I had been married for 3 days to a man I had never touched.
Saturday dawned while we were halfway to Tennessee Colony. Dallas is flat, strangely so actually for a city, but I was assured that east Texas isn’t like that. Well it has slightly less flat topography but I wouldn’t exactly call it hilly! My mother-in-law had done the journey about 5 times so we only got a little bit lost once. We decided to drop me off at the prison first and then my daughter and mother-in-law would go to the Hospitality House and check in for our room, go and eat and explore a bit, and then pick me up later.
Coffield and Michael units are next to each other, with Beto, Powledge and Gurney units a little further down the road (approx 15,000 inmates all together just in these 5 units). TDCJ owns around 225,000 acres of land in Tennessee Colony and there really isn’t much else there to see. Micheal unit has a pig farm attached and they also keep cattle. Visitors go through the first Checkpoint at the gate there where you have to pop the bonnet (hood), boot (trunk), and glove compartment (box), show your ID and be nice to the guards who are usually freezing as they’ve been there since the 6am shift change, 2 hours ago.
Then you drive about a mile down the road to Coffield where I was dropped off just outside the main entry office. I went in, showed my passport, and gave my husband’s name and number so they could call through to have him leave his cell. Then I went through the first electronic gate which is operated by a CO in the guard tower, some 30 feet above the ground, to the second checkpoint. I showed my passport again, and then went through the second electronic gate, then up short path to the main reception area.
Inside I removed my jacket and emptied my pockets of the $20 coin roll I’d brought, putting it and my passport and marriage certificate in a plastic tray, and my crutches on the table with my jacket. I showed my hip x-ray to the guard so he’d know why I was about to set the alarm off, walked through the metal detector and set it off, and was quickly wanded all over to make sure I had nothing else metal on me (not even an underwire bra).
I put my jacket on and filled the pockets again, I showed my passport once more to the desk guard, who took it and gave me a computer slip which I had to give to the visit room guard. Through a manually locked gate and into the visitroom, where Officer Jones took the slip and told me I should sit not under her nose at the next free table, but right at the end of the room by the vending machines so I wouldnt have so far to walk. Then I waited 10 minutes for my husband to come through from being strip-searched.
His smile was so big when he saw me, he practically ran down the aisle to our table. We hugged and kissed and giggled and hugged and kissed some more, and then agreed we should probably sit down before I got thrown out (it’s only supposed to be a single hug and kiss at the start and end of the visit). We held hands all the time except when I got us drinks and snacks from the machines. Inmates are only allowed to leave the table to use the bathroom, and that’s only once during a 4 hr visit, and only with permission from a guard.
It was so cold in the visit room that it would have been nice to at least sit next to each other to keep warm instead of across from each other. I showed him the marriage certificate, and he put my ring on my finger and said his vows to me. We giggled over how big his ring is. My friend had made them from the same lump of silver, but with only rough measurments to go on and my fear that it would get stuck on his finger and have to be cut off, we had gone for a larger size than was really necessary.
My vows were easy, I promised to keep doing everything I have been up to now. The 4 hours didn’t go by too quickly, but they were still over too soon. It was good to be able to say “see you tomorrow” though. My mother-in-law and daughter were waiting for me when I came out and we went and had something to eat in the nearest town called Palestine.
The following day, my daughter came with me to meet her new step-father. There was a bit of a communication breakdown when the first office guard didn’t put my daughter’s name on the computer so when I got the slip for the visit room she wasn’t on it. Luckily, Officer Jones was on main desk duty that morning and she went and spoke to the duty Warden to make sure that my daughter was allowed through.
Although we had another 4-hour visit scheduled, my daughter only stayed with us for an hour, as she’d said she would, and that meant a lot to both of us. She said afterwards that my husband was “OK” but that he looked sad. I told her he was very nervous about meeting her, and embarrased that it had to be in a prison. She accepted that, which is good because it’s the truth. She’d been gone about half an hour when Officer Jones came into the visit room to speak to us.
Officer Jones said she had my mother-in-law at the gate asking if she could come in and she wanted to know if we’d spoken to the Warden about her coming in as well. We explained that the Warden had said that if the visitroom wasn’t busy, my mother-in-law might be able to come in for a while once my daughter had gone. Only 2 adults are allowed to visit at a time, and as mu daughter was 16 she counted as an adult. It was really up to Officer Jones (the visit room was only half full) to make the decision.
She looked at me and said, “No, I’m asking you, do you want her to come in?”, to which I replied that she wasn’t my mother. Officer Jones then looked at my husband, and he said,”wellllll, why don’t you just tell her she can come back next week?….. but don’t tell her I said that!”. Officer Jones laughed and said that’s all she wanted to know and that my husband owed her one, and we both collapsed into giggles when she’d gone. For the record, Officer Jones is black, around 40 years old and twice as big as both me and my husband.
It took me 15 minutes to leave him. We were told when we had 5 minutes left, so we got up and hugged lots, and kissed lots… and talked some more while still hugging, and both of us were waiting for a guard to come over but they never did. Eventually I put my jacket on and Ray got my crutches off the floor for me, one final kiss and we walked apart. We don’t look back. Aparently the guard who told us 5 minutes spoke to my husband on his way back and said “you’re killing me here”. My husband asked why, and the guard said we’d taken 15 minutes too long, to which my husband said we didn’t realise and we were really sorry. He’s good at keeping a straight face when he has to!
I’ve been back again several times since that first visit to Coffield. I try to arrange my visits for the first weekend in a month, when we can have our photos taken together. Those photos are now, along with an excellent pencil drawing I have of my husband by another inmate, our marriage certificate and all his letters, my most treasured possessions. I make the journey to that foreign prison every 6 to 9 months, and will be until at least 2024.