“209 top, you have a visit!”
My cellie and I look at each other in surprise for a moment until the cell door rolling open prods me to spring into action. I jump off my bunk and scoop up my boots. As I squeeze out, the cell door clangs shut. They don’t leave the door open for long around here. He hands me my clothes through the bars and I quickly get dressed.
“Who is coming to see you?” he asks.
That is a good question. I don’t know. For these first four years of my incarceration, I have had one visit per year from two friends N and J. Since I had a visit from them a few months ago, I was not anticipating another so soon. In TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice), you are allowed 10 people on your visiting list, but none of the people on the rest of my list have come as of yet. This visit could be very good news or very bad news, and my heart is racing in suspense and anticipation.
“I don’t know,” I reply curtly as I lace my boots.
He immediately understands what is on my mind and quickly tries to ease my worries. He is a good cellie. “Well, I’m sure it’s just J. She probably had to make a trip to Huntsville for something and just decided to drop by. Or maybe N and them came to camp at the state park and she is swinging by on the way back to Galveston.”
“Um… I don’t think so, but maybe,” I say as a grab my I.D. he is handing me and then hurry down to get through the gauntlet of gates and guards. I finally get to the visiting part of the unit and go into the first room, strip down, get searched, then quickly get dressed again. The act of getting strip searched never gets any less demeaning or any less dehumanizing, but this is the one time inmates do not complain.
I’ve only been in the non-contact visitation area for visits because to this point, none of my family has been able to come visit me. So it is a huge surprise to me when I am led to the contact area of visitation. I walk into a room full of people sitting across from each other on long tables lost in little bubbles of love. I anxiously look at all the people, searching for a familiar face. My heart stops, then swells and bursts. It is my son! My oldest boy who has just turned 18. He looks at me from his spot on the table and I see a man who has grown up in my absence. I see wisdom in his eyes that only comes from painful experiences - experiences I was not there to help guide him through.
Hesitantly, he gets up from the table and takes a few steps towards me, not knowing what to do. Neither do I. What is the procedure here? The new guard who let me in looks at both of us and realizes neither of us have been here before. He is one of the good guards TDCJ does not let work inside the unit, but instead keeps him out front where the real world people can see he is just like a regular person. He is what all guards should be – a human with a heart. “Well?” he says with a warm smile. “Don’t you want to hug your son, dad?”
My son rushes into my arms and I hold him so tight and feel a wave of emotions! The person in my arms is taller, stronger, and the arms he is squeezing me back with are noticeably longer. He is still just a boy though and I feel him shake with suppressed sobs, which match the ones I am suppressing. I don’t ever want to let him go again, but I do because I don’t know if there is a limit or if other people are waiting for us to sit down so they too can hug their loved ones. Before I release him, I quickly wipe my eyes behind his back and feel him do the same.
We go sit at our assigned spots and we talk. Awkwardly at first, but soon we fall back into the comfortable rhythm my son and I have always shared. His intelligence astounds me and his observations are more astute. He’s funny and witty, and we laugh together. He glosses over the difficult times and steers the conversation to happier topics. I do the same, and all too soon, our two hours are over. It’s time for him to go back to life and for me to go back to my cage. We hug again and shed a few more tears we both quickly wipe away, pretending not to see. Then it’s done.
But it’s not done because now I feel like a father again - like I am someone - someone important even. It’s a feeling I haven’t felt in far too long, and is something inmates do not get to feel very often. In prison, you are a lonely cog in a huge machine that slowly grinds you down. You are not a part of the real world and feel like you are forgotten by everyone who you once thought you were important to. Or… so the system like you to believe. A visit changes all that though. You are suddenly a part of something more. You are a loved one again. Though my name sounds like a number (Juan/one – get it?), I am not a number! I am a human!
After a visit, especially this one, I feel human again. I remember who I am. I am strengthened with a renewed will power to make it out of this place. The hopelessness is replaced with determination. My name is Juan again, not just a number. I actually look past the fencing surrounding me and see the trees and life behind it. I am a part of something good again. A part of a family.
The word family has always meant so much to me. It was something I always tried to show my kids. Family first. They are the ones who will be there when no one else is. Now I see that perhaps I wasn’t entirely correct. Family isn’t who fate made you related to by giving you the same ancestor. It isn’t who will be there for you when you need them. It’s the reverse. I see now the people who are there for me when I need them are my family now. I have family now that I didn’t have when I first came into this system. As I sit in this cell thinking, I realized the only reason TDCJ hasn’t broken me is because they have kept me sane. Kept me me. I can’t wait to walk out of this place and be there for them like they have been there for me. Like family.