Chapter 11

SHU a la Taft

So by now you are probably familiar with the drill- you get in trouble, you go to solitary. This time though, since Dan was in a camp connected to a Medium prison, he was thrown in the Medium SHU. I reached out to a few people who were familiar with the prison and they told me that it would be the cleanest, nicest SHU he would ever see. Somehow that did not comfort me. If the guards could make up a lie about Dan to get him in trouble, what faith should I have that they wouldn’t lie on the reports they wrote and get Dan kicked out of Taft? Any violation could result in expulsion and who knew WHERE the BOP would send Dan if he lost his place in the camp.  When an inmate broke a rule they got written up and charged- this was called a “shot”. The level of the offense indicated the level of the shot, and dictated how severe the punishment. What Dan was being accused of was a level 200 shot. 100 was the worst and 300 was the best. He was hoping his shot would be written as a 300, and that he would just spend some time in SHU. If the officers kept it as a 200, he would have to leave the camp and be transferred to a low facility.

I had to assure my brother in law that everything was ok, although really I had no idea if it was. I reached out to the lawyers and asked them to please demand legal calls so they could find out the real situation. I felt wronged and indignant and determined not to fall apart this time, even though I was pretty sure this was a really bad situation. I found out from calling the prison that SHU inmates still had regular visits, but they took place in the Medium facility instead of the camp. I couldn’t confirm that Dan would be allowed visits, I didn’t want to tell the officer I spoke with on the phone who I was, just in case. I figured I would just show up for my usual visit and try to get in. What’s four hours driving round trip to see the man you love, even if you chance getting turned away, right?
The first few days I was very worried, and just like every other time he had disappeared, my phone was silent and there was no mail. Then Dan called. We only spoke for five minutes and he confirmed he was in SHU, but knowing he was alive and ok made it all bearable. He told me it was the only call he would be allowed to make until another thirty days passed, so we tried to cover everything. Because of the nature and severity of the accusation against him, he probably wouldn’t be allowed visits with me, but he didn’t know for sure. He was going to have a DHO hearing to determine all of this and it was not looking good for him. He was ok, it was a pretty clean, and he had his own shower in his cell. That was a huge improvement over every SHU he had been in prior. He had been expecting the usual once every three days shower so this was a great bonus. He also had a bunkie, a guy named Mark, who was getting released a few days later. Mark had only served five months but was not actually getting released- he was going on to face State charges and was being turned over to local authorities. He was also very sick, with stomach cancer. Dan had the upper bunk in their cell and the two of them got along just fine. Whew, such a relief. Sort of. There was a photo album of risque-ish photos of me that Dan had put together and he said his old bunkie in the camp was supposed to be mailing it to me. That gave me a bit of anxiety- it’s not like I could walk in and demand the album if he didn’t actually send it to me!

We couldn’t get a clear answer on visiting so I chanced it and drove up. This time I pulled up into the Medium instead of the camp, past the barbed wire and guard towers. It was terrifying to approach the front desk and ask what visiting procedure was. The officers at the desk were much meaner than I had been prepared for and they said I had to leave the premises immediately. I was informed that since I was part of the reason he was in SHU, that I was banned until the DHO hearing outcome. If the hearing went in his favor, he might be allowed visits again but that I specifically would be banned for six months at least. I didn’t know they could do that, it didn’t even occur to me that this was a possibility. We had just barely made it through the first six months and three prisons with our visits, how on earth were we going to make it through another six WITHOUT visits???

I wrote a letter detailing my account of what had occurred at the visit, and Dan’s brother wrote an extremely long and detailed one as well. We had a few lawyer’s write supportive letters too, and I mailed them all to Dan to submit in his defense. The hope was that it would help sway the DHO committee who would be reviewing the case. I was uncomfortable relaying the story to Rabbi’s and our family, I sort of skirted the details and kept it basic- that Dan had been accused of inappropriate conduct with me. Reading the charges on paper was very jarring and made me nervous. I was mortified that anyone thought we would actually have sex in public, and I was embarrassed that people thought it was true.

Dan and I wrote endless letters to each other- mail was the only form of communication we had now. He had a great attitude about it, and tried to keep his letters light and funny. He wrote about posting up a sign “Nail Clippers Please” in his door window and being very surprised that it actually worked- he was taken down the hall to a tiny room, given a new looking nail clipper and when he was done cutting his nails he was brought back to his cell. He also wrote letters to all our family members, in response to the emails they sent me that I would print and mail to him. I started talking out loud to myself at home, it was too quiet. Dan wrote that he would read my letters out loud in his cell and say good morning and good night to me as well. Reading this in his letter, I started laughing crying… we were both doing the same things to cope with the loneliness!
He sent me a poem he wrote for me… Besides being incredibly sweet and romantic this was a totally new side of Dan. It wasn’t that he couldn’t write a poem, it was just that as long as I’d known him he never had. I was blown away that this creative, softer person was being revealed as a result of this experience.

Dan also used to stick the stickers from any fruit he got to eat on the pages of letters he wrote to me- but in SHU he didn’t get much fruit so he started sending me the wrappers to his food. It was the tiniest gesture but it meant the world to me.  We decorated the envelopes to our letters and wrote little notes on the backs, and he even managed to trade his regular stamps for some stamps with sunflowers on them. Little things that made each empty day a tiny bit better.

I was feeling very alone and finally decided to confide the truth about Dan being in prison with one of my girlfriends who I was close with. Just telling someone and being able to share suddenly made me feel so much better. She could not have been more supportive- offering to visit Dan with me and write him letters. Telling just one person gave me enough encouragement to get through the time, it meant I had someone who wasn’t in prison and who wasn’t related to me, who I could call and talk to when I was sad. I should have done it sooner, but we had been so worried about the stigma of telling anyone that we avoided it strenuously. Of course our families knew, but any time I talked with them they were always looking to me for information and encouragement, so it was a relief to have my own pillar to lean on now. She ended up being someone who made the time easier and although now we are no longer in touch, I wish her only the best that life can offer. I am forever grateful for that emotional help during that very difficult time.

I had a bizarre encounter one night when I was out with her, one that really shook me on a personal level. Basically we had all been out and met up with another group of people I didn’t really know. One of the guys invited us all back to his place and screened a movie he had made called 25 to Life. I had been unprepared for anything prison related happening to me when I wasn’t actually visiting one or writing about one, so while everyone else watched interested, I sat there silently sobbing. It was a well done film- very informative about what happens when you screw up via the Three Strikes Law. It was State not Federal, but still, having this topic in the room surrounded by people who knew nothing about my current situation (except that one girlfriend)... I was freaking out inside. I experienced a further inner freak out when it turned out the guy actually knew who Dan was from his life before meeting me, but I avoided connecting the dots for everyone and stayed quiet. This sort of thing happened to me a few times while Dan was in prison, and I always managed to handle it properly, but usually I had some sort of advance notice. This one flipped me upside down as I realized just how close all my worlds were to colliding.

Dan had his DHO hearing and while they didn’t make a decision on the spot (a good sign, it meant they were going to review the details and decide, not just hand down a punishment) we had to wait for them to come to a conclusion before we would know what was going to happen. Was Dan getting kicked out of Taft? If so, he wanted to hurry back to New York to try to get home sooner. If not, he wanted to get RDAP going. And what about me- I was going to have to give notice on my apartment and pack up and move back to New York if he went. So much was riding on this decision and all we could do was wait and hope for the best possible outcome, even if we weren’t sure exactly what it was! I have since learned, I truly hate surprises. I was also determined to get Dan’s photo album back somehow. Note to self- only send flirty pictures to your incarcerated spouse if you don’t mind the possibility of them leaking.

Chapter 10

Re-Valentines Day

Taft was easier on us in so many ways that we started getting into a pattern, a welcome routine of weekly visits and daily letters and phone calls.  One thing that never got easier was the holidays- they remained the bane of my visiting existence for the entire duration.  Holidays were the days that bad things would happen- probably because people who didn’t usually visit regularly would make more of an effort to visit so there was more potential for drama and raised emotions.  A surprising number of inmates rarely receive any visitors at all, so I think holidays added extra pressure on them because they would finally get a precious visit.
The worst two visiting days of the entire year were Father’s Day and Thanksgiving.  Christmas and New Years placed third and fourth on that list respectively.  On February 15th, 2009, Dan’s brother and sister-in-law who lived on the East Coast, joined me for a visit to the camp.  We were calling it Re-Valentine's Day. She was extremely pregnant and had not seen Dan since before he went in so it was an exciting day for us.  They drove down from Sacramento where they had been visiting his dad, and we met in the parking lot.  On our way in, the officer behind the glass told me that Dan had prepared a box of stuff for me to take home and that I could collect it after the visit.  I knew Dan had accumulated a lot of books, letters and paperwork that he wanted me to keep for him and that was probably what the boxes contained.

The visit went well, Dan was able to catch up with his brother and sister-in-law and let them both see that he was surviving and doing ok.  We spent a lot of time out on the patio, eating crummy vending machine food and trying to forget this was all going down in a prison.  We posed for pictures with the camp photographer and enjoyed the nice weather.  Towards the end of the visit, Dan’s brother and sister-in-law left visiting to wait in the car and give us some privacy to talk alone.  

We were sitting on the picnic bench on the patio, with our legs on either side of the bench and my back to Dan.  I was wearing a long sundress with a sweatshirt because it was usually too hot or too cold for me in visiting. We leaned back against each other and just sat quietly, happy not to talk, to just be. Children were running noisily around the patio and couples were talking and I didn't care, I was with Dan on Re-Valentine's Day. I shut my eyes and listened as Dan talked about something, I don't recall what- probably RDAP and time off and how many days, weeks, months were left. I drifted a little bit and then I realized that except for Dan talking, it had gone silent on the patio. Oddly silent. Well that didn't feel right. Opening my eyes slowly, I glanced up.

I made direct eye contact with a prison guard, who was standing on the other side of the glass door watching us.  Everyone outside was now watching the guard, waiting to see what would happen. I pulled away from Dan and he stopped talking, startled. The officer walked out and told Dan to come with him.  I squeezed Dan’s hand and he hugged me and whispered quickly that it was going to be alright.  I had this stupid idea that it actually was going to be alright, and I hugged him back and said ok.  Another officer walked up and they escorted Dan out of visiting and left me sitting by myself on the bench.  I felt like everyone in the visiting room was watching me, it was completely mortifying and I was doing my best not to freak out and cry. I didn't know what was wrong, but I knew something was very very wrong.

After some time passed and it became clear Dan wasn’t coming back to finish the visit, an officer walked up to me and said I should go.  I walked up to the glass to get my license and walked out the front door to join my brother-in-law and his wife.  I was still not sure if this was a bad situation or if things were okay and this was just a bump in the road kind of end to the visit.  His brother and sister-in-law were in their car and I gave them the address of where we were going next, then I started to walk towards my car.

I heard footsteps behind me and I turned to see a stern looking white officer was walking towards me, wearing mirrored sunglasses so I couldn’t see his eyes.  Panic started to build up in my chest but I smiled and asked politely if he needed anything.  He spoke in a way that chilled me completely even though his actual words were not that mean.  He asked if I knew why the visit had been terminated early.  I said no, and asked if he knew why and if so could he please tell me.  The officer smirked at me and said that we had been caught behaving inappropriately on the patio and that I could forget about seeing my husband again for a long time. My jaw dropped open. EXCUSE ME. We what now? I barely let Dan rub my arm because I didn't want him to get in trouble... inappropriately?!?

My stomach plummeted to my knees and I started to sweat but I asked if I could pick up the boxes Dan had left for me at the front because I had forgotten to do so when I walked out.  The CO said no, I would not be getting those boxes, I probably wouldn’t hear from Dan for a long time and that I should leave the premises immediately, I was unwelcome. He moved towards me and I backed away and walked towards my car. He stood there watching me the entire time. I was terrified- I already knew they didn't like us because we were Jewish, what else could they possibly have against us?

My brother-in-law had been observing this exchange from his car and he started to open his door but I waved him off and told him to go ahead I would meet him.  He looked unsure but started to head towards the exit.  I turned back to look at the officer and knew he was so pleased with himself for getting to be the one to deliver the bad news to me.  I got into my car and held back the tears and sobs that threatened to explode from my throat as I followed my brother-in-laws car towards the main road. I didn't know if the officer was right or if he was just being scary to mess with me. All I knew was that either Dan would be calling me later to let me know he was ok, or that he wouldn't and I would have to find out where he was and why.

Happy Re-Valentines Day. Have I mentioned I hate holidays?

Chapter 9

Dan settled into his busy and constructive Taft routine. He was part of a salad club where a group of guys would pool ingredients and create healthy salads for each meal. It was very exciting for him to donate an avocado or tuna and end up with a gourmet bowl of healthy food. He had drum classes, tennis matches and was learning how to wire an outlet in his electrical wiring program.

Life continued on for the rest of the world. My siblings had birthdays and my friends achieved career and educational milestones. People all around me progressed along their own paths. And me- I meandered in an infinity circle of my own making. Visits with Dan, physical therapy and sleepless nights. We still had no tenant for our house, we still had a few civil lawsuits to work out and I was still a mess of bills, anxiety and loneliness.

In a letter I wrote to Dan I mentioned a tradition I used to have with a girl I had gone to summer camp with years earlier. I grew up in Toronto and she lived in Edmonton but at night we could both look up and see the three stars in the sky that make up Orion's belt. We used to say that it didn't matter how far away we were from each other, we could always look up at the night sky and see it. I wanted Dan to feel the same way and wrote asking him to walk outside and look at the stars. I would stand outside on my balcony, smoking a cigarette and feeling guilty for smoking, and stare at the sky wondering if he was doing the same thing. Minus the smoke. 

I had a horrible visit on Super Bowl Sunday that year. I drove up to Taft to see Dan and partway through the visit I suddenly realized I was extremely feverish and had chills. He rubbed my back and I slumped against him in a haze of sickness. I stayed simply because I was too weak to drive the two hours back, and when I finally did have to leave I drove home so slowly, it took me hours to get there. It was almost halftime when I staggered into my apartment and collapsed on the couch. I missed the entire game, but I found out later the Steeler's won. I vaguely remember watching one lone guy in a Steeler's uniform running along almost the entire field with his long curly hair flowing behind him. I know if any of you are Steeler's fans, this is a moment you will always cherish. I was half convinced it was a hallucination brought on by the fevers. Happy Super Bowl 2009!

I was supposed to fly to New York a few days after that for my baby brother's bar mitzvah, and the idea of travelling gave me all kinds of anxiety. I don't like flying to begin with. I had developed this tremendous stress about dealing with security and TSA. I was worried because I was leaving for two weeks and I was going to miss two visits with Dan. The upside to the trip, aside from seeing my family of course, was that I was going to be able to check on our house in NYC firsthand. It wasn't attracting any interested potential tenants and neither of us could figure out why. 5700 square feet in New York City with a private garage and not one taker. I had to figure out a solution to that one, our finances were going to become an issue otherwise.

Thankfully, the flight was uneventful. It was exciting to be back in my parents home, surrounded by family. My sister brought her two little boys over and I brought her a tiny beanie hat that Dan had crocheted for the baby and mailed to me to give her. It fit him perfectly and she loved it. My other sister was expecting and it was cool to hang out with her and feel her belly move when the baby kicked. It was tough for me to be back in the house where I had been only six months earlier, dropping Dan off to start serving his prison term. Everything reminded me of him and I would tear up like an absolute weirdo at the oddest things. Someone would mention a squeaky door and I would bite my tongue to stop myself from saying Dan could fix it. My mom would be baking in the kitchen and I would start to ask her to save a few things so I could give them to Dan, then remember and stop talking. 

The bar mitzvah itself was beautiful and less difficult for me than I had thought it would be. In a note my mom handed me before I flew home, she wrote that my brother had told her I was his favorite person who had flown in for the bar mitzvah. That meant the world to me. It also meant I had beat out various cousins, aunts, uncles, both GRANDMOTHERS... kind of a cool achievement. There was a moment, during my father's speech, when he spoke about how much had changed in seven years. It was meant to highlight how much my brother had grown in that time. But I sat there, listening, thinking about how extremely different my life had been seven years prior, and how unfathomable my current reality was. 

I had a sudden surge of strength run through me and I knew it was time to stop accepting reality and start creating it instead. Basically what it came down to for me was that I was unwilling to accept that Dan was going to be gone for the whole 57 months. He felt the same way. He talked endlessly about the various options to get him home sooner. While I was in New York, I reached out to the one attorney who had always kept his word with us. Throughout the case, we had cycled through many lawyers and firms, and had very negative and expensive experiences. This lawyer was also expensive, but he always came through. Dan and I decided to try to have him get Dan home earlier somehow. I had a long phone call with him and explained an idea Dan had come up with, and he promised to look into it and that he would arrange a legal call with Dan.

Then I had to go into the city and look at the house. That was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated it would be. For starters, we had literally put our blood, sweat and tears into the building. I had pulled the permits myself and we had made so many Home Depot and Lowe's trip, carting back mountains of supplies and lumber in our cars. I stood on a staircase we had built together and reached up to my right eyebrow to touch the scar there- the reminder of what happens when I am holding a two by four and slip and it pops up and cracks open my eyebrow (fourteen stitches and a tremendous amount of bleeding). The tile in the bathrooms that we had agonized over. The drywall that had to be redone twice when our workers did it wrong the first time. Every nook and cranny had a story and I stood in the empty, echoey living room staring at nothing, remembering everything. 

I didn't like being so far away from Dan and not seeing him for so many days. It was really no different than when I was at home, except mentally knowing we were physically further apart somehow made it worse for both of us. I loved seeing my family but I was very much looking forward to going home and resuming my screwed up routine. That night as I lay in bed and we had our two minute good night call, I sang Dan a song my parents had always sung to me when I was little. Dan sang along with me.

You are my sunshine,
My only sunshine,
You make me happy,
When skies are grey,
You'll never know dear,
How much I love you,
Don't take my sunshine away.

I couldn't have anticipated how true and clairvoyant these words would be.