By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
Sadie drove about 250 miles to spend a scant few days with her incarcerated consort, and Margaret logged seven hours south, toting her three kids for a visit with the old man in a visitation unit the other wives laughingly call "Camp Run Amok."
Standing outside of San Quentin on this dreary day is like huffing a cloud of dirt, with the murky brown water of San Francisco Bay sloshing up on the imposing shoreline.
"Yippy yi yay, ti yay, we're open for business!" shouts the visiting sergeant.
The women line up beside their numerous cardboard boxes of groceries, cooking supplies, and clean linens that will drape everything from beds to couches in a sanitary shroud. Beth, who came from Sacramento, says a typical visit costs the wives well over $100 for groceries and the like.
The wives push their little brown boxes through a window at the Handicrafts Shop, where the visiting sergeant pokes here and there, opening and decanting items such as canned food into Tupperware containers. They know the routine well, and are astute critics of plans to change the Family Visitation program.
"Mr. Wilson is running out of money to fill all the prisons in the wake of 'three strikes,' " says Sadie. "And the federal government won't give them the money if they have rights beyond [those in] the federal prisons. They're talking about being tough on crime. My husband is a lifer -- they're never letting him out. They have to have some hope. Otherwise they'll have a riot."
Sadie, whose husband is almost two decades her junior, met her groom through a church pen pal club.
"All my friends think I've lost my mind," she laughs.
In prison-wife parlance, an "any-dayer" is a wife who has a schedule allowing her to come any day of the week for a regular day visit, a distinction not shared by those who live covert, closeted lives. One claims that she tells people that her husband is involved with secret military work.
"That's one of the frustrations, not being able to vocalize your feelings," Beth says. "All they ever put in the newspaper is the woman who has 10 kids, and had them all from prisoners."
"Only a strong woman survives in a situation like this," she adds.
"But only a lucky man gets a situation like this," responds Rene.
"It's kind of like a sorority," observes Sadie, of their Women Who Love Men in Prisons society.
"When I got into it, I knew what I was getting into," says Laura, a prison bride from the South Bay. "It's not like I was lied to."
"You don't marry someone in prison for money or sex," chimes in Beth.
"But if you don't do this, your kids are deprived from seeing their dad," answers Rene.
The CDC is making it tougher for loved ones to visit inmates, but it's making it all but impossible for reporters to witness the workings of the Family Visitation program.
A written request from SF Weekly to interview and photograph prisoners and their families during their visits was turned down by San Quentin Warden Art Calderon, citing the need for privacy by other prisoners in the units, although several of the families had consented to allowing a reporter to be present.
Shortly after the request was made, the state prison system suspended nearly all media from interviewing inmates, saying it wanted to thwart convicts' attempts at making money from tabloid-style interviews.
Heather, a mother of an inmate involved in the program, says Warden Calderon doesn't want reporters viewing the conjugal-visit trailers because they're substandard, owing to a dispute between inside maintenance and outside maintenance at the facility.
"One of the trailers is condemned, the bathroom floor was rotting," she says. "The inmates offered to put together a team [to repair the trailer], but they couldn't get supplies such as soap."
Citing security reasons, prison authorities forbid the photographing of the prison grounds -- even outside of the main gate through the gate -- without special permission. Even guards are not allowed to take a snapshot from within the prison.
The Family Visitation program is not limited to spouses: It counts on its rolls many mothers, fathers, adult children, and other relatives such as brothers and sisters of convicts, a fact that is trumpeted by prisoner rights advocates.
The number of visits allowed each inmate per year varies at the warden's discretion at the different state prisons, with San Quentin granting perhaps 10, more than most.
The wives say the toughest nut to crack is the infamous celebrity slammer at Corcoran, Calif., which only allows family visits about every seven months and is home to noted undesirables such as Sirhan Sirhan, Juan Corona, and the most dedicated family man of all, Charlie Manson.
The term "conjugal visits" raises the hackles of Donna and the others. "A lot of people think it's guys having their girlfriends in for an orgy. It's not like that," she says.
But for the author of the most recent anti-Family Visitation bill to come down the pike, first-termer Assemblyman Tom Bordornaro (R-San Luis Obispo -- as in California Men's Colony at), it's exactly that.
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