But in the past year, a lot has changed in my life.
I now feel completely comfortable and quite at home during my time inside the walls, and in case you haven't had this experience for yourself, please let me share it with you.
Part One: From waking up to walking into the visiting room
Part Two: Happy times in the visiting room.
Part Three: On the other side of the wall.
Part Four: The women in the van
* * * * *
Driving home after a prison visit is simple.
Emotionally cleansed from reconnecting with my friend, I feel good. Facing the five-hour road trip home from Washington State Penitentiary on a perilously sleep-deprived brain requires focus and attention, whether I'm the driver or one of the passengers helping to keep the driver alert. Cheeseburgers and conversation spell the end of a successful day.
More complex is the ride home in the van.
In Washington, there's a privately-funded van service that provides free rides to anyone who wants to visit a state prison. Research shows that inmates who get regular visits are more successful in their lives behind the wall, and readjust better to life when they get out. Families are happier, prisons run more smoothly. Everybody wins when prison visits happen, and this service makes more visits possible.
While the morning van ride to prison is invariably quiet, a trip in the van with mostly other women passengers is special The post-visit euphoria can take us in some different and surprising directions.
Take for example my last van trip in August. Seven women spread out in the eleven-seat vehicle and most of us still sat quietly absorbed in our own thoughts.
Except for Mo.
Mo was sitting directly in front of me, roughly my age, and experiencing her first trip to prison to visit her twenty-four-year-old nephew.
Maybe it was because this was her first trip.
Maybe it was because this was her nephew and not her son or brother or husband.
Maybe it was just because we were going home.
But Mo was in a mood to talk about her guy.
She told me in great detail about how her nephew had landed himself in prison: the years of addiction, the robberies committed to fund the drugs. She described the changes she saw in her nephew during the visit, who was sobered and matured after a few months behind the wall. She opened up about her emotions - how it felt to see her sister's son in this state, how she would struggle to explain what she had seen to her sister whose physical condition left her unable to visit her son herself.
I listened while Mo talked. The other women minded their own business and mostly ignored us, quietly making phone calls, staring out the window, or talking about logistics with the driver.
And when Mo finally wore herself out, she smiled and asked what I had been hoping she wouldn't ask."So. Tell me about your friend. What's he in for?"
It's not that I don't want to talk about my friend.
It's not that his crimes are a big secret.
All that he did is a matter of public record, his crimes are high profile.
All around the world and across the internet, people have talked about his story.
But I try not to talk about it.
The events of that day are profoundly personal and searingly intense.
The media has misrepresented and misunderstood the story.
And while I long to correct public perceptions of my friend's actions, I know that is not for me to do
This is my friend's story.
He is the only one who can explain what happened.
And when the time is right, he will tell us.
I look forward to that day.
For now, I try not to talk about it.
And an evening stop at the same location.
As these thoughts flashed through my mind in an instant, Mo saw the hesitation on my face.
"Oh, you don't have to tell me. I don't mean to be rude," she pulled back.
But this time, I knew I needed to try to talk.
I drew a deep breath and spoke about depression, Invisible depression that no one can see, not even the people who love and support and spend time with a person. Sometimes no one can glimpse the black void of hopelessness that sucks a person down into spiraling, devastating despair. Sometimes even the person himself doesn't have any idea what is happening to him.
I spoke about guns. How natural it is for a person who is feeling utterly powerless to reach out for a gun not as a weapon for committing a crime but as culturally respected symbol of power .How they cling to the desperate idea that owning a gun may somehow provide a tiny foothold of strength in the midst of this unending panic.
I spoke about perfect storms of intense emotion that slam together only rarely in our lives, when all rational thoughts and coping skills and sound advice are drowned out by the wild screams of our pain, and we utterly lose control.
Then I stopped. I didn't know what else to say.
And I suddenly noticed pin-drop silence.
Every single person on that van was staring at me.
They had listened to every word I spoke.
Their compassion and understanding electrified the air.
One of the women spoke my friend's name.
She said it with humanity and respect.
She had followed his story.
She recognized him when she saw us sitting together in the visiting room.
Mo asked a question. "Do you mind if I Google him and read more about his story?"
My heart sank.I knew the bleak picture those stories would paint.
But who am I to tell anyone what she can and can't Google?
I said, "Sure, read whatever you want. Just know the media doesn't get it."
I spelled his last name for her, and sat back in my seat, feeling defeated.
An idea popped into my mind.
I leaned up over the seat, scrolling through my phone as I interrupted Mo's reading.
"Take a look at this. It's his sentencing statement."
And Mo took my phone and read the words my friend read to the court last January.
Words that don't necessarily explain what happened on that fateful day, but words that reveal much about the character, the beautiful heart and mind, of my young friend.
Then she handed me back my phone and wiped away the tears from her cheeks.
"Tell your friend that Mo is praying for him,"
We hugged each other across the seat that separated us.
* * * * *
These are the kinds of things that happen when I take the van to visit prison.
And even though I love the privacy and convenience of a car, it can sometimes be a remarkable gift to share life with the women in the van.