When my husband began his incarceration in May 1996 for embezzling nearly 2 million dollars, I made the effort each Saturday to bring our three daughters to visit their father in the Connecticut state prison where he was serving six years for defrauding law clients.
These were our last months in our ranch home on Hilltop Road, and I commended myself for generously orchestrating the visits. I understood it was important for my then-16-year-old, 12-year-old and 8-year-old to see their dad, to confirm he was safe and be able to continue a loving relationship with him. But as benevolent as I was, I cursed his very existence through my teeth each time I pushed our rusted, 90-pound mower uphill over the rutted lawn.
I remember one summer day when we visited him. I parked in the visitor’s lot, and as we approached the entrance to Cybulski, I made note of the 12-foot fencing topped with rolled barbed wire that surrounded the institution. It served as an unmistakable reminder that we were on the outside and he, like all prisoners, was trapped on the inside.
After we entered the dimly lit waiting room, I approached the guard’s station while the girls sat on steel benches bolted to the walls. Though it was nearly 90 degrees in the blistering sun, the waiting room felt like a meat locker.
I raised my voice to be heard through the speaker implanted in the glass barrier. “We are here to see prisoner 147942.” Names are too personal for prison life. I had memorized David’s number now that he’d forfeited his right to a name. The guard examined his list to find our prisoner’s request for Saturday visitation. He looked up and leaned into the mic. “I need to see some identification.”
“I felt like I had been convicted, too. But what was my crime?”
I fumbled through my purse, searching for my wallet, and then slid my driver’s license under the plexiglass divider. After comparing my identification with the information he had on file, the officer raised his head and surveyed my face to verify I was who I claimed to be. I was who I appeared to be based on my license photo: green eyes, brown hair, 5’3”. Beyond that, it was anyone’s guess. My identity as a housewife married to a lawyer and a woman who played tennis, hosted playgroups and volunteered with the PTA was gone. I wasn’t certain yet who would be occupying her place.
“Have a seat,” the guard said as he gestured toward the bench. “You’ll be called soon.” I felt like I had been convicted, too. But what was my crime?
I could confess to the crime of making bad choices and ignoring what I didn’t want to see. I was also guilty of fashioning my life into a competition, participating in a materialistic quest for a beautiful home, vacations at Disney and dinners at expensive restaurants. But my greatest crime was depending on my husband to take care of me, rather than taking responsibility for myself. I was willing to admit those things.
I also sensed the guard saw us as nothing more than lowlives he had to deal with. I was married to a number, and that made me no more than that number plus one. I was simply part of a system. When one family member goes to prison, the entire family goes with him.
After staring at inspirational wall posters like “Hang in There” or “Walk the Talk,” it was time. We were escorted, single file, into a visiting room that looked like an elementary school cafeteria with oversized images of Road Runner and Sylvester painted by the prisoners onto white cinderblock walls. The cartoons were likely intended to evoke comfort for children visiting their fathers, but I saw them as absurd reminders of the path I’d traveled that brought me to this surreal place.
David had been calling collect from prison every day. These calls were expensive, and we couldn’t afford them. I told him to call less. He said he’d get his sister to pay for the calls because they sustained him. He accused me of being cold and insensitive, but I was trying to save money. His sister didn’t send me a check for the calls, but after several months, he slowed them down to once or twice a week.
Families that were more experienced with visitation rushed to occupy tables placed 10 feet from one another. There were a few picnic tables positioned outside on a yellowed patch of dry grass, but it was hot in the sun without trees to provide shade. We decided on an inside corner table large enough to accommodate our family of five and tucked away to give us some privacy, which of course, is actually not permitted in prison.
Fifteen minutes passed before the doors opened. I wondered what was delaying the men’s entrance. It was always possible there had been a skirmish that caused a lockdown and we’d suddenly need to leave.
Finally, the men who sought humanity in the presence of their families solemnly walked into the room. They wore identical bright orange jumpsuits, reinforcing the league to which they belonged.
My husband spotted us right away. As he approached, the girls jumped from their seats to hug their dad, and he smothered them with kisses. I watched from the sidelines. David acted cheery, but I saw nervousness in his tight smile, and his eyes looked beyond us, fearful a brawl might erupt at another table. Armed guards stood strategically along the perimeter of the room for just that reason. He pulled a chair from the table and faced us.
“Hey, how are my booty boos doing?” He used a term of affection he had invented for our girls when they were babies.
My 12-year-old was quick to fill him in on the details of her summer camp experience. “Jessica Fishman is in my group. Remember Jessica from soccer?” She tried to keep the mood upbeat, desperate to normalize an abnormal situation.
“I do. She was fast. I’m happy you have a friend at camp, sweetie. How do you like camp, Ana?” He turned his attention to our youngest, who was studying Tweety Bird. She told him camp was OK but didn’t tell him that she’d shown up at the nurse’s office several times a day complaining of stomach aches and headaches.
Our teenage daughter watched us interact as if we were strangers. She had begun tuning us out long before Dave was incarcerated. Prison strengthened her inclination to ignore us.
“Lynn knows someone at an insurance company,” I offered. “It looks like I might be able to get a temp job at the end of the summer.” The uncertainty of employment weighed heavily on my mind. “And, I applied for housing at the affordable housing project. We should be hearing soon about whether we’ll be able to move there.”
The project was a development built on land deeded to our town nearly 100 years earlier to support the town’s poor population. That was now us.
“That’s great. How’s Jake?”
Dave reacted as if my employment was a low priority rather than a life source. He switched the subject to our dog, his loyal companion, because there was no point in worrying about my job search when he could do nothing about it. He was developing an understanding of what was within his control and what was not.
“He’s sleeping on the floor by your side of the bed, and I’ve seen him pacing in front of the door,” I told him. “I think he’s waiting for you to come home.”
“Tell him I’ll be home soon and we’ll go for long walks. When I come home, he can have all the chew bones he wants.”
I nodded as if I’d convey the message. That was not going to happen.
David talked about helping other people convicted of crimes with their cases, and the computer class he was taking. He was enthusiastic about the projects he had going on behind bars.
Everything was almost as it always has been. He talked about his clients, who also happened to be fellow incarcerated individuals. They asked for his advice about their cases and treated him with respect. He wasn’t in danger (at least, as far as he admitted to us) but enjoyed a revered status among his peers in prison.
With us, he shared his vision for a bright and sunny future where we would once again take vacations to visit his sister in the Hamptons, spend a week at Disney, and another at the dude ranch — yes, we vacationed at an upstate New York dude ranch where we participated in rodeos and danced the Texas two-step. He reminded the children — which was, in truth, a reminder for himself — that once he had been a free man, indulgently enjoying his life. When this little glitch (prison) was taken care of, he’d resume the life he’d led before. The next time it would be even better because he would be free of addiction.
However David might have liked fantasizing about his future, that summer day was not like those of our past. He was in prison, and we lived on the outside.
I tried to parse what he was saying for our benefit versus what he truly believed. Did he really think that when his prison sentence ended he’d slip into his former life like a pair of comfortable jeans left draped across a chair for a few days?
There could never be a return to the life we once knew.
The life we had lived on Hilltop Road was ripe with entitlement. I believed that life was part of some master plan established for me that included marriage, children and a four-bedroom home surrounded by natural beauty, where we would never suffer from hunger or dislocation.
At the end of that summer, my daughters and I moved into affordable housing, where we remained for the next 14 years. I took that temp job because I didn’t have money to pay for my teacher recertification. I was able to pay my bills, and for the first time, file taxes. Rarely do people celebrate the day they pay taxes, but for me, it was a symbolic measure of my newly acquired independence.
My daughters struggled with depression, anxiety and shame, but were able to complete college degrees, law degrees and master’s degrees, finding fulfilling careers in legal aid, software engineering and music therapy. Their dad and I divorced. We both remarried, but remain on good terms. David returned to school and began a career in social work, counseling those who struggle with addiction. I returned to teaching and formally retired a year ago.
We are among the fortunate ones.
“Did he really think that when his prison sentence ended he’d slip into his former life like a pair of comfortable jeans left draped across a chair for a few days?”
Mass incarceration is a problem for America. Many innocent people serve long terms for crimes they didn’t commit, and others, because of mandatory minimum sentencing, are serving sentences that are often disproportionate.
My ex-husband wasn’t innocent — like many who are in prison. However, because of his incarceration, I learned more about the criminal justice system and prison than I would have ever thought, and I discovered its many flaws.
I learned that, in the U.S., Black people are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of white people, according to The Sentencing Project. I learned that more than the average individual, incarcerated individuals in state institutions suffer from mental illnesses that would be best served in a different setting. The American Psychological Association reports that “64 percent of jail inmates, 54 percent of state prisoners, and 45 percent of federal prisoners” have reported mental health concerns.
I learned that the children of incarcerated individuals are vulnerable to emotional and social consequences that can have long-term impacts, contributing to the cycle of crime and punishment. According to a 2007 report for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “The arrest and removal of a mother or father from a child’s life forces that child to confront emotional, social and economic consequences that may trigger behavior problems, poor outcomes in school.”
Though I am obviously not a fan of prison, in my particular case, my husband’s incarceration helped me grow. It made me confront my own life in ways I wouldn’t have if my husband had not served time. I can’t state with any certainty whether that growth would have happened otherwise, but I do know moving from our home to a diverse community, experiencing job insecurity, living on a limited income, and visiting prison enlarged my perspective as I considered my place in society and my privilege.
This is perhaps a key distinction. Most white middle-class or upper-middle-class people have little exposure to the experiences of those who wind up in prison for any number of reasons — or how the system damages those who enter it, including family members. Now I know.
I can’t say how my life would have turned out if David had never gone to prison. What I do know is that, once, I lived a sheltered life with little thought to how much of the world truly worked. This experience changed me. I transitioned from entitled dependency to enlightened responsibility, and though I would never wish what my children and I experienced on anyone, I can say I am grateful to be where I am today with the knowledge I have.
I hope to use my understanding to make things better for others.
Note: The names and some identifying details of the individuals who appear in this essay have been changed to protect their privacy.
Wendy Swift is a recently retired creative writing teacher who was awarded Memoir Magazine’s 2022 Memoir Prize for Books. Her unpublished manuscript, “A DREAM LIFE,” won in the category of Transformation of Self. Other awards include the 2022 Honorable Mention from the Connecticut Press Club for her essay “The Sentencing” and the 2006 Press Club of Long Island Award for her narrative essay “Ritter’s Pond,” published in Long Island Woman. Essays based on “A DREAM LIFE” have appeared in various literary magazines, including Grub Street Literary Magazine, Barely South Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Avalon Literary Magazine and Memoir Magazine. She currently reads fiction submissions for Mud Season Review and writes narratives for the American Red Cross’s blog and grantors. Swift lives with her husband in Farmington, Connecticut. Visit for more info.
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