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.

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.

From the start, in 1985, we were up to no good. I started doing all the drugs Tom was doing--I just got caught up in it so bad. My father and his wife kicked me out, so I didn't really have anywhere to go. I was only 18, lonely, and--just really bad judgment wound up being four years of my life gone. We did everything--stole cars, robbed. We did tons of crack and other drugs I wasn't able to get off of until '92. And I was trying to go to the U at the same time.

Pretty quick my parents disowned me, and I wasn't really doing anything for myself besides running scams. I ended up in jail in Washington County once and Hennepin County twice. I was living in Minneapolis and I was a student at the U, so I was always living on campus. I lost a lot of friends. And I got kicked out of two places I was living at because my roommates were freaked out.

Tom got arrested several times, and every time it was for something different--unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, minor drug possession, forging bad checks a couple of hundred dollars over the felony limit. He was in and out of prison three or four times. He was mostly at Stillwater, but also at Lino Lakes, with sentences of between 8 and 15 months--you know, nothing too long.

He'd get allotted so many hours for visitors, and I would go all those hours. Every other night, between 1986 and '90, I was going to Stillwater. The other nights I'd just wait at home for his allotted 20-minute phone call. When I did visit, I'd either have to take the bus for two hours or hitchhike. And I was bringing him drugs--for many years, like a lot of women I knew did. I was only strip-searched, like, three times. I think there were more drugs there than there were on the street. It was just so amazing: I'd bring him, like, 10 ounces of cocaine at a time.

I met tons of people who rode the bus up to meet inmates during visiting hours. It just blows my mind--especially those people who weren't even affiliated on the outside first, like I was. They'd put their name on a list, get approved on a background check, and come up there to meet some man because they thought, "Oh, this guy would be a good match!" Then all of a sudden they'd be dating. That happened a lot. Once in a while they'd get married up there.

Well, after we knew each other for nine months, we got married while he was in jail. Tom told me it would be easier for us to get special visits if I had his last name. And I was, like, "Why not? I've already trashed myname." So one day downtown I got married. Judge Gill's clerk of court was our witness. It wasn't the kind of wedding you invite family to.

I just believed in it all the way that when he got out he'd be good and we'd have this life together. He'd find a job and be a normal person and everything would work out. But he'd always get back into trouble. I mean, unless you get out and close yourself off in a cube for the two years you're on parole, you almost can't help but get back in trouble. All the old people come around. You're used to living a fast lifestyle and having instant money. Can't get a job for $6 an hour because of your record, and who wants to go on welfare? When you got out of prison at that time they gave you, like, $82 exit money. What are you going to do with that? Go out and buy a bunch of blow, or go drink.

I was able to finish my degree, because he was gone. But by the end of '89, I was getting tired of it. I ended up leaving him when he was in prison--with the help of this guy I was seeing at the time who was this Bible basher, in the military and all. I think I went the other way, you know, to straighten myself out. We met through my job in this marketing department. Yeah, I always had these incredible jobs, like I was a regular functioning human being or something.

Tom did sign the divorce papers, but he still looks for me even now. But I'm done with it, even though there are a lot of things I can't do because of those times. Like, I was a librarian with a brokerage company for over a year, because I was thinking of becoming a broker. They'd picked me over all these other people, and then when I got fingerprinted for the FBI and my record came up, they were going to have to let me go. It was terrible. I can never work for the airlines. I can run for public office, but I have to get my name cleared or pardoned or something by the governor. Right now I'm a bike messenger and a licensed paramedic, plus finishing up the AA paramedic degree. I'm working at the U on their ambulance team, and for this other company--I won't say the name--that sends me to places where I stand up in front of people and teach them about emergency training. You know, sometimes I'm up there all professional and straight-laced, and I think to myself, "God, if they only knew."

Jennifer has lived in South Minneapolis all her life. She may have run into the man she has been visiting at Stillwater as a child at her neighborhood playground--he lived just around the block. But it wasn't until 1992 that she met Troy, not long after he'd been released from prison for a series of rapes in suburban North Minneapolis in the early 1980s. She didn't know it then, but Troy would end up back behind bars by the end of 1993, this time for attacking a Brooklyn Park woman in a manner similar to the assaults he'd already done time for. Jennifer believes to this day that Troy didn't commit the crime, even though prosecutors convicted him on the strength of a DNA match. The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the conviction in 1996.

Even now that she's reached her mid-30s, Jennifer has a childlike spring to her step that suggests she might bust out into a game of hopscotch at any minute. Her cheeks redden up when she flashes one of her frequent smiles, and her shoulder-length blond hair is baby-fine. She's one of those people who remember everyone's birthday and make sure they get a card. Jennifer has four children, ranging from toddler age to 18, from two past long-term relationships (she has never married), and works full time at a rest home in her neighborhood.

I knew Troy before he was arrested, about three years before he went off to Stillwater in 1994. He was dating a friend of mine. I don't know the story on the first time he was incarcerated. I just hear gossip and stuff--that it had to do with a sex offense. This time around, the story goes that he kidnapped this woman from outside her house--she got out of her car from partying with some friends and he grabbed her and put her back in the car, drove her someplace out in the suburbs, and raped her. This happened a couple of days before Thanksgiving in 1993. I don't think I will ever come right out and say, "Well, did you do it?" I just take him at his word and believe that he's telling me the truth.

I was there the day of his sentencing. His family pretty much stuck beside him through the whole thing. But the girlfriend he had when he went in, he told her he was going to be there awhile and she should just go on with her life. She had a new baby--it wasn't his--and he told her not to put her life on hold. So he doesn't have a lot of people other than his family.

I was his friend. I'm, like, this kindhearted person, you know? I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt. I've been seeing him for four years now. I really believe he didn't do the crime. His attorney brought this big book down that has something to do with his case--because he was convicted on DNA only. It's already gone as far as it can go in appeals, and he didn't get it. If you don't got the money, you don't get anything. His sister still believes that one day she's going to win the lottery and get him the best attorney there is and he's going to get out.

He's got quite a bit longer on his sentence--until 2011. When I first started going up to see him, he was real happy--hardly anybody ever came up. He was just kind of on his own and lost. It was well over a year, then he just got this attitude about the visiting-room stuff. They strip the guys down before they come in and when they come out. He doesn't like to go through all that. So one time I went to visit and he denied the visit. I was just crushed. Once we got over it, I told him if he ever did it again, I would make such a scene in that visiting room they'd send him to seg.

I guess before I was going up there, they had contact visits, and there was an incident where somebody overdosed on drugs. All you can do now is hug them--with the guard right there. Then you can't have any more contact until it's over. If you bump them in the foot, they get hollered at. They do something wrong in the visit room and automatically get locked down in seg and lose their job.

I don't drive, so I've been riding the bus to Stillwater on and off every other Thursday for four years to visit Troy. It's not really bad when I go. It's on the way home--it's hard to leave knowing I would just like him to be out. But it isn't going to happen for a long time. You know, I live across the street from this old bakery, and it's got this big chimney--a kind of smokestacky thing. And out there across from the prison, there's this big, I don't know what it is, but it's got this big smokestacky thing on it too, and this red light that goes on and off. I can sit on my front porch and if I take my hand and block part of the building, I just see that and I think about him.

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."

I'd give just about the same advice to anyone else going through this: I tell them a guy will sell you a dream. He'll tell you what you want to hear because they're locked up and they want you to be there for them. But don't let the man misuse you, baby. If he can't deal with it, tell him goodbye. Tell him, "I can love you to death, but I can love you from a distance."

You know what, I hear these ladies talking and everything, and I just pray that they don't have to go through the same thing I went through. I hope the guys get out and don't treat 'em bad or anything. Some of them I see, they honestly believe that it's only going to last until he gets out. But half of them believe that it's going to last forever.

 

 

Linda came for a visit from Florida three years ago with her husband Boo, intending to head home after a couple of months and a taste of winter. Instead, Boo went out driving one night and ended up in jail after running a red light, crashing into several cars, injuring 11 people, and killing another driver. He pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular operation and wound up in Stillwater. And Linda ended up staying in Minnesota.

If you ran into Linda on the street, you might mistake her for a professional runway model. She's tall and thin and twentysomething, and the color of her carefully manicured nails matches her impeccable designer wardrobe. Linda is of Mexican and Spanish heritage, with high cheekbones and café au lait skin. She wears her thick, shoulder-length blond hair down, cascading past her shoulders in huge ringlet curls. Thanks, but no, she answers when invited for lunch--she's watching her figure. After all, she's getting ready for her husband to rejoin her after a three-year separation, and she wants to look good. He's about to be released from the Stillwater prison, on Thanksgiving Day.

Me and Boo got married in 1995 in Florida. Six months later we drive up to visit my sister at Christmastime here in Minneapolis. Well, Boo goes out driving and sightseeing and there is this ice storm. My car isn't equipped for the weather, let's put it that way. No winter tires or anything, since you don't need them in Orlando. So he goes driving, and by accident--he's not drinking--he slides into this woman's car. She dies at the impact.

His sentence is three and a half years. So we're stuck here. I still have the house in Florida--paying a mortgage on that and rent here. Since Boo went in, we've been all over to prisons--from starting in St. Cloud, then to Appleton, Oak Park Heights, Stillwater, Faribault, and now at the Farm at Stillwater. And now he's getting out on the 26th of this month.

His family gives him no support. They know where he's at all the time. They never write a letter in three and a half years. So he's cut them off. That leaves me. And my family is very prejudiced. My dad's not, though, so he's OK with the situation. But the others say no, no, no--you're supposed to stay with your own kind. And with Boo being a black man, this is terrible. My dad just says follow what your heart says, just follow your heart.

Still, at first it just doesn't work. The more time he spends in there, the more he's accusing me of everything under the sun--you know, seeing other guys, that stuff. So I'm like, "The hell with you," and leave. There's been many a visit that I just walk out on him. Then we get in an argument when he's in Appleton and I go home for six months to Florida. But he finds me. So I come back, every time.

Boo's very jealous, very possessive. Now that he's locked up, it's so much worse than ever. I mean, it's not "Hi, honey" when he calls. It's "Who's over there, who's with you, who'd you meet, who'd you go out with?" I do everything to prove I'm faithful. I switch my schedule around--see, his concern is what I'm doing at night. So I work one place in the morning and then I work at another place from 11 to 7. Then I go home. Does that work out anything? Heck, no. I give up.

You know, if you compare notes, a lot of women in my situation say the same thing. They say their men expect them to be right by the phone all the time. I guess it's a way of the men on the inside feeling like they still have some control--like life's not going by without them. A lot of women are just beginning this, and I say to get prepared right now, because it gets worse. You gotta listen to the whining, the crying, all kinds of questions. Then, too, I've spent about $6,000 just in my traveling expenses to visit him so much--gas, hotels, all that, plus about $7,000 I've sent him. And now I'm trying to get ready for him to come home.

In the beginning I was, like, "Oh, I wish it would hurry up, hurry up, because I want my baby home." Now that it's sitting right here in front of my face, I don't want it. I don't. I don't. Come the 26th he's going to be right here in my house--an extra body. I've been by myself this long, you know? Only thing I come to is that I can hop on a plane and leave, and he can't go nowhere if he's paroled here. The other thing is, I know a lot of people Boo never had the chance to meet. I've been preparing him--letting him see photos I've accumulated of different people, so when they walk up on me, he'll know them. But I still see all hell breaking loose on the 26th.

Because of good behavior, they're releasing him early--he wasn't supposed to get out until February 1999. And I'm wrecking every nerve. Oh, God, give me strength. I know him, but after all this time apart, I really don't. I told him if he ever goes to jail again, I'll be there, but I'd just have to move on with my life. I do feel sorry for other women who are just getting into this. I wouldn't wish this on nobody. Their nightmare is just starting.

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