I am a Prison Mother. This is not something I chose for my life. This is a road that I am working my way down, because my son made poor choices in his life. Drugs became his best friend, and crime became his pastime. Now he will be living in a prison, until he has paid his debt to society. This is exactly where he needs to be. I would not change his life right now, even if I could. My son has made some serious mistakes. He knows this, and so do I. But, after he puts all of this behind him, he will be ready to step forward into the community to be the man God meant him to be.

This morning I am up very early. It is visiting day at the prison and I want to be in the line before it gets too long. I shower, dress, take time for a dry piece of toast and a cup of yesterday's coffee warmed over ... and, I'm out the door and on my way.

Where my son is incarcerated, it costs $7.00 to park your car. I pay my money, park the car and walk over to where the outside line is already wrapping around the corner of the outside waiting area. I go to the end of the line, and prepare to be patient. It is now 8:00 A.M. Some of the people at the head of the line have been here since last night. They have sleeping bags, blankets, sacks of food and sad faces. Some of these people I see over and over. They are there for a visit with their loved one each time I go. Sometimes we talk to each other. Sometimes we don't.

One day when I was standing in line, I visited with the nicest lady. She told me that she was waiting to visit with her adult son. She lives so far away that it took her 3 ½ hours by train to journey to the prison. She will wait in line just as long as I will, waiting for a 30 minute visit with her son. Afterwards, she will have to make that same 3 ½ hour trip to get home. She only comes once a month.

As we stand waiting in line, we all hope that this will not be one of those days when some inmate misbehaves and the whole prison goes into lock down. When that happens, they close the doors and send you home. No visit. No refund of your parking fees. If you have come a long way on a train, you just get back on that train and head for home.

If you are waiting in line for an afternoon visit, you are hoping that the inmate you are about to visit did not have a visitor this morning. At this prison, an inmate cannot have more than one visit in a day. Three people can visit the inmate, but all three people have to be there at once. If you are a visitor who is being sent home because "your" inmate already had a visit that day, you will already have been standing in line 2-3 hours before finding out. You also will not be refunded for your parking fees. And, the inmate will never know that you were there to see him.

This morning, I have been in line since 8:00 A.M. It is now 10:00 A.M., and the Duty Officer has just stepped up to the front of the line to issue a pass which allow me to go into the lobby and get into another line. All of the signs posted at the prison tell you that visiting hours begin at 10:00 A.M., but that just is not true. They only begin issuing passes at 10:00 A.M.

The Duty Officer has finally worked his way down the line until it is my turn. I tell him the inmate's name, the booking number and the cell block number. He looks at my Driver's License, enters my name and license number into his log book, and gives me the pass.

Now I go into the lobby and get into another line. The inmate I am visiting is in protective custody, so I must stand on the blue line and wait. People visiting general population prisoners must stand on the red line and wait. Anyone visiting an inmate who is a gang member is still standing in that outside line. So far, I never have figured out when they get to come inside to visit their loved one.

As I work my way up the blue line, I am praying for my son's future. I am eager to see where God will take his life next. I am finally convinced that my son is right where God needs him to be at this point in his life.

I am at the front of the line now, and it is my turn to go to the counter and show them my pass. The Officer at the counter will look my son up in his computer to see if he can have a visitor this morning. He approves my visit, and tells me to take a seat in the lobby. It is now 10:30 A.M.

The lobby is always very crowded. There are noises in the lobby which have become familiar to me. Someone just purchased a Coke at the soda machine. Someone else decides to buy their son a bag of chips. A baby is crying; it has been such a long wait for that child and nap time must be near. There are faces in this crowd that are very familiar to me by now. We have seen each other often, and sometimes shared a short visit while we waited. There are many children in the lobby. They have come for a treasured visit with their Daddy or their Brother or their Uncle or their Grandpa. They are eager to tell what their week has been like, or to brag about a good grade on their school test.

Across the room is a severely disabled man in an electric wheel chair. He comes every week to visit a special friend. He does not speak very clearly. Most people do not even try to understand him. Several weeks ago, he and I were seated next to each other in the lobby waiting area and we had a wonderful visit. Now when I see him, I always say hello and give him a big hug. He remembers me, and always seems to enjoy the hug.

In the lobby waiting area, there is a Prison Ministry Family Outreach area. This area is staffed by dedicated volunteers from the community. There is one particular woman who works at this counter - she has "love" beaming from her face at all times. I do not know her name, but I will ask the next time I am here. I am sure she could find a shoe sale at the Mall or some nice friends to play Bridge with this morning, but instead she is here helping others. At the Family Outreach counter, you can ask for any kind of help you want. They offer assistance looking up names and numbers on the Inmate Roster, they will offer a kind word or a warm hug, they pass out free Bibles and devotional books.

Right along side the Family Outreach counter is a specially decorated area for young children. There are brightly colored tables and chairs, a video recorder with a special show playing at all times, toys, word games and coloring materials. After they finish coloring their pictures, that lovely lady at the counter puts the colored pages up on the wall for all to appreciate. This morning, there is a young male volunteer helping the children with their word games and coloring. He looks to be about 25 years old. Possibly his friends are out doing "guy things" this morning - it is a beautiful sunny day. Instead, this young man is here helping the children at a very difficult time in their life. He sits down on the floor so that the children can look into his eyes at their own level. He passes out red, green, yellow and blue crayons. The children are delighted. My eyes are full of tears. I begin to look away.

These are good families here in this waiting room. They love someone in their life enough to be here. You can tell that they come from many different walks of life. Some dress and act as if they might come from money. Others, you can tell, are the poorest of the poor. But for this morning, we have come together in this room to share an experience in life.

They have just called my son's name over the loud speaker. It is time for our visit. It is now 11:00 A.M. I hurry to the visiting area. I don't want to waste one minute of my half hour. At the counter I grab the final pass which will allow me to go into the actual visiting area, and proceed through the crowd.

I work my way down the crowded visiting row until I see my son's bright smile. I perch on the little seat, and grab the telephone. There is a very thick window separating our visit. The telephones have not been turned on yet. We cannot hear each other through the thick glass, so we just wait and look into each other's eyes. Click - the telephones are on. We begin our visit. We talk about all kinds of things. Sometimes our visits are very upbeat, and sometimes we get into areas which bring tears. When it is necessary for the tears to come, neither one of us attempt to do anything about it. We just let them flow!

Today my son also wanted someone to visit with a fellow inmate who has no family. This is the second time that he has made this request. I thought ahead of time that I could not possibly sit down and talk to someone I never met before - particularly an inmate - but I found it an easy thing to do. These men are starved for someone to talk to - someone to care about them - if even for only a few minutes. As I said good-bye to this other inmate today, I asked him if it was alright with him if our family included him in our prayers. His eyes filled with tears, and he said yes.

As I got back into my visit with my son, he was asking me if I could order him some more devotional books from Amazon.com - you see, the last ones I ordered for him are in great demand by the other inmates. I will watch for a sale and send more.

In past visits, we have hashed over all the reasons why he is in prison. We have talked and talked about the mistakes and the poor choices. Today we are talking about the future. He knows now that he will be in prison for several years. He does not yet know where he will spend the bulk of this time.

My son stays focused on the future. Currently he is teaching a computer class for five hours a day. Some of the inmates in his class have never known a skill such as this. At the end of the course, they will have a Certificate of Completion and a lot of pride in themselves for a job well done.

Today my son is talking about the letters and photos he receives from friends and family, and how important mail call is to the inmates. Some of the inmates never hear from anyone, so my son "shares" his letters and photos with others.

Click - the telephone goes off. We are in the middle of our conversation, when the telephone shuts off. Thirty minutes is up. The visit is over. We smile and blow kisses to each other through the glass. We mouth "I Love You" to each other. The guard comes by. My son is led away.

I work my way back out into the crowded lobby waiting area. The lovely lady from the Family Outreach Counter is helping the disabled man in the electric wheel chair. She is giving him big hugs, and writing something down for him. He is smiling. I head out the door and towards my car for the drive home. Outside there are still people waiting - waiting - waiting to visit someone they love.

Before I leave the prison parking lot, I must first walk across the street and stand in yet another line, in order to put a little money into a prison account for my son. Prisoners must pay for their own tooth brush, tooth paste, bath soap, deodorant, shampoo, paper, pencil, stamps, etc. We cannot provide supplies for him. They must be purchased at the prison, and are sold in the smallest of sizes, at the highest of prices. So far, we have not been asked to pay for the toilet paper.

I am a Prison Mother. I did not choose this road - but, I am walking it just the same. This experience has forever changed who I am, what I think and how I feel. I knew that my son would walk away from this experience a better person. I did not realize that I would too.

Copyright © 2003 Sherry Tyler Saul