My Prison Story
My seven years as a prison wife, and the aftermath.
I’ll start at the beginning, for context.
I grew up in rural southern Oregon, went to college in California, and then moved back to Oregon and eventually landed in Portland. I spent most of my 20s working on emotional wounds from a dysfunctional family background and building a web design and hosting business. I took a lot of personal growth workshops and even trainings for life coaches and therapists, and while I was passionate about it, it never quite felt like a fit to pursue it as my career. (Careers in general have never felt like a good fit for me, to be honest.)
By the time I was in my early thirties, I had surrounded myself with a community of people who were all pursuing healing and growth, and we all spoke a kind of similar language and had a shared understanding of how we thought the world worked. It felt safe and protected, and I largely ignored what was happening in the news or in the “real world”. It felt like a kind of healing egg or bubble that I needed for a time, but it was also starting to feel stagnant and unreal.
I felt like I was missing something important, but I didn’t know what.
I’ve always been driven by trying to figure out “what’s really going on here”–what is the deepest truth about reality, why does so much suffering happen, and how could we transform the world to be a more compassionate, supportive place that nurtured people instead of wounding them. At the time, all my thoughts were focused on individual healing and transformation, and I was dismissive of political solutions. I thought if everyone could just heal themselves, the world would be transformed.
Eventually though, I started to wonder if what I was learning would really be applicable to people who couldn’t afford to pay $400/weekend for workshops, and go to therapy every week. Was I really discovering the answers to life, or was most of what I called “healing” only possible because I had so much privilege that I could escape from most of life’s problems?
Was I enlightened or just self-indulgent? I needed to know.
When I was 33, I met someone at a community Thanksgiving event who ran a volunteer program teaching NVC in prison. I was coming off a workshop high and was in love with the world, and I felt like this was my chance to find out what was true–nothing seemed more “real world” than prison!
I immediately signed myself up, and after the holiday break was over, on January 16 of 2013, I found myself walking into Oregon’s only maximum security prison as a teaching assistant.
That was the day my carefully constructed bubble began to shatter.
My future husband, Jabari, was one of the men in the class. He had been through the class once and was a “peer trainer”, so we were able to talk a little bit before and after class. We were both drawn to each other immediately, but it took almost a year before we admitted our feelings to each other.
I had to work through a lifetime of stereotypes and fear from movies, cop shows, and the news to be able to see him as a person and not just a prisoner. I also had to come to terms with what it meant to be in love with someone who still had 7 more years of prison to go.
Eventually our feelings were too intense to keep dancing around. You can’t have any kind of personal relationship with a prisoner as a volunteer, so I went through the process of transitioning out of the program and getting on his visitor’s list.
For the first 6 months, we were only allowed to talk on the phone and not visit. This is not a normal rule, and I’m not entirely sure why it was put in place, as they administration said we didn’t break any rules or do anything wrong, but forced this waiting period on us anyway. This was my introduction to the capricious nature of prison rule-making. I spent thousands of dollars every month talking to him on the phone, and we sent each other long letters.
As we got closer, I found myself unable to explain my relationship to my friends and family, who were politely confused and afraid for me. When I tried to talk about prison issues, they became overwhelmed. One experience sums it up: a friend said, “Why would you want to do something so…hard?”. I couldn’t fathom not doing something for love just because it was “hard”.
I decided to move from Portland to Salem so I could be closer when we were allowed to visit. We got married a year after we started talking, in the prison visiting room. We decided to get married before our 6 months were up, before we had even kissed.
Then I hunkered down in my role as a prison wife, determined to support the man I loved to the best of my ability.
Those first years, I felt completely overwhelmed and devastated.
My cozy bubble was smashed to pieces as I learned the reality of prison life, what families go through trying to maintain a connection, how the prison industry extracts money from poor communities, and the vast numbers of people who are affected by this system.
I also learned that most of my growth-and-healing community was not going to go on this journey with me. Not out of malice, but because our worlds had completely diverged.
My days revolved around the prison schedule of visiting and yard time (the only time he could call). In my free time, I devoured journalism about prison to try to make sense of my experience. I read so many stories of horrific abuse and neglect. I worried about his safety. I tried to process my feelings of horror and grief and anger like I always had, but they were too much and never ending. I eventually had to accept that my life of “thriving not surviving” was over. I had to learn the art of just getting by.
A gap opened up between my current experience and that of everyone I knew, a gap I did not have the emotional resources to even begin to close. My social circle narrowed to a few people who I could trust to listen without judgement and empathize without trying to suggestion solutions to things that couldn’t be fixed and just had to be lived through.
I was isolated, alienated, depressed, angry, overwhelmed, and barely functioning in term of self-care. Over the years, I found ways to cope, but I couldn’t really heal until the experience was over. I focused instead on resilience. I worked a lot, to feel a sense of progress and control in a world that was dull and monotonous, and where we were made powerless and helpless by a system that truly does not care if you live or die (or go crazy).
The phrase, “Dark Night of the Soul” sounds kind of romantic, but it was hell.
I could no longer feel my connection to the Universe, the one that had led me here, to this experience. I felt guilty about how little attention I had paid to the world previously, how little awareness I had about America’s underclass, how willing I was to let out-of-sight be out-of-mind. The entire time I was in Portland, drinking overpriced coffee and spending thousands of dollars to talk about my feelings with strangers, Jabari was waking up in a locked cage every morning, and hoping that a guard wouldn’t fuck with him that day. I felt angry at myself, angry at society, and angry at the Universe.
I studied history and behavioral psychology to try to understand human nature: how could we do this to each other? How could this be the way we treat each other, and how cruel to call it “justice”? Why is this happening and is there any way to fix it?
Over time, I concluded that humans just suck at having power. Any time a group of people are given absolute bodily control over other people, behind closed doors, abuse is going to happen. The more power and the more secrecy, the more abusive it will be. This just seems to be part of human nature. The only antidote is for us to be honest about that and build open systems with accountability and human rights.
But how to fix it is another story. I also concluded that we don’t understand other people’s experiences who are different than us, and generally don’t want to. There is little incentive for anyone to fix the prison system because the people who it affects have little political voice (i.e. are not a source of campaign contributions), and the people it (theoretically) protects don’t care what the price is for their safety. “Educating” people takes forever and it’s an uphill battle. Culture changes slowly, and pushing it leads to backlash.
My hope lies in the growing understanding of trauma, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and seeing violence as a public health issue rather than a moral one. Maybe as our understanding of human behavior evolves out of the dark ages, we can stop treating bad behavior as a moral failing and treat it like we are starting to treat drug addiction–as something people need genuine and compassionate help with. Then we can do the work of re-imagining crime and justice from first principles.
What happened when he got out?
Well, to put it mildly, it all fell apart. It turns out that enmeshment is an adaptive response to trying to survive prison, but a terrible way to build a relationship. Over time, our love became poisoned by the stress of prison, and our own unhealed wounds were pushed to the breaking point. By the time he got out, we were both running on fumes and constantly in conflict.
When you get out, it takes time to really “get free” of what prison does to your mind. And that is true of the relationship as well. And our relationship was built more on fantasy and mutual neediness than real compatibility. It is too easy to construct a fantasy of someone when the only time and place you come together is in a prison visiting room. We come from vastly different backgrounds, and we each filled in the gaps with our own version of who we needed the other person to be.
We are still friends, but divorced now, and each finding our own way in life.
Where is the healing, where is the growth?
The eventual breakdown of our marriage prompted me to buckle down on my own healing, which led me to make immense progress on CPTSD and attachment trauma, which is the basis of a lot of the content on this site. That healing work also cured my lifelong depression, so I consider that a massive win.
This experience also taught me to care much less what others think, because I’ve already lived out one of the most stigmatized archetypes, the prison wife. People see us as gullible or naive or stupid, but I know the truth: we absorb the harshest energies of the patriarchy into our bodies on a daily basis. We sacrifice ourselves to choose love over judgement and fear. We hold the line when nobody else will. We show up in ways that most people will never understand, and we do it all under the weight of a stigma that is crushing, while the government is fleecing us. So I give zero fucks about people’s opinion of me and my choices. I know why I was there, and I made the choice I wanted to make, and I don’t regret choosing to follow my heart, regardless of the outcome.
I have learned to love fiercely, and let go with grace.
I have matured a thousand-fold from the person I was when I jumped at the chance to volunteer in prison. I believe our soul chooses difficult experiences for the growth that comes with them. I believe we are here to learn how to love when the world prompts us to fear and judge and hate and create distance. And loving someone in prison is a massive soul lesson in resilience and unconditional love.