“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead (1862)
A recent acquaintance with the writings of Maya Schenwar has given me gleanings about what the horrors of the U.S. prison system are actually like.
Maya Schenwar is the editor-in-chief of Truthout, described on its web site as a “nonprofit organization dedicated to providing independent news and commentary on a daily basis.” See
Ms. Schenwar’s sister Kayla has been jailed numerous times for victimless crimes: heroin use and dependency, as is explained in the former’s book Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better (2014). When the book was published, as is noted in the concluding pages, Ms. Schenwar’s sister had just been released from prison. Her current status is unknown, to me.
I first became aware of Ms. Schenwar through an op-ed piece of hers in The New York Times: “A Virtual Visit to a Relative in Jail,” By Maya Schenwar, The New York Times, September 29, 2016
Computer-based video visitation allows people in jail or prison to see loved ones who can’t visit in person for whatever reason—the long distance, disability, illness, a busy schedule or responsibilities at home. However, what Securus [a private company that manages phones in jails and prisons] doesn’t advertise is that, in many cases, you’re not allowed to visit any other way. …
When my sister began serving a sentence at the Lake County jail outside Chicago in July, I … planned to drive over immediately to see her. My sister had been incarcerated before, and I’d always relied on regular visits to help show my love and support. But I discovered that in-person visits were not allowed. All “visits” were to be conducted via video, through Securus’s system.
My options were to schedule a video visit at the facility (sitting in a booth alone) or at home. I scheduled an at-home visit, paying $5 for the privilege. Many jails charge more, but even $5, at regular intervals, can be a burden to families of incarcerated people, who are often poor. …
Moreover, at Lake County and a number of other jails that allow visits only by video, visits must be booked 24 hours ahead of time, which can be an impediment for families struggling to juggle busy schedules with the obligations that come with having an adult (often the primary wage earner) missing from a household.
In my attempt to visit with my sister by video, my visitation privileges were initially denied because of a blurry ID photo: Securus requires that you take a picture of your ID card with your webcam, an endeavor that’s harder than it sounds. This delayed me by a couple of days.
Eventually, I was able to schedule a visitation. The day before, I spent an hour researching and downloading the necessary system requirements for my computer. For people with an older or otherwise incompatible computer or less knowledge of technology — not an unlikely scenario, given the demographics of families of incarcerated people — those requirements could prevent a visit.
My preparation did me no good. I signed on at the required time … and waited. The minutes ticked by as a box telling me my “inmate” hadn’t yet arrived hovered on my screen (although my sister later confirmed she’d been present). After 10 minutes, I called Securus’s tech support. There are no extensions with video visitation; after the half-hour slot you’ve paid for has passed, your connection is cut. I sat on the phone with a helpless tech person, crying. I knew my sister would be devastated. I was worried she’d think I hadn’t shown up.
After a half-hour, the box disappeared. My visit was over. Despite several follow-up calls to tech support and emails to Securus, I never found out why it hadn’t worked.
The second time I tried a video visit, I succeeded in connecting. I was relieved when my sister’s face popped up on my screen. But our video conversation was glitchy: Her face was dim and her words were delayed and didn’t sync with the movements of her mouth. For much of the visit I saw only half her head, and neither of us could look each other in the eye, no matter how much I fiddled with my setup.
These problems weren’t unique to my experience: Technological issues are a common complaint with such visits. When the camera flickered off at the half-hour mark, I felt our conversation had hardly begun.
This article induced me to read Ms. Schenwar’s book: Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.
“The book … debunks myths about conjugal visits in prison, lays bare the ways that businesses gouge and exploit the family of prisoners through charging exorbitant rates for phone calls, highlights the importance of letters for and to prisoners, describes the deplorable treatment of pregnant and parenting mothers, underscores that ‘re-entry’ for most prisoners is exceedingly difficult because of the barriers they face and more.”
The sections about Ms. Schenwar’s sister were heart rending:
When my parents and I visit Cook County Jail for the first time in February 2009, it is a Saturday and the place is jam-packed. We squeeze into the slow-snaking security line, which curves around several ropes and bumps up against the doorway. Some visitors stare at their feet, hands stuffed in their pockets, trudging forward every few minutes when the line loosens. Others shout to their children to stay within the roped boundaries, fearing that they’ll be booted out for causing a disturbance. A thin, shivering woman standing in front of us is shaking her head over and over, rocking a blanket-covered baby in her arms.
As we inch closet to the metal detector, a guard pulls a tall young woman off to the side, gesturing to her short skirt and scoffing, “You think you can come in here like that? Huh?” After a few hesitant protests—”Sorry, sorry, I didn’t know”—she walks away slowly, toward the exit, face in her hands. We follow commands, removing our shoes and socks, stepping through the metal detector, raising our arms for the pat-down, following the officer who escorts us across the yard.
After a three-hour wait, we’re called into the visiting room, and we file through the narrow door. It’s a short, dim corridor lined with wobbly stools facing a thick wall of plexiglass with several barred holes. On the other side of the plexiglass, Kayla shuffles in with a few other women. They scrunch down in a row, each opposite their visitors, and lean toward the holes. We start talking—well, screaming—back and forth. We don’t scream because we’re fraught with emotion, though we are. We scream because we can’t be heard otherwise, due to the thickness of the plexiglass divide and the compressed cacophony of the fellow visitor-screamers competing with us on either side.
Eventually, I just go for it and press my mouth up against the bars of the hole so Kayla can hear me. I taste sweat and sour steel.
“How’s it going?” I scream.
“It sucks, what do you think?” Kayla shouts back. “I feel like my life is over. But, at least, I’m working out.” She twirls, her dismal blue smock flaring wearily.
Kayla’s arms have grown quite muscley (push-ups are a favorite pastime in jail), and her eyebrows are meticulously groomed, if a little greasy.
“Your eyebrows look awesome!” I yell.
“Thanks—we did them with thread that we pulled out of our jumpsuits!” she yells. “They don’t let us have tweezers! I learned it in Audy Home.” The “Audy Home” is the old name of Chicago’s juvenile detention center, where Kayla spent some time in 2005 and 2006. Now she pauses, then knocks her head lightly against the plexiglass, her eyes closed. “But no one gives a shit about my eyebrows, if you think about it. I just don’t know what else to do.” Mom and Dad take turns. Then I’m back on the stool. We quickly run out of things to talk about: Kayla doesn’t want to belabor how hopeless and miserable she’s feeling, and I don’t want to carry on about the happy things in my life—or the frustrating things in my life, most of which seem ridiculously trivial given the circumstances. Later, my dad observes, “What’s left to scream?”
Soon, a jarringly loud buzzer sounds, silencing all conversation. A guard calls time: Our thirty minutes are up. Kayla and her companions rise to march out. “I miss you I miss you I miss you I love you … ” Kayla calls, the ends of her words quivering. She touches her fingertips to the plexiglass before she’s led away. Then, “TIME!” a guard barks on our side of the glass, and we fall in line, too. …
[My] parents and my partner Ryan visit Kayla at Decatur Correctional Center (a central Illinois prison) in early summer of 2012—she’s in for retail theft, stealing over-the-counter medications to sell in order to pay for under-the-counter heroin. … Decatur is a minimum-security women’s prison. Unlike Cook County Jail, there are no long, cramped lines punctuated by guards barking orders. The waiting room is quiet and barely populated; family visits are much less frequent here. The four of us are privileged to be able to take the day off and spend the money to travel to this far-off spot.
A correctional officer (CO) leads us silently through a heavy door into a hallway, and my mother and I are intercepted by a female CO and pulled into a narrow, dusty room that smells like Lysol. Ryan and my dad are pulled into another. We’re patted down firmly, and I flinch as the CO’s hands pass over my breasts and between my legs. This is a mild ordeal compared to the strip search that prisoners themselves must undergo prior to each visit.
Inside the visiting room, the incarcerated women, all garbed in baggy, pale blue uniforms, are nevertheless dressed for the occasion: fingernails freshly lacquered in bright pinks and greens, just-applied layers of lip gloss and eyeliner. Later in an interview, activist and former prisoner Kathy Kelly tells me of how women hand over their meager dollars to the commissary (the prison store, which sells a rotating stock of overpriced items) for makeup and hair supplies, prepping compulsively for the visits of their partners, family, or friends. When Kathy first went to prison in 1988, the commissary sold only things like “oatmeal and Cracker Jacks,” but the selection has ballooned along with the size of the prison-industrial complex, feeding off prisoners’ desperation. Unable to control any other circumstances, many long to know that when family and friends catch a glimpse of them, they’ll think, “At least she’s looking good!”
Unlike Cook County’s heavy-aired, crowded cavern with its shouting-through-the-glass misery, Decatur’s visiting area is a real room, in which one can move one’s arms and legs and even walk around. We hug Kayla, sit down with her at a small, round table, and watch babies play with their incarcerated moms, although, of course, that scene is not uniformly cheery. When conversation stagnates, we can stroll over (without my sister, who must stay seated) to the vending machine and purchase aged treats: Kayla has come to favor a stale-tasting peanut butter and marshmallow lump, the offspring of a Moon Pie and a hardened Twinkie. …
“You would love it here, My,” I’m happy to be able spend an hour with Kayla face-to-face. But the relative “comforts” of visiting the prison bring to mind the fact that, unlike jail, this place is—for many of its inhabitants-—a very long-term residence, very far from home. And despite her soy dog jokes and vending machine enthusiasm, Kayla’s face is damp, stained with the residue of tears and sweat. She’s shaking like crazy and explains that she’s been sedated on large doses of prescription meds dubiously assigned for “anxiety,” then abruptly pulled off of them. Our chatter is peppered with “urn’s.” We revolve around safe topics, reaching for hypothetical fun activities we can do after she’s out, which mostly just involve hanging out in public. Ryan and I share plans for our upcoming wedding, for which Kayla has a slew of ideas—-purple candles, a rhinestone headband, a cheesy love song we both adored as kids. We nod and laugh and emit meaningless witticisms that skirt the fact that Kayla won’t be there for the wedding, that she’ll be here, crossing off the wedding day’s box on her countdown calendar, probably crying.
Undergirding our visit is a sense of quiet desperation. We know Kayla has practically nothing to do all day besides paint her nails with polish purchased off the commissary. We know she encounters regular violence and degradation from guards.
We know that the drug treatment program in which she was enrolled upon entering prison has since been eliminated due to state budget woes, and Kayla, by her own admission, spends a fair amount of her ample free time yearning for crack and heroin. We also know this: Though Kayla will be released in six months, she has absolutely no postrelease plans. How could she have plans? I wonder. In prison, “outside” exists as a diaphanous dream; untouchable, it’s sometimes tough to comprehend that it really still exists.
As we slip out, walking backward and waving to Kayla until the door shuts, Mom says, “It’s so weird that now she just stays here.” I look at her, then around to the other tables, where other prisoners’ families are hugging and sobbing and leaving. “It’s just a room, like any other room,” Mom says. “It’s almost as if she could just walk out with us!”
But of course she can’t. We spun plenty of vague dream-plans for our future life together as we sat around that table. (Traveling to New York to see Grandpa! Playing basketball with Ryan! Finally meeting each other’s friends! Writing together! Thinking together! Being “real sisters”!) But later that year, a couple of days after Kayla’s release, the two of us are “visiting”—joylessly munching cookies at a coffee shop and talking about nothing. She looks up at me and shakes her head languidly. “I don’t know what to do,” she says. “I don’t know what to say to people here. The only thing I know how to do is be in prison.”
In mid-June, my parents and I drive four hours to central Illinois to visit Kayla at Logan Correctional Center. Unlike her previous prison, Kayla’s current abode is a medium/maximum-security facility, and she has been assigned to a “maximum” unit. It’s a strange placement. The offense for which she’s incarcerated this time, we now know, is the theft of a bottle of perfume, intended to be a Christmas present. (She’s stolen before, usually planning to sell the items for heroin money, but this time she got caught.) However, this spot is the location where almost all of Illinois’ pregnant prisoners are placed. Kayla is now housed with women who are serving very long sentences, and seeing the years that stretch out before them seems to have a sobering effect. Kayla had a big group of friends—affectionately referred to as “my girls!”—-her last time down, but she’s not looking to re-create the scene. As we sit down at our cable, after Kayla has hugged us so tightly that our ribs ache a bit afterward, she says, “I just want to keep my head down and do my time.”
We move on to an extended debate about what to purchase from the vending machine, and settle on Fritos, strawberry milk, and an immense packaged cinnamon bun. I am dispatched, as Kayla is not allowed to get up. But I promptly fail my mission. Glum and distracted, I leave our prepaid vending machine card—no cash is allowed in the prison—in one of the machines after my first purchase. Only the strawberry milk is salvaged. I return to the machine after realizing my mistake and ask, “Has anyone seen my card? It had $20 on it.”
“Ugh, My,” Kayla groans, humiliated. “This is prison! You’re not gonna see that card again.”
Resigned, I hold the milk carton out to her. She shakes her head.
“I can’t even think about it,” she says, and it takes me a second to understand that she doesn’t mean the milk. “It’s just gonna be so hard this time.”
You’ll get through it, we say, though none of us can imagine carrying out a pregnancy while in prison, along with the agonizing anticipation of separation from her baby.
“I know,” Kayla says. “But what am I going to do?”
“Just think about the day you get out,” I say.
She pauses, and I realize again that we are talking about very different things.
“OK,” she says. “But what am I going to do the day after that?” …
It’s late July and humidity drenches the sweat-scented air of the visiting room at Logan prison. Kayla is shifting back and forth in her stiff chair, tugging at her pink polo shirt, which is standard attire for incarcerated pregnant women. The pink identifies them as particularly vulnerable bodies, should “something happen.” (The example Kayla gives is a physical fight: A person will get in more trouble, she says, if her adversary is pregnant.) She pushes impatiently at her belly, which is beginning to usurp the rest of her body. “I’m just moving Angelica around,” she explains. “She’s getting up in my rib cage.” Kayla’s a month and a half from her due date. We ask if her fellow prisoners avoid the topic of the pregnancy. Kayla shakes her head.
“People put their hands on my baby, and say, ‘Aww, when is she due,’ and am thinking, Who the hell did you murder?” she says, rolling her eyes. Logan houses all but three of the women convicted of homicide in Illinois. Kayla heaves her long hair into a pile atop her head, dark drizzles of makeup residue sliding out the corners of her eyes. “The next day, I find out. Oh great, you killed your kid! And your dog? Thanks for the good luck.” She smiles. Kayla’s sense of humor may be floundering a bit, given her current pool of material, but she’s still got it.
Murder jokes notwithstanding, Kayla often reminds me not to make assumptions about people based on their conviction. She’s friends with women convicted of murder—women who, in the midst of gang violence or domestic violence or any number of circumstances, made one horrible decision that condemned them for the rest of their lives. “Those crimes happened within a few minutes, usually,” she says. “And then they’re here forever.”
The clock inches toward our visit’s 7:30 departure time. We scoot closer, and Kayla grabs each of our hands to put on her belly. We feel the baby kicking. “Do you feel her now? Now?” she asks, and turns to Mom with a sudden, eager grin. “Are you excited to be a grandma?”
As we hurry back out to the car, I’m laughing and forgetting about the heat, bouncing a little as I make my way through the somber, emptying parking lot. The circumstances are wretched, but still—I’m going to be an aunt!
“I Want to Hold Her Forever”
At 4:47 a.m. on September 3, 2013, Mom wakes me up with news—”Kayla called she’s on her way to the hospital she’s really scared naturally whoa I can’t believe this is happening!” No one really can, including Kayla. Her water hasn’t broken, and she’s not having contractions. Yet, at the convenience of the prison, her labor has been scheduled for today: It will be induced.
Mom and I commence waiting by our phones. No family can be present during labor and birth. Kayla’s only company will be medical personnel and prison guards, who must watch her at all times. At some point after the birth, she’ll get one phone call to let us know the baby has arrived. Once Angelica is born, Kayla will have twenty-four to thirty-six hours with her. Then the baby will be taken away, and Kayla will return to prison by herself.
I’ve never seen someone give birth in real life. My images of it, culled from movies, books, and friends, all feature groups of anxious, excited loved ones clustered inside and outside the birthing room, radiating warmth and comfort, preparing to ring in a time of communal celebration. I can’t imagine anyone having to go through it alone. Kayla will not only be alone but also literally confined to her hospital bed: As soon as she’s given birth, she’ll be shackled to the bedposts.
Finally, at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Mom calls the prison and pleads for news. She’s transferred around and finally handed off to a counselor. He doesn’t have much information, he says, and he shouldn’t be telling her anything, but here’s what he knows: “Ten fifty-two a.m., seven pounds, five ounces.”
“EEEEE!” I dance and cry around the kitchen. “Ten fifty-two, seven pounds, five ounces! Ten fifty-two, seven pounds, five ounces!”
Then I stop. Is Kayla OK, health-wise? How did she handle almost twenty-six hours of labor? Did she get to breastfeed? When will they be separated? Aside from weighing seven pounds and five ounces, what’s Angelica like? How is she dealing with methadone withdrawal? (Kayla has been kept on a steady dosage of methadone over the past few months in prison.) How is Kayla taking the anticipation of a different kind of withdrawal—withdrawal from her baby, whom she’s only just met? Mom redials the counselor and asks him why Kayla can’t yet call.
“She’s in the free world right now, so there are security considerations,” she’s told. The warden has taken the day off and can’t authorize the call, and the guards in the hospital room haven’t allowed Kayla to pick up the phone.
The free world. This was the phrase used in the Cold War era to distinguish the US and friends from their communist foes. This was the phrase Neil Young used, ironically, to describe many Americans’ poverty and despair, in “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.” The American president is the “leader of the free world.” I think, In what “world” do America’s incarcerated live (that is, when they’re not giving birth alone except for the company of prison guards)? Who’s responsible for that un-free world; where mothers are torn from ‘their babies every day?
Finally, my mom gets the “one call” from Kayla. She puts her on speaker and calls me in. Kayla’s breathing rapidly, and I can’t tell whether she’s laughing or crying as she gasps, “Oh my God, she is so beautiful. And I love her, I love her, I love her, and. I just want to hold her forever.”
Angelica is wailing full-blast when Kayla holds her face up to the receiver.
In the background, Kayla is sobbing “My little baby, she doesn’t even know what’s coming,” and her voice is heavy with the weight of the prison-bound pregnancy, the lonely labor, the painful birth, the love-at-first-sight, the shackling, the dreaded moment of separation, and the eighty-one days of waiting to come.
An hour after our conversation, Kayla is handcuffed and led away from her baby and back to prison.
When my parents and I visit Angelica in the hospital, long after Kayla’s gone, she’s wide-eyed, squirming in her tiny bassinet. Taped to the wall of her crib is a three-page note filled with my sister’s neat, decorative handwriting: a list of instructions. She likes the top of her mouth tickled with the tip of the pacifier or your finger. It helps her feed. She loves to be held. She loves when you hold her hand. And on, and on. And then: I love you so so much, baby. I promise I’ll be home soon.
Deepening the irony, that “seizing” is more likely to happen if women admit to drug problems, seeking rehabilitation: “Their admissions are used as evidence of their incapacity to be good mothers.”
Indeed, as the weeks tick down to Kayla’s release from prison, the Department of Child and Family Services will pay her a visit. Because she has admitted to a drug addiction, she’ll be told, she might be denied custody of her child, even after release.
On the afternoon of the parenting class conversation, as we’re driving out of the parking lot, Mom provides a word of commentary: “Probably, a better parenting lesson would involve letting her actually spend time with her child.”
And then we head off to the hospital to see Angelica, who’s tucked into her nursery crib, alone.
And then what?
— Posted by Roger W. Smith