I have come to realize that people who don’t interact with prisoners have no idea what it’s actually like to visit someone in prison. Most people who learn about my relationship with Matt will inevitably wonder what it’s like when we visit. They want to know if it’s like in the movies – is he behind glass? Do we have to talk on the phone? Do we get to touch at all? The idea of visiting someone in prison is totally foreign to them, perhaps even intimidating or scary. Now that I’m experienced with the process, I appreciate being able to normalize it for others who simply have no idea what it’s like. I used to be one of those people. My relationship with Matt has expanded my worldview and now I can share that expanded perspective with others.
The minute I walk into the visiting room, the humanity jumps out at me. Actually, it begins to jump out at me as family and friends gather in the entry of the facility, waiting to go through security. At this point, it is so clear that we’re all in the same boat – we have loved ones in prison and this is what we have to go through to spend time with them. Once we are in the visiting room, and the inmates are trickling in and greeting their visitors, it sinks in even more. These men are not monsters who deserve to be shut out from society and forgotten. These men are just that, men. If you look beyond the story that got them to this moment, you realize that they have families and friends who love them and who come to visit them, and play games, and eat food, and share time and space together. Yes, they’re doing it while crowded around a card table, in a prison visiting room full of other families, but they’re doing it nonetheless. This arrangement may not be “normal” for so many families out there, but for so many other families it is completely normal, and that’s what I have come to appreciate.
I have a five-year-old daughter. She visited Matt for the first time when she was a baby, and then again when she was 18 months old. When I was pregnant with her, Matt requested that he have the honor of feeding my daughter her first Snickers bar. When she visited him at 18 months old, his request was granted – she ate her first Snickers bar with him. Given the circumstances, that became a valuable milestone to be able to share with Matt.
During our visit last year my daughter was four. We all played Battleship together, made paper airplanes, ate junk food, colored, we even caught a frog that had found its way inside the visiting room. The correctional officer on duty happily obliged us in finding a cup in which to keep our frog during the visit.
My daughter and I returned from our most recent visit in April, where Matt taught her the intricacies of chess strategy, and she actually listened and learned and proceeded to beat him (with a little help from mom!). We made origami frogs, built castles out of giant Legos, played dodge ball with crumpled up paper and made birthday cards for her cousin. These are all memories we share between the three of us that have not been construed as unusual to my daughter. For better or worse, this is how she knows Matt in person. She doesn’t place a judgement on the situation, so why should I? Of course, she doesn’t like that there are so many “silly rules” in prison – that she can’t wear her most sparkly, twirly dresses or show him videos of our cats. She often wants to know why we can’t Skype with Matt, because we Skype with other family and friends who live far away. I have to explain that these are the restrictions that apply while Matt is in prison and, silly or not, that’s simply the way it is right now.
For me there isn’t anything unsafe, or “bad”, or emotionally traumatizing about visiting Matt in prison. I realize that others might feel differently, but for me it is a matter of priorities – it is my priority to spend time and space with Matt, who is family to me. That priority outweighs any conditions that might be placed on how or where we are awarded that time and space. The current circumstances may not be ideal, but I will take what I can get. The correctional officers have always been respectful, courteous and understanding, doing what they can to accommodate us in whatever way they are allowed. I am grateful for the time and space I DO get with Matt. I appreciate that he and I have been able to grow our relationship in the ways that we have, with the opportunities that we have had, as limited as they may be. I appreciate that Matt, River and I have been able to share time and space together. Matt and I have learned the art of seeing and appreciating the subtleties that become more apparent with such limited opportunity for interaction. It is true that this form of relating is different from the norm for so many people, and it may not be the ideal, but for now, for many of us, it is what we have. And for that, I am grateful.