- I’m imprisoned in Washington and I just had my first contact visit in over 500 days.
- Studies show that a prisoner’s human contact with loved ones makes it easier to re-enter society.
- If the penitentiary really wants to avoid relapse, they should prioritize prison visits.
- Christopher Blackwell is a writer imprisoned at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington.
- This is a column of opinion. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
Nervously I paced, waiting to be called. I was not the only one. All of us who were waiting to be called eagerly tried to stay busy, excited to experience what we had been deprived of for far too long.
It was over 18 months since any of us had contact visits with our loved ones. I was watching my wife – heart racing, knocking quickly out of anticipation at the thought of finally having her in my arms again. Today, reality was finally taking over, and seeing her was no longer just a fantasy in my mind. It was 531 days since our last embrace.
How had we gone so long without a single hug or kiss?
“What takes so long? When do they call us?” I thought to myself. The minutes felt like hours, each one harder to sit through than the last. My thoughts were broken by the crack in the intercom speaker. “Powell, Blackwell, Jenson and James report to the booth for a visit,” shouted the distorted speaker. I froze for a second. This was really, I was really about to have Chelsea in my arms again. Reality hit and I walked quickly to the door.
The trip to the visitor room seemed like it would never end. I had to keep reminding myself to just place one foot in front of the other. There were other prisoners who went with me – talked and laughed – but I could not distinguish most of what they said. I was consumed by the thought of holding on to her, smelling of her scent and feeling her warm skin pressed close to mine after all this time.
Still anxious, as if a guard would come out of the building, stop us on the walkway, and tell us that visits were canceled, I continued to walk and speed up my pace. I needed to get there before our time was taken away again.
We have been waiting for this for so long. We were married at the height of the pandemic in a contactless prison ceremony. Countless days in the void since we had last seen each other were spent shedding tears, struggling to maintain our connection, but refusing to slip apart.
It was a long and extremely painful battle – one that is not quite over – and often felt like too much. During the traumatic period, we continually reminded each other of all that we had to be grateful for, spent hours on the phone, sometimes in silence just to know that we were close and in the same “space.” Nothing could tear us apart, and we made sure to always remind ourselves of that.
After the other prisoners walked towards the visiting room, I approached the door. A guard greeted us. He was respectful and even tried to make some jokes. I think he was trying to lighten the mood. I did not really hear anything he said, gave a false laugh and nodded, but I could only focus on getting in the door of my wife.
After being searched by the guard, I was given access to the room where my wife was now sitting and waiting, just as anxious as I was.
There she was. She was beautiful in her summer dress. Slightly sparkling strawberries that decorated the dress shone in the fluorescent tubes. She was always the more stylish. Her green eyes drew me in and the wait was over. All the while we had been forced to be separated, as if it had never happened. We were lost, surrounded by each other’s arms and held on.
I had honestly forgotten how it felt to be held, to feel her loving heart pressed against mine – in that moment they must have been beating in rhythm because everything around me disappeared. For a moment I was not in prison. I was lost in our own little world, a world where nothing was more important than us. I had longed for this every day since our last embrace. As I held my wife, I was reminded of how important another human being’s touch can be, how much we had missed during the time we had spent separately.
When looking around the room, it was clear that everyone felt the same. Children climbed on their fathers, bright eyes and full of smiles. Parents laughed as they hugged their sons. The atmosphere was different – it was the first time in a year and a half I had seen a whole room full of people really happy.
Chelsea and I sat down, devoured by each other’s presence. We must have said “I love you” a thousand times. Before long, we were deep in conversation and enjoying the company we had missed so much. Our hands continued to run over the other and never pulled apart, greedy for any contact we might receive from the other. It quickly felt as if the last 18 months had been nothing more than a distant nightmare, our attention could only feel the moment we were now so grateful to have.
The three hours we got evaporated in minutes that seemed like minutes, and before we knew it, the interlocutors were telling everyone, “Visits are now closed, quit the visiting room.”
Sad and struggling to realize we would be forced to spend another month apart, we stood and held each other. All I wanted to do was follow her out the door and leave the jail – and all the pain that comes with it – behind. It was not easy. Children ran back to their fathers for one last hug, probably confused as to why they were forced to divorce again, but had no choice.
Nevertheless, the visit restored a sense of hope. It confirmed the spark in us and reminded us of the feeling we have when we are in each other’s company, a connection that is impossible to get over the phone or in letters. There is no substitute for human contact. It is important.
And it is not only good for our soul, but in prison it helps to maintain and lay the foundation needed to remain positive and on the path to a productive reintegration back into the free world. In a 1997 study, JD Wooldredge found that there are reduced violations and “diminished perceptions of overcrowding” when prisoners receive visitors.
In addition, studies have found that prisoners who receive visitors are better able to reintegrate into society after imprisonment and are therefore less likely to repeat themselves. “
Creating the connections we have with our loved ones is not only of extreme value to us, the prisoners, but to society as a whole. Because of this, it is important to facilitate the development of positive relationships between prisoners and their loved ones. Prison visits should not be a privilege, but a right, and a top goal for correctional wards.
The Washington DOC can often be heard using the slogan “Working Together to Make Communities Safer”, “It’s time for them to prove it. The moments I am able to spend with my loved ones still remind me that I am someone who is loved and cared for – that my life has meaning and purpose – and knowing it allows me to strive for more: To be the best I can for not only those I love, but also myself and my community.