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The Visit

By Donovan, Prisoner of the Drug War

"The Bureau of Prisons encourages visiting by family, friends and community groups to maintain the morale of the inmate and to develop closer relationships between inmate and family members or others in the community. - 28 C.F.R. § 540.40 (P.S. 5267.05, July 21, 1993)"

When I walk through the visiting room door I see her instantly, despite the crowd and the colorful riot of civilian clothes mingled with dull prison khaki. I have not seen my wife in five years due to poverty and the active federal policy of diaspora on an unprecedented scale. The separation, alienation and annihilation of families are what it is all about; all else is a lie.

I have forgotten how tall she is, how nicely squared her shoulders are, as she walks toward me. She stops an arm's length away and we make a quick appraisal of what five long years does. There are more lines in our faces but she has kept herself very well by a simple diet, exercise and even lifting weights. We eye each other almost warily. She gives me a slender smile at last, takes my prison-softened hand in her work roughened one and leads me to her place in the maze of chattering people: two hard plastic chairs near the charade of a Christmas tree. Goodwill to men, I remember, as a young girl shakes a gaily wrapped­­but empty­­Christmas package prop. That's right, sweetheart; your first lesson in American government.

We sit beneath the ubiquitous surveillance camera nestled in a Plexiglas bubble like the ball turret in a World War Two bomber, and just as menacing.

"Is it true they can read a person's lips with those?" she asks.

"It's an Orwellian age, kid. Big Brother has never been bigger." Being near her is like suddenly growing new nerve endings over old scar tissue. It strikes me anew how marvelously green her eyes are, like Chinese jade. She has high cheekbones and a full, if trembling bottom lip. I am reminded with the force of a sledgehammer blow just how much I love her.

"Been awhile, Donovan," she softly says.

"About twenty percent of our lives, so far. But only another thirty percent to go­­a piece of cake. Anyone can do 330 months, right?" Tears flood her viridian gaze and her handsome face contorts with a decade of unremitting pain.

"Do not cry!" I savagely hiss. "Every tear you shed is a federal victory." No Southerner in 1865 could have despised the federal government more than I do. We slowly, haltingly get reacquainted, but time is short and it flees with compressed talk of children, dogs and cockatiels, of births and deaths and marriages and divorce, of bills and taxes, the friends we had, the life we had: long walks, slow talks, sunsets and full moons over the desert. Trying hurriedly to fill in the gaps, and between us is the dreaded question and its dreaded answer.

Too brightly I ask, "Anyone special in your life?"

"Just one," she answers, carefully watching me. But is it too carefully answered, I wonder? And then again, what does it matter? By this time you can stand outside yourself atop your emotional hill. The view may be disheartening, like overlooking a junkyard, but at least it's clear. Life is too short for very much prison­­and this is an age, an epoch of imprisonment, with no relief in sight.

"I cannot see an end to this," I tell her flatly, "and you . . . must go on, you know?" I mean it too, although it's like being impaled. But she waves her hand dismissively, impatiently.

"How do they do it, do you think?" she distantly asks, changing the subject.


"The judges. The prosecutors. How do they take so much from people, day in, day out - forever?"

"I don't know. Some of them enjoy it."

"Could you do it?"

"Not on your life. But there are always those who can pull the trigger, drop the gas canisters, and in America, bang the gavel. It's all the same in the end, isn't it?"

"I wish you could see your mother . . "

My mother is elderly and not well. My father was stricken with cancer and died while I was in prison. I wasn't allowed to see him, of course, nor even attend the funeral. My sons have grown from boys into men in the last decade and have families of their own. I have never met their wives nor seen my grandchildren, but I refuse to burden them with the enormous cost of flying across country, lodging and the rest of it, for a hurried prison visit. They are struggling financially as it is and our circumstance is not unique: this is the rule, not the exception.

As three o'clock looms over us we try desperately to say the things that need saying, but our talk is patchwork, a badly done quilt of words: plane schedule, the long trip home: be safe, rest if you must; her promise to drive carefully. How is your uncle? When is Joanie's baby due?

I am secretly proud that she's learned to do flooring and lay tile, but I forget somehow to tell her. A brief kiss and she is gone. Goodbye, I think...goodbye my love.

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