The Bars That Bind

Eight years for burglary. Eighteen for rape. Life for murder. Five women talk about doing time with their men behind bars.

Women On The Outside

The numbers tell their own story: Since 1970, the head count in federal prisons has swelled from just over 21,000 inmates to more than 110,000. Sixty percent of them are in on drug charges, and, no surprise, 93 percent are men. If incarceration rates stay on track (though many in criminal justice agree they're likely to increase) the Federal Department of Corrections estimates that 1 of every 20 Americans will do time at some point. At the end of last year, the 93 federal prisons, three of them in Minnesota, were operating at 19 percent above capacity. By the turn of the millennium, jails and prisons across the nation are expected to count more than 2 million inmates under their roofs on any given day.

In Minnesota the corrections department reports that the state's prisons housed 1,200 people in the early 1970s, but today more than 5,300 are behind bars; by the year 2006 that number is expected to hit 7,000. Ninety-five percent of those prisoners are men--more than half of them were married or with girlfriends when they went in. By the end of 1997, one of the seven state prisons was operating at 15 percent over capacity; another at 24. Right now corrections officials are looking to convert the former Brainerd State Hospital into a prison, and the department has been given funding from the legislature to expand three of its seven existing facilities. In January 2000, Minnesota will open a new, $89-million prison currently under construction in Rush City, designed with a state-of-the-art security system and 952 beds.

There's no question that every sentence handed down alters lives: those of prisoners and the victims of crime, surely, but also of the families, children, and partners of convicts left behind on the outside. More than half of the men in federal and state prisons are fathers of minor children; in Minnesota, 15 percent of prisoners are married. Some women with boyfriends or husbands in prison--no one keeps close count of the numbers--want nothing more to do with them after the verdict. As often, though, they stay in touch and stick it out--for better, for worse--arranging their lives around long bus rides, two-hour visits, rationed phone calls, letters that arrive already opened, and the idea that the waiting is worth it.

Still, prison romances, for all of their troubles, have certain rewards. As Laura Fishman, author of Women at the Wall: A Study of Prisoners' Wives Doing Time on the Outside, puts it, "For a woman, courting lasts forever when your husband or boyfriend is incarcerated. He's attentive, talking about how wonderful life is going to be, making promises for a better life when he gets out. He's going to go to work, you'll buy a house in the country, he's going to be a good father." And, she points out, the couple comes to their visits at their best--dressed up, on good behavior, with nothing but time to talk without distraction. If ever these woman feel needed, Fishman says, it's when they're cast as their man's " emissary to the outside world."

Five women involved in prison romances tell their own stories here--shared during a bus ride to the Stillwater Correctional Facility, over coffee at a local café, at home once the kids have been put to bed. Each account, in its own way, takes up the question so often posed to them by family members, close friends, and--as if the answer couldn't simply be "for love"--by the men behind bars they visit: Why go through it? -Kelly Wittman

 

 

Colleen pads down the hallway of her Burnsville apartment to the bathroom and starts the shower. It's just after sunup this fall morning--September 22, her 38th birthday. She's usually up at this hour, readying for her job as a mortgage advisor. But today she's going to prison.

Colleen's fiancé Emil is behind bars in Green Bay, for first-degree murder. It's a good bet he'll be doing time until he dies, even if he dies an old man. Still, as she has for the past two years, she does her best to make the trip up there every couple of weeks. The neighborhood is quiet this early--just a few joggers and a wind that shakes burnt leaves off the trees. Colleen drives her station wagon to the I-94 ramp and onto the highway--every exit and rest stop familiar by now--that runs all the way to Green Bay, some 300 miles, five hours, to the east.

Eight years ago I was married and living in L.A. I found out my husband was having an affair. Then I had to file for bankruptcy because he stopped paying all the bills--he was a real spender. Right before he told me he didn't love me anymore, we traded in the car, which was in my name, for a $25,000 sporty one. And he defaulted on that. It was, like, $60,000-worth of bills he left me with. I had no car, no job, no place to live. I was sleeping on my dad's couch.

I'd been reading in Newsweek this list of promising careers. Corrections was the one with the least education required, and good benefits. So I moved to Wisconsin and went through the program at Oshkosh. They talked about rehabilitation, and that one of the big things that makes it work for men in prison is visits. When I worked as a guard, there were 600 inmates and, sad to say, probably 40 of them got regular visits.

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