The First Time I Went to State Prison

The evening before my first visit to see my brother, I go to the prison’s website to read about what to wear and what you’re allowed to bring inside. I learn that visitors aren’t allowed to wear any clothing that is blue, nothing too revealing, no yoga pants, jeans, flip flops, caps, sunglasses, purses, wallets, cell phones, and the list goes on.

I’m visiting my parents for a few weeks but only packed one pair of pants that won’t violate the dress code rules—my sensible, dark blue hiking pants. 

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My mom, who already visited my brother a few months ago, recounted a few of the scantily-dressed female visitors who were turned away because their pants were too tight, heels too high, or skirts too short.

I hold up my hiking pants to my mom and ask what she thinks. I tell her it could pass for faded black.

She looks it over and says, “It’ll be fine.” 

I take her word for it but am still nervous about tomorrow’s visit. The dress code and unfamiliar landscape of visiting a state prison have my stomach in knots. But mostly, I’m filled with anxiety about seeing my brother for the first time in nearly four years. The last time I saw him, he was in an L.A. county jail awaiting trial. 

County jail is kind of like a holding facility or a place people go to serve less serious crimes with lighter sentences. When I was in college, I visited a friend in county. He was serving a six-month sentence for multiple DUIs.

When I went to county to see my brother, I remember him looking cool and calm behind the glass window. I studied his face from behind the glass and thought about the possibility of prison, and it destroyed me. It was an awkward conversation and a lot of small talk about the meals he was eating and other people he met. My mom, dad, and I took turns holding the phone to talk to him.

When it was my mom’s turn to grab the phone, I saw the tears well up in her eyes, her face crumpling into an expression that was both love and sorrow and something maybe only a mother can feel. I turned away, not wanting to see her that way.

Even though it was an emotional visit, my family expected the trial to go in his favor. No spoilers here—it didn’t. He received 19 years, the maximum sentence for his crime.

I think about the way I felt on that first visit to county jail and wonder how much worse it will be when I see him in state prison. I’m glad there’s no glass to separate us and I hope it’ll somehow comfort my brother too. 

I wonder if I’ll cry. Or if I’ll feel numb. Lately, I’ve been feeling more numb than hopeless, but I can’t be sure if the numbness is a form of acceptance. Perhaps I’m getting used to the idea that he’s gone. I have to keep reminding myself that this is about him, not me. 

I imagine him to be pale and depressed. From his letters and phone calls, he tells me he’s barely getting yard time. When COVID happened, it basically shut down life inside prisons in the same way it did for the public. Programs, educational classes, the library, and the yard—closed indefinitely.

Unlike the outside, however, it would take much longer for the prison to lift precautions and resume life as normal. Until then, regular lockdowns occurred, stilting yard time, phone calls to the outside, and any social interactions. 

The next morning, my mom, dad, and I pile into the car at 8 a.m. We’re about to embark on the three-and-a-half-hour drive to central California, a place I have only known from driving through, often with rolled-up windows to protect myself from the scorching heat and stench of the dairy farms and cows standing in their own poop.

Even though it’s the middle of June, I’m relieved the weather isn’t going to be over 100 so we won’t melt while we wait in line to get in. My mom reassures me there’s a tent for visitors, but she warns, it’s still hot

I pull into the massive gates of Kern Valley State Prison and stop at the guard booth. He asks for our IDs and directs me to the visitor’s parking lot. We drive down a long road with mysterious white buildings and barbed wire fences. Maybe this is what North Korea feels like. It’s cold and intimidating. I notice the visitor’s lot quickly fills up. 

My mom, dad, and I dutifully leave behind our cell phones and wallets in the car. You’re allowed one car key, dollar bills for the vending machine, and no more than 10 photos. These items must be kept inside a clear, plastic container or Ziplock bag so they can easily be examined. My mom’s wad of $1 bills is so thick I’m sure my brother will have a field day at the vending machines. 

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We walk to the tent area and I push my dad in his wheelchair. The air is hot and dusty. The thirsty and depressing landscape reminds me that no prisoners will survive if they attempt an escape. 

We’re here on a walk-in day so it’s on a first come-first serve basis. There are about fifteen people ahead of us in line. Even though it’s barely 1 p.m., they won’t allow visitors inside until 2 p.m. I brace myself for an hour’s wait while standing around without the comfort of my phone. 

I notice most of the visitors are women—mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, and kids. I see toddlers and elementary-school-aged kids and wonder how well they know the person they’re visiting, most likely their father. I think about what kind of life they will have as adults in the face of their father’s absence. 

While waiting, we fill out a form that asks for our names and inmate’s name, and booking number. After an hour or so of waiting, a prison staffer comes out. I’m surprised to see she’s wearing a brightly colored dress and not in a tan uniform like everyone else. She’s a large African American woman holding a walkie-talkie. She addresses the visitors in a way that says she’s repeated her little speech a million times. 

She speaks slowly like she’s talking to people who don’t speak English or can’t hear properly, and announces, “Please fill out the visitation form. If you need a pen, I have one for you. No cell phones, purses, or wallets.” 

After a very long hour, we walk to the front of another building—this is stop #2 before reaching the visitation room where my brother will be waiting. We’re forced to stand outside and the suffocating heat is dampening my already dampened mood. 

As any Asian woman would do, I shield my face with the photos I brought. My mom reassures me it’s not that hot and compares today to the last time she visited. Her words do nothing to cool the sun’s rays.

After what feels like forever, a blank-faced prison guard opens the front door and starts checking visitors in. All the guards wear the same diarrhea-green uniforms. Not one guard smiles or makes eye contact. The vibe makes me uncomfortable like somehow, everyone in this room is an inmate, guilty for showing up today. 

At the check-in desk, a female guard with fake eyelashes asks for our IDs and COVID vaccination cards. Whoa, whoa, wait. COVID cards? Isn’t the mandate for showing cards over? She tells me we can’t go in without it. 

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