February 14, 2022
Maintaining a romantic relationship while incarcerated is almost impossible. The many different challenges are difficult for couples to overcome. Most relationships end in separation or divorce. And according to my own personal theory, the “average” girlfriend or wife lasts about two years. If you had someone special in your life around Valentine’s Day, it was a great opportunity to express love and appreciation. However, correctional settings seriously limit the expression of love. One has to be creative.
I had someone in my life. She had been by my side since the beginning and was still going strong into the sixth year of my incarceration. By incarceration relationship standards, she was “above average.” We spoke over the phone daily whenever possible, and she traveled – sometimes very long distances – to visit me at every unit I was assigned to. She was in my life way more than all my family combined. She put money on my commissary account, sent me books, paid for my education, and ran interference when there were bureaucratic issues. However, because we were not legally married, we could not have contact visits. According to the prison agency, she was “just a friend.” When she visited, we sat on opposite sides of the glass or screen in the visitation area. Communicating was difficult, and at some units we had to shout to hear one another.
Valentine’s Day 2016, I had managed to have roses delivered to her job. It took months of planning: finding a florist, selecting the right arrangement, placing the order, and getting permission to have a check cut from my prison trust fund account. Doing all this through the mail took a lot of coordination. Since all her close colleagues knew that her significant other was incarcerated, it created quite a buzz at the office. I still remember the look of love on her face as she gave me the details about the flower delivery. She beamed and I wanted so desperately to hold her in my arms.
Correctional settings seriously limit the expression of love.
Valentine’s Day 2017, I was planning something even more special. It had been over six years since we had shared a hug. Although I appreciated seeing her from behind the glass, I wanted to feel her arms around me and kiss her. I wanted to smell her sweet perfume and just hold her.
There was a new warden on the unit and word on the street was that if one stayed major case-free for a year, he’d approve a one-time contact visit. On a whim, I sent a request form to see the Unit Classification Committee (UCC). Surprisingly, I got a quick response and was scheduled within a week.
The UCC process turned out to be seamless. My special visit was approved by the committee, and in less than a month, she and I would have our first hug in six years. I was beyond excited but did not share the news over the phone because I wanted it to be a surprise.
As Valentine’s weekend neared, I was bouncing off the walls in anticipation. I was being even more cautious than usual doing my best to avoid any disciplinary infractions. Friday finally rolled around, and I was in the dayroom chatting up a buddy of mine. Someone had made a batch of hootch – alcoholic drinks made from fermented fruits and veggies - and drinks were flowing. Knowing that a lot of fights occur when people have been drinking, I was desperately trying to get out of the dayroom and go into my cell. Only I didn’t have access to my cell any time I wanted. I had to wait for when the officer called the “in-and-out.” Sometimes they do them every hour, most of the time it is more like whenever they get around to it.
A common feature of life in prison is that an entire cellblock often suffers for the acts of a few.
Suddenly there it was: the sound of fighting. That’s not good. According to prison culture, fights are arranged to minimize the risk of getting caught. Moreover, some people may have contraband in the dayroom--cell phones, shivs, or drugs. They don’t want to have to flush their stuff when staff come. If two people are fighting, they have already broken a few of those cultural rules and must have a damn good reason. Or they are drunk. Long story short, every person in the dayroom got gassed and put into disciplinary segregation, including me. We were all charged with a major disciplinary case for rioting—a common feature of life in prison is that an entire cellblock often suffers for the acts of a few. I eventually beat the rap—the case was dismissed a week into the investigation—but not the ride.
When my girlfriend showed up that weekend, I was in seg. We still had a two-hour visit but the accommodations were even more restrictive than our regular noncontact visits. I never told her about receiving the approval for the contact visit. It would have crushed her. And I never got that hug. It would be another year before I could even hope to have her in my arms.
"Degree of Civilization” is the blog of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab, its title adapted from Dostoyevsky’s famous quote, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Our blog posts will explore and analyze the dehumanizing and dangerous conditions in our nation’s prisons and jails and the critical need for effective independent oversight and meaningful data about what’s happening behind the walls. We’ll be commenting on recent news and developments; analyzing data that highlights trends that affect the safety and health of the people who live and work in correctional facilities; and reflecting on the lived experiences of people who are incarcerated. The entire PJIL team will be contributing to the blog, so you are sure to hear different voices and approaches to these issues.
Benny Hernandez III is pursuing his Master’s in Public Affairs with a focus on correctional oversight and urban and state affairs. He has substantial public policy experience on the international, national, and local levels of government, working with the Houston Mayor’s Office on gang issues and with the Texas Civil Rights Project, the ACLU of Texas, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition on criminal justice reform.
Benny brings his mass incarceration lived-experience to PJIL. Benny’s parents cycled in and out of prison when Benny was a child, and he became homeless and dropped out of school. He developed a substance use issue, leading to his own incarceration in a youth prison in Texas, and later, in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). He knew that education was the key to escaping a downward spiral, so he earned his associate and bachelor degrees, graduating summa cum laude, while serving ten years in prison.
Outside of his work with PJIL, Benny is developing a project called Street Politicking. His vision is to increase political participation in communities that have been directly impacted by mass incarceration.