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.

Anyway, I was just a few weeks out in December 1994, at my first assignment--the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wis. I first noticed Emil while I was guarding the housing unit where he served as head cook. He was 22. I was already into celebrating my thirtysomething birthdays. There was just some strange connection between us. We just feel like it's fate.

After we met, I looked at his card--they have a book with everybody's crime and sentence in it. He'd been in for four years then. It's eight now. He killed somebody when he was 18. I can't say that it was an accident, no. I saw his sentence was life. I just--I just felt terrible. He said he'd been in trouble ever since he was a little kid. His dad has been in and out of prison. His mother was murdered when he was 3, in some kind of a mob retaliation thing. His brother is in prison for

the same incident. Emil was in and out of group homes a lot, and spent a year in the county jail. He was into cocaine back then, and his life was just a mess. If he hadn't ended up in prison, he'd probably be dead somewhere.

Well, the next February I started calling Emil from home while I was off duty. I knew it was against the rules. When I'd write him letters, I'd change my handwriting and my name, and mail them from other towns. If I happened to be working near him, we'd try to spend as much of my eight-hour shift together as we could arrange without being noticed--so we spent a little quality time.

Within the year, it was clear I needed to resign and stop my secret life. I quit at the end of February 1996, but not before some of my co-workers at the prison learned the reason. "Inmate-loving bitch" was the kindest thing I got called. Then I moved to Minnesota, with the idea of becoming just another visitor at the prison I'd once guarded at. They did let me come see him, but that must've been a mistake. After that first time, they told me that I couldn't come back because I was a security risk, since I knew the system so well. So we saw each other once in 16 months.

When Emil got transferred to Green Bay, I was first on his visitor list. I used to stay in a hotel when I'd visit, but it got to be an expense problem. Now, if I leave by 8:00, I can get there for the afternoon and night visits and get home about 2:30 in the morning. And I write to him every day.

They have him in the hole now--in segregation for 11 days. They're having problems there--inmates aren't happy about this new no-pornography rule that goes into effect December 1. For some reason, they think he's some kind of ringleader. They have him in with nothing but a mattress and a blanket. I hate seeing him caged up like that. He sits in this little wooden room that looks like an ice-fishing hut or something, and they have him chained at the waist and at the legs--like, where's he going to go? And I sit on the other side and we talk through this plastic. There's little holes so you can hear each other.

We were supposed to get married this summer. We've been engaged practically since we met. He had to go through six months of counseling sessions with his priest, which was quite a trip. All the priest wanted to talk about was how it's wrong to masturbate. How realistic is that? I mean, of all the other things that need to be talked about--real issues that might arise from marriage behind bars!

Anyway, they're talking right now about transferring Emil out to Tennessee. I guess they've decided it's cheaper to move guys to other states where there's room than to build new prisons here. If he's moved, his visiting list goes with him. If I got to see him once a year, it would be pretty good. And we'll see about getting married--soon, I hope. The things we want out of life might never happen--he's got the life sentence, you know--but I guess all we can really do is try.

 

 

For someone who claims to have missed a night's sleep over a problem with her bike, Gail looks remarkably fresh as she arrives at an Uptown coffeehouse close to her apartment. She's one of those people likely to get carded when they're 60--with her peaches-and-cream complexion, and compact, athletic build. Although Gail is in her mid-30s, sling a knapsack over her shoulder and you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish her in a pack of university sophomores.

You'd never guess that Gail has a record. She spent four years in trouble with the law--doing drugs and getting picked up for petty crimes with her ex-boyfriend Tom. She visited him through several prison sentences, often delivering drugs to him on the sly. Ten years later and a world away from prison, she has put much of that time behind her. Now Gail is a licensed paramedic and travels around speaking at business gatherings in the metro area about health-care issues.

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