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.

He calls me every day and we talk, except when I'm not home and the kids get the phone, or if it's bingo night and I go out. If Troy got out early I would be ecstatic. I've just totally fallen in love with this guy. He feels it, too, judging from what he puts off to me. And I would hope that he would have enough caring and thoughtfulness not to lead a person on for this many years and then say, "Well, hey, you were just a convenience-type thing."

I talk about getting married with him, and he says it won't happen while he's there. But he'll consider it after he gets out. And I will definitely push. I'm not going to let him forget. So he has my heart. We have our arguments, but there's nothing drastic--like, "You can just rot there." I'm going to stick it out with him in my life. I told him there's no way of getting around it, dude--you're stuck.

 

 

Jean pulls the yellow school bus up to the curb in front of the Citizens Council building in downtown Minneapolis. She cranks open the door and, in the same motion, her long powerful arm grabs the clipboard next to her seat. The women who will be riding with her to the prison at Lino Lakes this October afternoon--just a handful today--are already lined up on the sidewalk. As they file onto the bus, Jean takes their tickets and marks their names off on the list. The council has been arranging bus transportation to area prisons for nearly a decade now, last year shuttling some 2,000 loved ones to prisons around the state for visit with inmates. Jean has been a volunteer driver for three years now. "I haven't seen you for a while. How you been?" Jean asks, shooting a broad smile at the rider she recognizes from previous trips. "I've been working," the woman replies, and hands over her chit to Jean, who has turned to shoo back a couple of kids trying to squeeze through the narrow door two at a time.

Her chocolate-brown eyes flash in the overhead mirror, checking to make sure everyone has found a seat. As she turns the key and the bus motor roars to life, she swivels her head looking and then signals to pull out onto Fourth Street traffic. "Sure is hot," she says to the few women sitting directly behind her driver's seat. "Yeah, sure is," one replies. The conversation starts there and doesn't stop until the bus pulls up at the prison gates. It's hardly an accident that Jean is behind the wheel: She knows that each woman's name on the list could well have been her own five years ago. Although there was no bus to take her to Indiana, she drove there twice a month for eight years to visit a man behind bars.

Robert was already in prison for a string of burglaries when I met him through a girlfriend of mine. He was about halfway through his sentence by then--eight years into it already. His wife abandoned him when he went to prison. She started messing around with some dealer and got on drugs. So he came to me as if he was a loner--he didn't have anybody to talk to or a pen pal or anything. He was one that was very good with poems and romantic stories. What attracted me to him was, I guess, listening to him sing.

So it came time for him to get out on April 3, 1993. We had plans. We had talked about this for years prior to his release date--how he wanted me to come and pick him up in nothing but a church coat. But then I couldn't get that day off of work. So instead Robert says to just meet him in Milwaukee, at his sister's. So we were there, and all his friends and kinfolk was coming over to wait for his arrival. He came in, and we hugged, kissed, and stood there embracing one another for about 10 minutes. Everybody's trying to get their "hi" and "hello" in, so I figured we'd have the rest of the weekend, or a life together. I knew who everybody there was, with the exception of this one girl.

Well, he was supposed to come up to Minnesota for his birthday that July and didn't. And for my birthday in October--you know, it was "Yeah, baby, come hell or high water, I'll be there." But he didn't. Turns out, I guess, that Robert was living with this girl I saw at his homecoming, and was hiding it from me. I waited all these eight years and I was sending him money--money I didn't really have! That was my kids' money for clothes and stuff that I gave to him; I mean, $100, $200 at a time all those years. So that was that.

Sure, I talk with some of the women I drive. There's one up at Stillwater who's been visiting for 13 years. Her and I got personal on the bus, I mean as far as talking about sex lives and all that. So then her husband got out after 13 years and I gave her some advice. It was more of an ego or self-esteem booster. She had gotten to the point where she would let him discourage her and pull her down--telling her, "You're older than I am. You're 50 years old and I'm 40. I'm a young man here with an old woman, and you're not attractive anymore. You're getting fat." But up until six months before he's ready to get out, she's the most loving, honest, and trustworthy wife there could ever be. He told her when he got out all he wanted to do was get high for a couple of days, drink for a couple of days, and go out and party with the fellows, not hang with her. I just tried to let her know, "Hey, my prayers go out to you. I hope he treats you right."

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