The concepts of time and space have very different connotations for incarcerated women than for other people. It is undoubtedly true that every individual who is imprisoned measures time by the length of their sentence, but for women the markers are more personal and painful. Time is measured in the weeks, months, and years by which a woman is separated from her family. It is measured by the hours and days between letters and phone calls.Time is measured by the birthdays, holidays, and personal events that she misses.The first tooth under the pillow, the new trike, and the first day of kindergarten are little pieces of time in her children’s lives that she can neither share nor recapture.
Incarcerated women who are lucky enough to have visits with their families can see the passage of time in their children’s faces,the sudden growth spurt, or the new hairdo. In the Visiting Room mothers and children try to recapture those missed moments with stories, hugs, laughter,and tears.In that nosiy,crowded room families try desperately to re-establish bonds and create new ones to bridge the gaps in lives that were torn apart by the mass incarceration of mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers.There is never enough time in the Visiting Room.
Women who do not receive visits from their families measure time by the photographs they receive and the letters and pictures that their children send. Each treasured photograph, and scrawled crayon drawing is proudly displayed to everyone the mother knows, even the guards. The scraps of paper and faded photos carefully taped to an inmate’s locker bear silent witness to the passage of time in which a mother and her child are kept apart.
For women whose children have been placed in foster care, time is measured by the months between court appearances and her desperate efforts to fulfill the court ordered reunification plan. Often times the woman’s sentence runs longer than the period of time that she has been granted to get her life back together so that she can regain custody of her children. Failure to fulfill the court ordered reunification plan results in the termination of parental rights and the adoption of the children. In these cases time cuts both ways as it marches on: too much time in prison, too little time to get the children back.
Time drags in prison as the women wait for the days to pass. They wait to go to meals, to sign up for the phone, to be called to a visit, to be allowed into and out of their cells, to go to Canteen, to go to Clothing, or to go to work. They wait to be assigned to school, a better job, or a self help program that can make a difference in their lives. They wait for good news, good times, and a new life. Time passes on and still they wait.
In prison there is always too much time, but sadly there is never enough space. Women in California prisons live 8 women to one cell, crammed into a tiny space about the size of a bathroom, sharing one toilet and one shower. They exist literally on top of each other; 4 women on top bunks, 4 women on bottom bunks, with their meager possessions stuffed into a drawer beneath the bottom bunk.There is no space to breathe, to think, to grieve or to grow. There is no space to heal wounds, to make amends, to find peace, or to seek a better way. Everywhere a woman goes in prison she is surrounded by crowds of inmates and dozens of guards. Space does not exist in prison.
Yet as time drags on in prison, the women worry about both time and space. Will there be a space for me in my children’s lives when I am released? A space in my mom’s house? A space in my husband’s heart? Is there space for me anywhere or has it been destroyed by the time that I have lost behind these concrete walls?