When my mother was sentenced to a state penitentiary she was transferred from the local prison to Chowchilla, the women’s correctional facility in Central California. She was taken in a Sheriff’s bus. The vehicles are typically painted black and white like a zebra. It is rare to see one of these buses on the highway. When I do, I cringe. It is especially difficult if I notice prisoners’ faces at the windows. I have no idea whether my mom was handcuffed or if she talked to anyone during the ride.
When she was released from Chowchilla, she was given a Greyhound bus ticket to get from Central California to San Diego. In the year and a half she was there, I never visited her. During her first month at Chowchilla, she sent me forms to fill out for visitation rights. The procedure was more complex than the one at the local jail. You had to request visitation dates weeks in advance and wait to get approval. My mom’s friend Bob, who was in love with her, pressured me to make the trip but I refused. Although he offered, I felt uncomfortable making the ten-hour drive with him. And I felt incompetent to make it alone.
Years later, when I was teaching a public mental health course nation wide, I spent one week in Modesto, California. To get there I flew into Fresno and rented a car. When you walk from the gate towards baggage claim, you pass a replica of a Sequoia. It gives you the feeling that you have just arrived at Disneyland instead of near Yosemite National Park.
As I maneuvered my rental vehicle towards the highway, I gave a sigh of relief as I adjusted to the various gadgets of the unfamiliar car and found a station on the radio I enjoyed. An hour into the drive, I saw that the town of Chowchilla was a few exits away. I had never looked on a map to see where it was. Now I saw the barbed wire fence of the prison along the side of the highway. A flight from San Diego to Fresno was inexpensive. I hadn’t realized. Yet at the time, new in my career, I was struggling to make ends meet. The cost of a flight, car rental, and hotel would have all gone onto a credit card.
My mother never talked about her experiences in jail. This was the one area of her life that was a closed book. Yet her silence spoke volumes.
She had pleaded with me to take $200.00 from her accounts to purchase some items for her. Her instructions had been incredibly specific. Most important, she needed an outfit to wear on the bus so that she didn’t have to return home in orange prison attire. At the time, orange wasn’t the new black. She wanted a nice tracksuit and asked when I purchased this at Target that I try it on since we were the same size. She also wanted a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of bean dip. All of these items would have to pass inspection at the prison to ensure that drugs or weapons weren’t being smuggled in. I drove to the mailbox store and quickly found out that packages sent to a state penitentiary required special paperwork. I fidgeted as the clerk asked me various questions related to the forms she was filling out. I remembered that even sending books from Amazon to the prison had been a pain in the ass. I worried what the woman at the mailbox store thought of me because I was sending something to an inmate. As I paid the fifty bucks to have the package mailed, I realized both my mom and I were doing time in one way, shape, or form.