Guernica Magazine

Home Visit

Making oneself at home in prison The post Home Visit appeared first on Guernica.
Photo by Graham Holtshausen via Flickr. Licensed under CC.

The first time I visited my nephew Jay in a prison in Central California he was at the start of an over 20-year sentence. He was then twenty-nine years old. If I wanted to continue to be involved in his life, I would have to learn how to make visiting him in prison normal; it was now his home.

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A drunk driver killed Jay’s mother when my nephew was seven years old. He was born in Alaska, where I grew up, and after his mom died, he moved in with my father and stepmother. One month after his thirteenth birthday, Jay moved to California, where I then lived. I became his legal guardian. He got into trouble right away, skipping school, stealing things, running away, and nine months after he arrived, he became a ward of the juvenile court. Wherever the court placed my nephew—group homes, a boys’ ranch—I was there. Once he lived in a group home in another wing of juvenile hall, and on Jay’s fourteenth birthday, I brought a cake and enough soda for all the kids in his unit.

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Arriving to see my nephew at prison, fifteen years later, I wasn’t allowed to bring anything with me. I opened a door that seemed to be where to start. Looking around the small, crowded, poorly-lit room, I felt uneasy. I didn’t want anyone to know it was my first time. I wanted cues on how to maneuver through the space. There were many people, mostly women, standing in a long line that faced a desk staffed by several guards who were checking in visitors. I stood in the line and then noticed everyone had a tiny piece of paper. I watched a woman at the front of the line hand the paper to a guard at the desk.

“Where did you get that?” I asked a woman in front of me, trying not to talk too loud, as my voice always rises when I’m excited or nervous.

She pointed to a counter on the left side of the room.

I filled out the form with my name, relation to “the

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