through their pocketbooks and wallets for photo ID and, once again, I did the same. One by one, leaving about four feet between themselves and the woman in front of them, they each held shoes in one hand while strolling to the desk to turn over their ID. The area was quiet; I was able to hear the exchange between the stoic female guard and each visitor.

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“Your name?”

“Inmate number you’re here to see?”

“Relationship to the inmate?”

“Are you carrying any contraband?”

“Step to your right for a pat-down.”

Again and again, she spoke with no eye contact, delivering the same questions in precise order, with an unchanging monotone delivery for each woman. Once someone stepped to their right, they were out of the field of view to those of us still waiting for entrance. The guard at the desk would not take a new visitor until she got the all-clear from an out of sight officer. Sometimes the wait between women was short and other times longer. I wondered what caused the time variance, but since no one had uttered a word to another visitor since arriving, I decided to stay silent.

Finally, it was my turn. I was the last one to approach the desk. I had all my answers ready since I had memorized his inmate number months prior. Instead of four questions, I was asked five.

“Is this your first visit?”

I was given what can best be described as a three-minute pre-visit monologue about the dos and don’ts inside the visitation room and the charges that would be levied upon me if I failed to comply. I had no desire or plan to break any rules, yet this harsh pre-scolding still made me uneasy. I nodded and headed for my pat-down, which was in a small coat room that had been converted to a “search area.” That disgusting, obnoxious correctional officer that performed my first pat-down would be etched in my mind for many years to come.

After his inappropriate assault, I entered the visitation room in a bit of a daze. The older, polished woman that I had noticed earlier made eye contact with me and nodded, softening her eyes. She reminded me of my older aunties who could silently communicate just about anything with a change in their eyes. At that moment, I knew that she was aware of what had just happened to me. Had it happened to her, or was it something that only happened to young, fresh meat visiting for the first time?

I found a seat at an empty picnic table and tried to compose myself before my boyfriend arrived. I wanted to be relaxed and not colour our visit with this unpleasantness. We had always been able to discuss any and everything, but I knew that I shouldn’t share this with him. In that quick encounter, I realised that my pie in the sky dreams about his “extended stay” being short and something we could get through as long as we stayed positive had a fundamental flaw in its foundation. He was locked away in prison, and I was in my own prison of sorts.

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visiting boyfriend in prison
"This moment, this actual trip to an actual prison to see my actual boyfriend is the toughest thing I’ve ever had to manage." Image: Unsplash.

My desire to love and support my best friend through the next four years meant that I would have to endure pieces of his punishment.  The emotional support I had grown to love would be lessened, and I would not be able to lean on him in the ways I expected. With all that he would encounter daily, I decided that I would filter out as much of the negative as possible so as not to add to his burdens.

When he finally came through the door, I was so relieved and happy to see him, it took no effort to give him the megawatt smile that first attracted him to me. He strolled toward me with a matching grin, and I almost forgot that I wasn’t allowed to jump into his arms. Inmates and visitors could make “appropriate physical contact” at the beginning and end of each visit. I stood as he neared my table, and he pulled me into a quick embrace. He smelled faintly of baby powder and soap. The changes since seeing him in the courtroom four months ago were subtle — cheeks a little leaner, beard much fuller, moustache gone, and eyes dimmer. But this was my heart, and he looked terrific to me.

Sitting across from one another and not being allowed to hold hands was agony. We spent the next seven-and-a-half hours talking, laughing, and snacking under the watchful gazes of three strategically placed guards. The $30 worth of quarters that we fed into overpriced vending machines lasted well into the afternoon. Our conversation travelled from the mundane to the silly and around to heartfelt before dipping into a debate. As we neared the end of the visit, his demeanour changed, and a sadness set in. Before he said a word, I knew he wanted to discuss the shadow in the room.

“Four years is a long time Taya.”

“I know that.”

“I love you too much to do this to you.”

“You’re not doing anything to me. I’m grown, and I can make my own decisions.”

His eyes glistened with unshed tears and unspoken words. What had seemed like an adequate amount of time suddenly felt like seconds when “Five minutes” was announced over the PA system. I failed miserably in my effort to stay strong and not dissolve into a puddle of tears when hugging him goodbye. We held on to one another, not knowing the date of our next visit. Watching him and the other gentlemen lineup to be led away from us was crushing. It reminded me of the lonely walk we had taken to begin the day.

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That day was the first of 73 visits I would make over the next four years.  Those visits, and the changes in our relationship as we matured from teenagers to adults, were monumental. We both knew without a doubt that our bond was permanent, and we worked hard to plan for a future beyond those walls. Despite the obstacles, we survived those four years.

Our lives evolved in the direction we wanted based on hard work, a good plan, the support of my parents, my family, our friends, and big dreams. We married, bought a house, planned for and brought a son into the world, and enjoyed our lives together until his death in 2012.

Daily, my memories of him are deeply layered — beginning with our first encounter in eleventh grade to the shock of his sudden heart attack.

Nostalgia, laced with humour and longing, control most of those thoughts. Still, without any warning, a smell, a sound, or a look can carry me swiftly back to that first visit to that prison. It’s been over 20 years, yet the physical details and emotions from that day had a permanent place in the fabric of our relationship.

If this post has raised issues for you, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.

This post originally appeared on Ravishly and was republished with full permission. You can read more from Ravishly below:

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