This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade's photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.
Geographic separation from family is one consequence of imprisonment. Depending on the state, prisons are often located in remote, rural areas that are far from the urban cores many prisoners come from. Although scholars frequently cite the distance of prison facilities from prisoners’ families’ residences, scant research has addressed whether this is in fact an impediment to visiting or how families who do visit manage this process. It is an exhausting, resource intensive process for a family member to make one visit at a prison. Understanding how families decide how much of their resources to devote to maintaining their relationship with the prisoner is important. Using data collected through ethnographic observation and interviews, this article explores family management of prison visiting as one of the collateral consequences of incarceration.¹
There are buses and vans that run from towns and cities in New York to state prisons. They are not advertised, not disclosed by the Department of Correction. They are unbranded, off the landscape of normal thought. They pick up at places around New York City that are not Penn Station or Grand Central. They pick up from Harlem, from South Bronx, from Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
A woman in a prison chat forum put together a list of these vans and buses that haphazardly carry families to prisons in 2005. This remains the only list of its kind for the state of New York, online, embedded seven threads deep in a forum. It was last updated in August 2012.
There is a bus that still leaves South Bronx at 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. It travels overnight, dropping off at prisons around the state, then picks up again the next day for a midnight trip home.
It takes seven hours by bus to get to a prison on the border of New York and Canada from the NYC metro area, which causes a visitor to be dumped in a rural town at 5 a.m. A rural town with one main street, with the only fast food and grocery stores scattered on the outskirts across town from the bus stop. Seven hours of stops and announcements for other prisons, of trying to sleep sitting up. At 5 a.m. drop-off, the option in the small town is to sit by the road, to pay to sleep a few hours in a no-name motel room (a motel kept alive by prison visitors), to walk or take a cab the several miles to McDonalds. Choices of how to wait for the sun to rise, until prison visits begin hours later. The prison is three miles from McDonalds, pressed in a clump of several facilities on the north side of town.
If a visitor leaves Friday night, she returns in the early hours of Sunday. If she works during the week, her weekend is killed this way, in sleeplessness, walking and waiting.
Most information lives in prison forums, as if by online Rolodex, more known there than by corrections officers or the man who answers the phone at the prison. It's a conversation lasting years, cobbled together by women and men after struggling over a knowledge deficit, who have created their own intel in the silence. Even with this knowledge, with the routine of years, it is hard. Costs of buses, of motels, of cabs, of McDonalds breakfasts, of the collect calls from your prisoner who asks you to bring things.
Prison forum message
There are other vans with individual cell and pager numbers that claim availability, too. Manny's Bus Service. Rambo's Van Service. There is no online process; there is showing up at a corner at a certain time, hoping a guy with his van shows up, wondering who he is and if he's reliable in reappearing to get you home once there, after you've paid the $40 cost.
Once at prison, after being up all night, tossed with bus bumps, a woman takes a change of clothes from her bag, cuts off the tags. They fall to the floor in the restroom of the prison check-in trailer. With luck or with forum advice, she dresses in a circular neckline, wears a bra without underwire. She reapplies the makeup already on, fixes her hair, creased flat from sitting upright for so long. She wishes she could have a shower. She wants to look nice, to look as remembered and better. Her clothes have lines from the bag; her mascara clumps.