The prison has been the third person in my relationship for years, and now it’s the third person in my marriage
Everything changed in 1994 when I started ninth grade and met Jason. At 14, I thought I was so mature, flirting with boys and acting grown, but in reality, I never got serious or physical with anybody. I was set on going to Spellman and becoming an obstetrician, until I got pregnant with my son Tre, and Jason and I became an instant family. Now I had to go to college. Jason tried to make quick money on the streets to make up for everything he never had, staying out all night selling dope, stealing cars, whatever it took. He couldn’t say he was going to college with me, but he felt if he put up enough money it would show he was all in. For him college was something on TV. He was homeless, a high school dropout, a gang member, and drug dealer. He didn’t have the words to tell me he cared — nobody ever taught him — so he showed me with money instead.
About eight months after Tre was born, my mom was out of town for the weekend, so I posted up on her good couch, laughing at Steve Erkel, eating Hamburger Helper, waiting for Jason to show up. He was late, and I was worried. We didn’t get to kick it often just the three of us, with the house to ourselves, and he was passing up a rare family moment.
The trial took almost a year to complete, all while I was trying to finish high school with a baby. I was a minor with no car and no babysitter. My mom didn’t like Jason at all, and his absence made everything more palatable for her — I still made the honor roll, and remained on track for great things. Jason didn’t want me coming to court anyway. I think deep down he was ashamed.
One night, Granny handed me the cordless phone in her kitchen.
“What happened?” I asked anxiously. “What they give you?”
“22 years” he said, still calm.
I left my body and sank into the kitchen floor. My one-year-old son saw how sad I was and put his hand on my shoulder, his face on my face. I kept crying.
“Stop crying.” Jason said.
It’s July, and I’m melting in my perfect white dress. The line to the prison is always long, but today seems even longer. Calipatria State Prison is in the middle of the Southern California Desert, less than 50 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border and almost 200 miles southeast of Los Angeles, far from anything familiar. The prison is surrounded by alternating patches of dirt and fields that aren’t fruitful. You can’t escape the sun out here, and being below sea level makes it even hotter. In the middle of all this heat and dirt, cars are lined up bumper to bumper for miles. It looks like the beginning of a disaster movie — after the evacuation notice but before everyone starts to panic. Through each car window you can see people taking naps, changing diapers, brushing their teeth and waiting to move forward even an inch. I pull past car after car until I get to Chastity’s, where she’s saving our spot.
Chastity greets me with a glistening smile, the metal in her braces reflecting the harsh desert sun. We met through our boyfriends. We’re both regular visitors and over the past six months we’ve become super close. She’s developed a hard exterior over the years but this morning her smile gives her away. She tells me and my family—my two sons, my mom, auntie, my cousins Kawai and KaNesha, my friend Shanise, and my granny—to pull our cars in front of hers. Usually getting in line takes all kinds of planning; someone needs to leave their car in line early the day before. Inexperienced visitors show up early in the morning or late the night before and sleep in their cars, but Chastity and our crew have a system. Someone drops off a car the day before and gets a ride back to town, so when we show up on visiting day we’re not waiting at the back of a line of cars three miles long. After three hours driving from LA out to Calipatria, not having to worry about the line is like hitting every green light with no traffic.
Even with the best spot in line, I’m impatient. CO Davis, who passes cars through the gate every Saturday, is late. I don’t want no bullshit today. It’s 7:45 a.m. and we’re still not moving. The Justice of the Peace is arriving at 9 a.m. and my family still has to get through security. I get out and walk to my family’s car to try to ease their impatience, even though they should be trying to make me feel at ease today. I tell them to be ready and pay attention, looking back at the cars stretched forever into the desert. Davis, the thin dark-skinned officer in aviator glasses, waves for us to pull up to his booth. “How many visiting?” he with a joking laugh in his voice. I’m a regular, and he knows I’m here with my whole family. He checks my ID and gives me a visiting pass, then waves us through to the parking lot. I give everyone a once-over to make sure they’re dress code compliant. No slip-ups today.
Now the next round of waiting begins. The waiting room is super full today, and not much to look at — it’s a generic room filled with hard folding chairs, a couple of vending machines and a desk for security. Nothing is comfortable; everything is designed to ensure visitation is temporary. The bathrooms never work right. You can’t bring any bill larger than a dollar for the snack machines. There’s a vending machine to buy picture ducets — the tickets you give to the porter in the visitation room so they can take Polaroids of you during your visit. 2 dollars a ducet, one ducet per picture. The porters aren’t photographers, just someone in the prison they assign to take pictures for the day, and there are no do-overs. Luckily for us, Jason already handled the picture arrangements. All we have to do is wait for our number to be called, and then it’s showtime.
But here’s where things can go good or bad, depending on who’s working. Luckily I’m a regular and I know just about everyone. And even if I don’t know them, I know how to talk my way through, how to finesse the guards and the rules. But today I have to get nine people through. Plus, I’m wearing a dress with no back — that’s a violation. No backless, no sleeveless, no spaghetti straps allowed. I’m trying to be slick with my shawl to cover it up, but if the officer behind the security desk wants to make a big deal out of my dress, it could make for an even longer day.
Of all the dreams for my wedding, watching my whole family go through a security checkpoint was never one of them. Prison security is a degrading experience. It’s not like an airport, where the pat downs might get on your nerves or add a hassle to your day, but you get to move on. A TSA agent isn’t going to tell you to change your clothes or shoes, or tell you after you go through security that you can’t go catch your plane “just because.” In prison, they can stop the whole visit because they feel like it. Plus they can talk crazy, make little cutting comments, interrogate you like you’ve done something wrong or you have something to hide. You’re at the mercy of the state for wanting to see the person you love. At any moment an intimate and humiliating search could become part of my wedding guest’s experience.
I put my shawl in the bin, and the officer looks at me: “You know you cannot have your back out.”
I put on my slickest voice.
“I have this shawl, it covers my whole back,” I say. “And I’ll wear it the whole time, I promise.”
If she decides the shawl isn’t good enough, I’ll have to change my whole outfit, or wear a t-shirt over my beautiful dress. I get lucky — the officer lets me live, and we are shuffled outside into the heat to wait for the gates to the prison to open. The shooters in the towers give the all clear and we walk through. Visiting room C is a good five-minute walk from the gate, in 115-degree heat, surrounded by cement, in heels. We show the officer our pass, the guard confirms the number of people in our party and shows us to our pre-school sized table. We pull up in hard metal folding chairs, which are too tall for the tables — a tactic to make sure guards can see our hands at all times.
The windowless white room feels more like a storage container than a space for humans. Rules for adults and children that dictate how to touch and how to talk are the only art on the walls. Any kind of meaningful interaction is strictly controlled. More vending machines line the walls. According to the pamphlets available at check-in, Calipatria’s visiting rooms are meant to maintain connection between the people who live inside these walls and their loved ones on the other side, but really this room is designed to chip away at everyone’s humanity. Even visitors are controlled by the state. You have to stay focused on why you’re here, because it’s easy to sit in this space and never want to come back.
Guards will walk my groom down the aisle to me. The door they’ll escort him through is solid white, no glass, so I have no idea what’s happening on the other side. Sometimes men are searched before coming into the visiting room and sent back for petty reasons, for “attempting to bring out contraband,” which could be anything — something he made out of yarn, a perfume sample from a magazine he ripped out, little notes to read after visiting is over. There’s always a possibility that the person you’re coming to see won’t show up.
But today Jason does, and in our little corner of the room, we have our wedding. I always pictured my ceremony as an intimate affair with a few close relatives and friends as guests. But here there is no privacy: We also have to invite the 60 other people in the room — no control over who’s watching, listening, making themselves part of the ceremony just by being there.
It’s time for our vows. I start with, “I’ve loved you ever since I was fourteen,” and I start crying. I feel overwhelmed by the moment, the space I’m in, the lack of privacy, the expectation that I pour out my heart in front of a crowd of people I don’t even know. The excitement and anxiety I’ve felt all day, added to this hostile prison space with its strangers, is enough to make my emotions overflow. When I don’t stop crying immediately, the Justice of the Peace turns to Jason and asks him to recite his vows. Even when my sobs of joy stop, I’m in full sensory overload and can’t focus. I have no idea what Jason said, but we exchange rings.
“OK. I pronounce you husband and wife. Kiss the bride,” the Justice of the Peace says plainly. She’s more like a Justice of the Peace-out, ready to be done. The second she stops talking she’s headed for the door.
The next couple of hours in the visiting room are our honeymoon: we share a drink from the vending machine and reflect on how the day went. Jason’s time in prison has been as much about keeping me out as keeping me in. Visiting him consistently for the 10 years he’s been inside is a challenge to the prison itself — as is our marriage and my commitment to the next 10 years ahead of us. Staying connected to Jason is an act of resistance, of not letting the prison or the system change who I love and how I live.
“Visitation is over.”
And with a brief, state-approved kiss to end our visitation honeymoon, my wedding day ends. Crossing back from the prison grounds into the visitor’s center snaps me back to reality. The gate closes behind me and I’m brought back to the present with the guards, shooters in the towers, and all the ambient noise of the prison that reminds me where I am. The prison has been the third person in my relationship for years, and now it’s the third person in my marriage. I didn’t just marry Jason. I had to marry the prison too. Prisons use family as leverage — the threat of restricting visitation is an easy way to make people inside behave — and it often ends up punishing those on the outside as well. My husband and I can’t make decisions on our own: It’s a constant consultation and struggle, with arguments, compromises, and agreements between all three of us.
I walk alone back down the pavement from the visiting room, back through the reception area to the parking lot. I think about what I won: I had my wedding and my day, and nobody stopped me. Chastity and my homegirls visiting the other yards meet me in the parking lot. We pile into my rental minivan to go to Golden Corral for my wedding reception. Tomorrow I get to do it all over again. Back to the line. No dress this time. No shiny shoes. No makeup. No family. Just me, Jason, and Calipatria State Prison.
The story goes that prisons are places for people who made the wrong choices. But consider that Jason and I didn’t choose to grow up poor. Jason didn’t choose to get lost to the system, to lose his mom to addiction, to be left to family members who were supposed to look out for him and instead took advantage of him. We didn’t choose to be born in the United States where punishment is valued over education. I didn’t choose who I fell in love with. But I did have a choice about living on my own terms and how I’m going to love. I took what I could control and I chose that. Getting married in a prison wasn’t my dream, but I choose to get married in Calipatria because I refused to let the prison system dictate how I would build my family. I had my wedding, regardless of what I had to do to have it.
Keeonna Harris is a 2018-19 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University, where her research focuses on gender, motherhood, and incarceration.