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.


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.


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

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

Related Interests

More from Guernica Magazine

Guernica Magazine12 min read
With Jazz On The Turntable And A Drink In His Hand
Philip’s house was bigger than ours, and more run down. The hockey equipment stacked against the wall of the entryway spilled across the floor, which was scuffed by sneakers and boots and the Bauer ice skates that were the chief means of reckoning wi
Guernica Magazine7 min readPolitics
Anatomy of a Successful Campus Talk
As he puts it, Paul LePage, former governor of Maine, is a product of his environment. His father was physically abusive, his mother terrified to intervene. He grew up in poverty, one of eighteen children, and the only one to complete formal schoolin
Guernica Magazine4 min read
We Need to Talk
As part of my teaching life over the past dozen years, I’ve gathered with between ten and fifteen undergraduate students twice a week to talk. What we talk about depends somewhat on the subject of the course: the essays of the writer Zadie Smith, say