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THE COMMON LAW WIFE AND THE PRISONER: A Tale of Two Visitors

I have been a prison administrator for more than three decades and the prison community is almost like my world.  Actually it is the only universe I know outside of the solar system.  Passing through, making way, getting to, working on has been a principal concern of my office right inside the prison compound.  I am always in the habit  of jotting down anything I could fancy,  recording, taking notes on various aspects of institutional life, analyzing matters that border on the extraordinary.  After all, the prison community is one such homogenous society, the exact opposite of the free community and completely different and composed of a galaxy of characters that pulsate on a different plane by its own right.  It has its own culture and norm, language and even a share of something unusual and exceptional.

There is one aspect that invited curious attention.  This is one group that stands out from the time the gates of prison is opened for visitation.  9 out of 10 visitors are closely related to the prison population.  They are almost an institution in itself.  They are the common-law-wives—the informal better-halves of prisoners.  And there are two categories here of this marital situation.  Those who were contracted before, that are, prior to incarceration.  And those, while under detention.

The relationship forged before and after would intersect at the cross roads in prison and the effects are telling.  This can be represented by two cases.

Mila regularly visits his common-law-husband in prison.  They have five children and she was forced to do laundry to sustain the family.  In between breaks from contracted household chore, she would pay a visit to the prison community.  Sometimes she would bundle the youngest so that her spouse would have an inspiration while serving time.  During visitation, the couple could be seen in one corner pledging undying support for one another and praying for another lease of opportunity to do the right thing after the period of incarceration.

Landa regularly visits his common-law-husband in prison too.  She knew her husband through correspondence.  She was a household help and she oftentimes spend her whole afternoon listening to radio while doing the chores.  She heard the story of one prisoner who was in dire need of counsel and she would correspond to him regularly.   She was impressed with the guy and so she braved to pay him a visit.  She withdrew a part of her savings, bought some groceries and went to the penal facility to check on her new acquaintance.  She expected something romantic since in their exchange of letters the man has been daring her for a relationship.  From that time on, she would regularly attend to her beau and the man, who swore as estranged already from any relationship, would go further by writing authorities to record the name of the visitor as his common-law-wife.

For every Mila in the visitation hall, there were five Landas in the midst.  The Milas would be repaid with fanatical loyalty when their loved ones see the light of freedom.  The Landas on the other hand would partake a different path.  They will be given a number of promises, sweet and encouraging ones, but when their spouse would be discharged they would be left only with a promise of a fulfilling company.  The Landas would wait a lifetime for the promise to be fulfilled until she would again trek the prison to check on a common friend on the status of her man.  The visit in prison would initiate another relationship after a word would be heard that her man has been declared as  desaparacido—missing and presumed dead already.  Although prisoners whose relationship was contracted while in detention would find the relationship as favorable while serving time, once released they find that having another at their back is a baggage and useless for a traveler.  Besides, prisoners would rather go back to their community of orientation and to their families after a period of absence.

And so the Landas would be left holding an empty bag.  They would however be consoled by their common friend, another prisoner who takes interest in them.  They, individually, would be an assiduous visitor to her new found lover until release would separate them.  She would be back in prison, already ageing and still hopeful.  She knew prison like the back of her hand already, street smart and confident despite the numerous times she felt duped.  She may not be able to project a competitive look among the new Landas in the midst but she could facilitate everything for the prison community.  She can be a mule for their requirements, legal and illegal.  They represent the silent but menacing third category among those queuing daily to enter the prison visitation hall.

For prison administrators, identifying this specific sector is already an accomplishment.

MANAGING THE BUREAU OF CORRECTIONS IS NOT EASY

The phrase is not an expression of exasperation; it is rather a discovery of a fact.  It is not a wailing cry of desperation; but rather a confirmation of something never before accepted as reality.

And why is it not easy to manage an agency despite all the rules, powers and authorities in its command arsenal?  It is in the overall picture of its environment.  Unlike plants, unlike animals, unlike any other governmental concern, managing the most dangerous sector of society—the so called insular prisoners projects so much stress to the point that nothing is correct in the scale of administering fairly their community.  It is neither hot nor cold; neither here nor there; neither good nor bad; neither proper nor improper.  Either an officer is an exceptionally a genius person or abnormally intelligent to justify the right way in managing the affairs of prison administration.

The Bureau of Corrections is one such agency one finds at the cross roads of a scandal.

If there is no news that could grab public attention, one can find something in prison worth jolting the hell out of stability.  For sure there are numerous instances in the prison community that is worth a moment’s notice.  If the mood is something that would require empathy for the down trodden, there are alleged cases to be slapped on prison officials.  If the prevailing sentiment is against the offenders, there are incidents that could be divulged against prison denizens.  In both instances, the prison administrator’s neck is usually on the line.  This is where sensationalism comes, this is where the news item becomes a regular highlighted feature, something that sells the newsprint, something that is projected on television, something one follows up on radio.  And the Bureau of Corrections whether it is in its star to be exposed or not, is always there are as an exciting filling material.

Any administrator worth his salt would find this stark reality as soon as he gets into ground work.  No amount of work ethics can drive the prison community—officers included, into the tailspin of real committed work.  Resistance is etched in every corner of the prison camp.  Tradition is almost embossed in the granite walls of the community.  To reform is like calling to arms as in war.  Yet changes must be done.  Several prison administrations have dedicated itself in the past only to be waylaid by indifference later.  Result:  the prison service remained static, recluse and worst, a benchmark for incompetence.  And there lies the challenge.  Change must occur, innovation must start somewhere.  Corrections must regain its real meaning.

The process is not a walk in the park.  It is, to borrow today’s lingo, complicated.  Change demands sacrifice.  While not all improvements result in change, all changes result in improvement.  And the prison service is still undecided to fulfil change notwithstanding the enforcement of leadership.  Attitude remains the biggest challenge and it must turn into a crusading spirit.  It must be a guided tour for real change, a clear direction to be reached.

And the first step is having a good grasp of where to go.  That explains the significance of the BuCor Roadmap.  If only it could be applied, embraced and totally appreciated.

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