The following story is part of PJP's special project, "The Graying of America’s Prisons." For this series, we curated reported stories and essays from across the country to catalyze a conversation about the now-ubiquitous phenomenon of growing old behind bars. Read all of the stories in the series here.
Every person in this eight-person cell is suffering from intense homesickness.
I used to be a central part of my family. Now, there are days I wonder if I even cross their minds. Maybe that seems dramatic, but in here feelings are not always rational. When I don’t hear from anyone for days, I question how I fit into their lives. Are they closing me out? Are they trying to tell me something?
To properly explain to family and friends how badly I need emails, letters and phone calls, I would have to describe how it feels to be trapped in this tiny room with nothing but memories. But I don’t want them to have to think about that.
In our room, there is Angela Meza, a grandmother who misses her grandsons to whom she is devoted and used to see almost every day. She misses her best friend, who was like a sister. She misses her dad.
Now she sits on her bunk and waits for emails that rarely come, or pictures or videos that come even less. Her family never went a day without talking to her. Now they go a week without reaching out. Her dad and older family have never learned to use the prison email system. Her other family loves her but are just too busy, she says. This grandmother lies alone and aches to wrap her grandkids in her arms. She rewatches old videos to hear what her family sounds like.
Eileen Huber, who is in her early 50s, has been here since she was 19. She came to prison before cellphones were common, before Starbucks and Amazon were ubiquitous. She never killed anyone, but due to a California felony murder law — where co-conspirators and accomplices can be charged with murder — she was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. During Huber’s time behind bars, her entire immediate family has passed away: mother, father, brother.
She rarely hears from extended family. She does not even know who’s still alive. She does have a best friend who was paroled four years ago after 25 years in prison, and she misses her desperately. A chaplain who has stuck by her for more than 30 years is aging and growing weak; the trip to the prison is too long for her to visit more than a few times a year.
Another woman in our room, Maureen McDermott, is in her mid-70s. She spent 37 years on death row. Recent changes to California law have allowed her to join the general population and provided some hope that her case may be reviewed.
But adjusting to life in the general population has made her homesick for her friends and the simple lifestyle she left behind on the row. She is homesick for the mother she lost and will never see again. She is homesick for her career as a nurse, a healer. She is homesick for the relatives and friends she has lost. She is homesick for health care that would manage her chronic lung disease and degenerative bone and joint diseases. She is homesick to die peacefully, surrounded by those who love her and whom she loves back. She is homesick to go to church and worship alongside others. She is homesick for freedom, homesick for life.
Before prison, I had what I thought was a good life. I had bought my own home and truck and was making the payments. I had a family I talked to every day. I was finally pregnant after a few miscarriages and had just enrolled in paralegal school. Life held promise. My family would rely on me when they needed me. I would jump on a plane and fly east to be with them.
My first time in legal trouble, I was sentenced to life without parole. I did not kill anyone, but I did not pay attention to what was going on around me. Someone close to me took a life. I did not help the authorities, but my sin and real crime is that I did not help the family of the victim. I am a prisoner and should be living in a state of constant remorse and feeling like I deserve this. I have been through victim’s perspective classes and know the consequences of my actions. I am sorry.
I still want to be home with my friends and family.
I am 47 years old. My mom has Alzheimer’s, and has been diagnosed with cancer. My brother has been diagnosed with stage 4 kidney disease. My niece had serious complications during childbirth. My nephew is going to be graduating from Army boot camp. My big sister and brother-in-law retired and bought a farm. I almost lost both my parents to COVID-19. I can’t just hop on a plane to be with them. The distance and separation is all-consuming. I feel useless and helpless.
A few people write to me, but life outside gets busy and there are days and weeks with little to no communication. I try to understand, and most days I do. Certain days, though, I am so homesick I ache. To get by, I have dedicated myself to self-improvement, education and fighting to improve our conditions.
I am tired and have accrued financial debt for civil court fees, on top of the restitution I owe. I have received backlash from both inmates and staff for fighting the system. The occasional “Thinking of You” note from my family keeps me trying to do what I can. Having a purpose is essential to getting through rough times, especially in prison.
But the purpose of helping myself and others is nothing compared to the purpose of being a daughter, sister, friend and mother — the purpose I lost. I am homesick for my family and my life.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.