How It Really Feels to Be a Prison Wife

Yesterday I posted another story to my Facebook feed, about a man who died on the floor of his cell in a local county jail of treatable injuries.

For more than five hours, a Yamhill County Jail inmate writhed in pain on his mattress, clutched his side, walked 19 times to the door to press an intercom button for help and urinated blood in the toilet inside his cell, but no one came to help Jed Hawk Myers, according to jail records, video and police investigative reports. (source)

These stories don’t surprise me anymore.

I only posted this one of many similar stories because it was local. And because the fact that he died on the day he was to be released makes it more poignant. He was in jail because of a parole violation. He was 34. He had a five year old little girl, a fiance, parents, a sister. They are still grieving.

When I read stories like this, I always scroll down to the comments. I want to know how people feel. I’m searching for some sign that they care. Because this is every family member’s worst nightmare: their loved one dying alone, in pain, while the medical staff ignores their cries for help. Stories like this make me feel helpless and terrified. It’s an ongoing stressor in my life and will be until my husband is released.

On this story, as is typical of stories like this, many of the comments are some version of “If he didn’t want to die he shouldn’t have been in jail”. Americans especially often seem completely merciless when it comes to incarceration. I think this is the result of decades of dehumanization of people who have committed crimes throughout every kind of media. In this case, the picture shows a man who is clean-cut, white, with no visible tattoos or other obvious class markers— he looks like someone you’d see at a coffeeshop in downtown Portland. So in this case at least, it’s not racism or classism or other stereotypes. It’s purely incarceration-ism. It’s the judgment that if you have been in jail or prison you’re now tainted and deserve everything bad that ever happens to you, up to and including dying horribly.

How do you come back from that kind of dehumanization, as a society?

There are no pride marches for the current or formerly incarcerated and their families.

There is no movement to understand and empathize with people who are criminal justice-involved. Nobody complains if you make a joke at a prisoner’s expense. As a prison wife, I have experienced that people also think I deserve the pain I go through, for choosing to be with someone in prison. I don’t talk about it very much because there’s always that voice saying, “Well, you chose it.” But it’s really the same dehumanizing voice. It says, “Your pain doesn’t matter. You don’t deserve compassion. There’s something wrong with you or this wouldn’t be happening to you.” And that voice is the voice of America towards people in prison and the people who love them.

That voice plays out every day across jails and prisons and courtrooms. It is embedded in the lack of medical care, in harsh sentencing, in denial of parole year after year, in the rampant use of solitary confinement, and in sentencing juveniles to life in prison. It’s in every part of the system down to all the petty rules I have to follow every day to visit my husband. It’s baked into the walls and barbed wire. Your pain doesn’t matter. You deserve to suffer. No amount of suffering is enough. You can die for all we care. That’s the voice of society toward well over two million people — far more if you count family members, and those who have a criminal history but are not currently incarcerated.

After 3.5 years of being with a man who is in prison, that voice has changed me. It hurts. It’s not a hurt I can name very well. It just feels like I’m not part of society anymore. Not really. Because I have been put through so much suffering, so much pain and anxiety and worry and stress and grief, just for loving someone who committed a crime. And I don’t want to be part of a society where loving someone makes you deserve suffering. I don’t want to be part of a society that leaves people to die in a system like this, after bathing them with shame.

Prison is an alienation-producing machine.

Prison is both a symptom of and cause of a deep social disease.

We need each other. A healthy human society depends on the bonds between individuals. It is the lack of those bonds that allows dehumanization to grow. If you don’t know anyone who is in prison, it is almost impossible to not make assumptions about them, including the assumption that they are being treated appropriately and that someone else is taking care of it. Instead of personal experience, we fill in the blanks in our minds with TV shows; courtroom dramas that begin with a gruesome crime and end with people being taken away in handcuffs. Bad people, evil people. People who deserve to be punished. Over and over I’ve seen people referring to people in prison as “rapists and murderers”, even though these crimes account for a small percentage of people in prison.

And in those shows, they leave out so much. They don’t show the person’s kids crying as they leave the visiting room after having to say goodbye to their dad, week after week, year after year. They don’t show that child’s face begin to harden as they grow up trying to make sense of why their father can’t come home. They don’t show the confusion, the pain, the disillusionment it produces to have a primary bond become strained, attenuated, and oftentimes, broken, because of an event that feels so far away from the present and which can never be repaired, addressed, or resolved. They don’t show this pain that has no name, the pain of your heart being crushed by a system that prizes security at all costs.

There is no price in human connection or human potential that is too high to pay for the safety that people feel prison provides, even when that safety has been shown to be false. And there is a willful ignorance to believing that only the people who have committed the crime pay that price. Prison is a sentence given to an entire family. To think otherwise is to deny the most basic need of humans for connection with those they love. Humans adapt to discomfort and deprivation. It is cost of connection that makes prison a place of despair.

I have always wanted to heal the world. But how do you heal this? How do you repair a society that has built machines to destroy the bonds that hold society together? I am still looking for an answer. Sometimes I despair that there is an answer. Is this what humanity is? Can we do something else? And how do we change what we have become?

I know you can’t solve a problem until you can see it, listen to it, and communicate about it. But this is a very hard topic to talk about. I’m a writer, and I’ve hardly written anything about it in three years. I feel the weight of the shame it produces. I hear all the questions people have asked me, tinged with fear and doubt and judgement whether they want to judge or not. I understand because I felt and thought the same things when I first stepped into a prison as a volunteer. It took me years to work through them. I still find this conditioning lurking in my brain sometimes. How can I explain everything I’ve experienced, when it’s the complete opposite of everything that people believe? How can I ask for mercy for people who we have been trained to believe do not deserve it?

The gap feels vast and I still do not know how to bridge it. And it’s hard to believe that anyone cares to when I read stories like one linked above and see the comments. Bridges have to be built from both directions, right?

By writing this, I’m asking you to care. I’m asking you to consider what it would feel like if someone you love right now, someone whose presence in your life you take for granted, was suddenly gone, and the only way you could see them was to travel to an institution, go through a metal detector, past the wall, the barbed wire, several gates, and talk to them across a little table while being observed on camera and by an officer a few feet away. Or if you’d rather you could pay $10 to talk on the phone for an hour, knowing it was being recorded, and the person you are talking to is on a prison yard, having to be constantly aware of what is around him to stay safe. What would that conversation be like? What would it do to the connection you have with this person, for it to be require so much effort and discomfort to be close to them?

Connections wither under these circumstances. When you go to prison, you lose your friends quickly, and your family slowly. The only people left year after year in the visiting room are the spouses, and a few dedicated parents and siblings. It takes an immense amount of dedication to maintain a relationship with someone in prison.

Studies have consistently shown that maintaining close ties with family leads to better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism. So why would a prison be structured in a way that makes closeness almost impossible? If we know what is healthy, why do we have a system that does the opposite?

I don’t know how to change the system. It is huge, entrenched, and “resistant to change” doesn’t begin to cover it. All I can do is tell you what I am experiencing and ask you to consider that the idea you have of prison is not at all what it really is. Because there are a whole lot of people who are suffering who are completely locked away, out of sight, and without anyone to speak for them. They can’t come ask you to care about them. They need you to remember they are there, and have been there, sometimes for decades. They need you to imagine that they are not the monsters you’ve been told they are. They could be your brother, your child, your partner. They have family they don’t get to be with. There is a missing piece in a family where they used to belong.

They feel regret and remorse just as you imagine you would if you did something wrong. They have made mistakes. But what if we could give people a path to redemption, instead of endless punishment? Isn’t that what you would want for yourself, or someone you love? What have we lost as a society when we no longer consider people able to be healed, helped, redeemed, or rehabilitated? What do we believe about our own humanity if think that despair and shame will inspire people to be good? I don’t see how you can make people better humans by treating them as less than human.

A healthy society would have to be founded on the idea of honoring human connection, and honoring the fact that we all need each other. A society like that would never build a prison. Because the one thing prison says louder than anything else is: we don’t need you. But it’s a lie. And that lie has to be faced for us to heal from it.

They need you. And you need them, you just don’t know it yet. Because we all need each other. That is what it means to be human.