Wives of locked up husbands

WHEN a man goes to prison, his wife enters a kind of invisible prison of her own. ``I think some people hesitate, starting to live,'' says Shelley, who is a bouncy but very thoughtful sort of person.

``Mom wanted me to say he was in the service,'' quips her friend Linda, who has a round face and wings of long blond hair - and a healthy sense of humor.

``I said, `Ma, in the service, they come home!'''

We sit in the Clam Box eating seafood.

Linda's beautiful three-year-old daughter twines on her mother's shoulder, in her lap, under the plastic table, and over on the seat behind - all with the shy proud smile of a little girl who is the apple of the world's eye.

Prisons sometimes feed many people's habit of putting others in a convenient package. They feel they wouldn't want an inmate's family living next door to them - but many of us might welcome Linda and Shelley. They are young and warmhearted, but with a little shadow of sadness.

The two women met after Shelley founded a support group for inmates' wives and girlfriends, called WAIT (Wives Are Incarcerated Too). They will be starting up regular meetings, Shelley says. The main point at the moment is to create friendships among inmates' wives at a time when they feel like outcasts - struggling not only with society's disapproval, but also with their personal state of social limbo - neither really married, single, widowed, nor divorced.

``Most people think all prisoners' wives are low-income, strung out on drugs, barefoot, and pregnant,'' comments Shelley, who says she was from a ``comfortable'' background. ``Prisoners' wives are not so different as people think we are.''

They are different, though, in some of the experiences they have. We talk about some of the difficult times. Like going home after their husbands' sentencing. ``It was as if he had died. All of his things were around,'' says Shelley. ``My ironing board was up. It took me a month to go back to the apartment to pack everything,'' adds Linda.

Like watching your husband being strip-searched after a visit: ``My heart would turn inside out. I've never known such heartache,'' continues Shelley.

Like being searched yourself: A mistake such as wearing an underwire bra on a first visit can lead to a search - under your bra and between your legs - in front of your child. ``There are guards who are good, decent, just doing their jobs. They are under a lot of stress. I don't know how they do it,'' she says.

Like learning to live without your husband: Shelley is now getting a degree in social work, but transitional times included a stay in a homeless shelter.

Like dealing with your own parents: ``The family never asks, `How's Scott?''' remarks Linda. On the other hand, she says, ``In the family it's all hush-hush, but housing and welfare and social workers have been very supportive. It's not like `this one - the Prisoner's Wife.'''

Shelley feels that, without having been through it herself, ``I don't know that I would understand.''

Prisons are not really set up to deal with families. Linda says her daughter was burned twice by hot pipes in a prison visiting area. Her husband had offered to fix them if the prison would get him the materials. He has done a lot of work around the prison. ``He built a sandbox. He put up a tire swing for the kids.''

``Last summer was nice. There was a nice yard. We'd bring up a ball - we kind of felt like normal people. [We were] not in that icky waiting room. It felt as if we were a normal family. It was nice. But I don't want to spend another summer doing that - it wasn't that nice.''

There is also fear for the husbands' safety. Mostly people picture prison as a round of rapes and homicides.

``It's not that it doesn't happen. It's just not as frequent or dramatic [as you might think],'' Shelley says.

Prisons are usually in remote locations. People in jail get transferred from one place to another, so there's no point in a family moving to be nearby. Shelley figures her husband has been in seven or eight prisons in his four years of incarceration.

``All fine places to vacation - Club Med!'' Linda jokes.

``We have little inmate jokes. We send them a check and tell them not to spend it all in one place,'' says Shelley. She explains that inmates get paid a dollar a day for working. ``My husband will go to bed saying, `Another day, another dollar - literally.'''

A transfer is often positive, meaning that an inmate is working his way through the system from a higher- to lower-security prison, with easier access in and out. Linda's husband is due to be released soon. Shelley says: ``You go through a range of emotions. You're forced apart. Then you're forced back together again.'' Linda comments, ``Other girls get nervous. I'm excited.''

Shelley says she thinks that counseling should be available for families. ``If you're going to separate two people and expect them to make it when they get out, you're not giving them the tools they need to be successful. Ninety-nine percent [of all inmates] are going to be back out [on the street]. If we don't help them, they're not the only ones that are going to lose.''

From the most positive point of view, however, this difficult experience has been an opportunity. ``I can't say I'd do it all over again,'' Shelley says, a little wryly, ``but I appreciate where I've come from and where I'm going, because I can see growth. Being in difficult circumstances doesn't need to hold you back. You can make it a productive time.''

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