Why you should care
Because friendships can flower in the strangest places.
For more than nine months I taught the high school equivalency course full time inside California’s High Desert State Prison for male felons. My students were sex offenders, ex-gang members and ex-cops — people who couldn’t be in the general prison population. The hours were long and difficult, security was crucial and I was always closely watched, along with the prisoners. I kept catching viruses from the inmates and struggled through long days inside the prison. I was constantly sneezing and blowing my nose, always holding a tissue in one hand.
I never expected to find something valuable there. Certainly not someone.
But I was miserable, sad and lonely after the break up of my marriage. I was stranded in the desert, and very few family or friends remembered I existed. I had thousands of followers on social media because of my many novels, but they did not seem exactly real. Christmas approached, a bad time for me since my father died on Christmas when I was little. I wasn’t invited anywhere except to the prison employees’ Christmas party and to church, where I was new. I gave everyone who worked at the prison hand-signed Christmas cards, fancy ones I bought at Costco, with velvet and gold foil along the edges. The last thing I expected was a sweet Christmas card from one of my students.
One morning, while I was collecting student essays, Jose slipped an old-fashioned Christmas card to me. It was enclosed in lined writing paper, on which he’d written the words “Keep Safe.” He was new and sat up front near my desk. I raised my eyes in surprise and looked at him, and we both smiled.
So began our two-month secret love affair inside a prison. We saw each other every workday, slipping notes to each other between pieces of paper, exchanging clandestine smiles. We sometimes found time alone in the classroom after all the other students left. He is 31, and I’m 45. We talked about our shared Christian beliefs, our lives, our hopes, our love. We planned to be together, even to marry, in five years when his prison sentence was finished. He had already served 13 years for gang-related crimes and assault with a deadly weapon. He threatened a man with a gun but did not pull the trigger.
We planned to be together, even marry, in five years, when his prison sentence was finished.
I knew if we were caught, I would lose my job for “familiarity with an inmate” and for exchanging letters — and if they knew we had managed to hold hands briefly, that would be even worse. But we didn’t break any laws: Prisoners are allowed visitors and can send and receive letters. We exchanged no contraband except paper, never passed money or drugs, never planned a prison escape. We never even hugged or kissed.
On Valentine’s Day, Jose gave me two handwritten letters — our only option inside the prison, where no one was allowed a mobile phone or personal computer — and I sang Can’t Help Falling in Love to him when we were alone in the classroom. My boss walked in seconds after I finished and I knew he suspected us. I had seen him in central control the day before, watching videos of the hall outside my classroom. I should have been more careful, but I stayed a little late to read Jose’s letters. My boss caught me sitting at my desk, reading them, a smile on my face. He’d been standing behind me, outside the window, watching. He asked what I was doing, so I told him I was reading letters from my daughter.
Then he asked to see them. I knew it was futile to refuse. Anyone inside prison walls relinquish their rights to privacy when they enter the gates. My body, my bag, even my car in the parking lot could be searched at any time.
Still, I tried to ignore him. He followed me down the main corridor.
“Give them to me,” he demanded.
I stopped, turned around, and handed him the letters. He stood in the middle of the hallway, reading. I wished I could turn invisible. He handed over the letters to the senior corrections officer, who read them slowly at her desk. I watched through the barred windows as my boss then handed them to the assistant warden.
I knew my job was gone and my reputation in the company changed forever. Jose was also punished, put in solitary confinement and refused access to the phone or any other way of contacting me.
He was eventually allowed to write and call me, but for four months, we couldn’t see each other. The private prison company that runs the yard wouldn’t let me visit, even though I filled out the necessary paperwork and was approved. I wrote to and called California Gov. Gavin Newsom, hoping to convince him to let Jose out early.
Then, last week, Jose, who had been requesting a transfer so that I could visit him, was suddenly moved to a new prison near Bakersfield. This past weekend I drove three hours and got a motel room so that we could visit all day Saturday and Sunday.
For the first time since Jose reached out to me six months ago, we sat at a table in the prison visitation courtyard. We entwined hands, talking for hours, able to kiss sometimes and hug, our heads close together, sharing secrets. We had food from the vending machines and we laughed as we planned a sweet romantic prison wedding in that very spot.
Other inmates and their partners held hands and walked in circles around us. It seemed as if we were already dancing at our wedding, in the middle of a joyful circle, in a most unlikely place. If we did not look too closely, we did not even see a prison.