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Sunday, 16 March 2014

Reality TV? Move along please, nothing to see here

From time to time, on some forums that I belong to that are concerned with inmates and their families, there are request from media production companies and journalists. These requests are usually looking for people who have "fallen for a felon" or "are in love with their inmate penpal". We even had one recently that was offering $500 to cover the "first date".

So-called reality TV is all the rage, though I really don't understand why. Could it be because the people watching have less interesting lives themselves? Or possibly that the people watching can feel smug in the assumption that their lives are in some way better? I think it's probably a bit of both, depending on the subject content.

But why would anyone want to watch a programme about a woman in love with an inmate? Be under no illusions, there really is no way to accurately depict this lifestyle in a sensitive way, and really that's not what the media companies want anyway. I can only think that any such programme would turn out like the "My Big Fat Gypsy" series. On one hand, it shows Irish traveller life in modern Britain, but on the other it holds those people up for ridicule with their fake tans, their gaudy bling and their attitudes to women. How would a programme on inmates and their partners on the outside be any different?

I recon anyone watching my life through a lens would be thinking either "sad cow" or yawning into their popcorn. My husband did a bad thing that got him to prison, but he's not a typical bad boy now he is in there. He is not in fights, is not in Ad Seg (Administrative Segregation in Texas, and often called the SHU or the Hole in other states, effectively a prison within a prison), and is not fighting to proclaim his innocence. He is also not a muscle man or covered in tattoos. I'm not on benefits, don't make my 27 kids go without just so I can visit him, and we don't spend hours on the phone every day using money I should be spending on utility bills. Regular readers of this blog will know that we don't get phone calls at all.

I also don't sit around wallowing in self-pity that my "one true love" is locked away on the other side of the ocean for at least another 10 years. It could not be said that I am "wasting my life" or putting it "on hold". When I'm not at work, I do a lot of crafts, socialise and travel. Sometimes I do these things by myself, and sometimes I do them with friends or family.

In fact, I dare say I am very much like thousands of other women in the UK and the rest of the world, who live by themselves and are getting on with life. I just happen to also be married to a man who is in prison in America.

Sunday, 2 March 2014


The dictionary defines xenophobia as follows:

"Intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries:"

By chance this week I have learned of the changes that TDCJ have made to the procedures for visitation across all units effective from 1 March 2014. The full document can be found here TDCJ Visitation Changes (the jump from the TDCJ Hompage is currently not active).

While I appreciate that some of these things will make visitation easier for a lot of people, particularly the inclusion of nephews and nieces in the "close relative" catagory for contact visits, there are other things that make it much more difficult for those travelling a long way for visitation - not just from overseas, but anywhere more than 300 miles away.

The item that affects me the most is the new requirement for the visitor ID to have an address that matches the TDCJ records for that person. For the past 8 years, my passport has been adequate ID but that does not contain my address details. I do not drive, so I do not have a European driving licence. I would offer a utility bill, as that is usually accepted here in the UK as proof of address, but as TDCJ do not permit those overseas to register for the inmate phone service it would seem unlikely that a bill would be accepted for anything else. One would think that my flight details might also be proof that I do indeed still live all the way over here and will be returning after the visit, but I don't hold out much hope of that either - considering most TDCJ staff I have known over the years admit to having never been out of the state let alone out of the country and look at my passport as something wierd and unknown, expecting them to understand what a flight print out is is probably pushing things too far.

The only way over this particular hurdle appears to be for me to get a provisional driving licence, at the £50 fee (pushing the cost overall of this visit over the £1000 mark). The DirectGov website says the licence is issued within one week - I hope so because I fly out in 4 weeks time and TDCJ gave no warning that the rules would be changing like this. 

I know TDCJ are not there for my convenience. But there does appear to be a consistent level of general ignorance about anything that happens outside of Texas when it comes to making any rules at all. It is also starting to appear as xenophobia when you look at the following:

  • International postage stamps are not available through commisarry at many units, meaning inmates must use 3 inland stamps and pay more than is required for the service
  • Inmates are not permitted to call friends and family overseas, and those people living overseas (meaning, outside of the USA, excluding Alaska and Hawaii) are not permitted to registered their phone for the Inmate Telephone Service
  • Visitors must obtain photo ID with a current address included - something that is not required in many other countries including Britain.
Even the TDCJ Visitor Survey which aparently the recent changes have been based on, gives little acknowledgement to those visiting from anywhere other than Texas. It asks how ofter you visit and the options are:
  • Every weekend
  • More than twice per month
  • Once per month
  • When I am able to but not on a consistent basis
The assumption there is, if you don't go at least once a month, you are inconsistent. I consistently visit every 9-11 months, and have done for 8 years.

There is a question about what items would make visiting with children easier, but the way it is worded you can only respond to that if you actually have children. As anyone who visits TDCJ units knows, when children are in the visit room it affects everyone else there, so why should I not also be able to say that providing colouring pencils and paper would be a good idea?

Question 10 says: Do you communicate with the offender by letter, email (JPay) or phone before a visit?
 The answer options are:
  • Always
  • Sometimes
  • Never
Again, this assumes that it is possible to do those things, and "communicate" implies it is a two-way process. TDCJ inmates cannot respond to Jpay emails via a Jpay kiosk like inmates in other states can. So sure, I can email my husband and say I'm on my way, but he cannot then reply and tell me there is sickness at the unit and visitation might be affected for example. If you answer "Never", which I would have to do if it referred only to the phone calls, that would also have implications that are not correct - assuming that I always turn up unannounced and unexpected which is never the case as these things take a good 3 months planning at least and considerably longer to save up for. Ticking the "Always" option implies that all 3 means of contact are available to us, which they are not.

Finally, the last field on the survey asks for suggestions on how the unit can make visitation more enjoyable. I started typing my response, but the character limit is only around 200 - not nearly enough to mention the things I would like to, such as maybe sometimes using the outside seating at my husband's unit which has never been used in the 8 years he has been there. The staff at the unit are usually polite and efficient, even when their equipment doesn't work properly, and I have no issue with them at all. It's the TDCJ Administration that appear to be bunkered down in Austin and Huntsville like a bunch or Preppers, desperate to keep everyone out and everyone in, both at the same time.

And to top it all, when I hit the "submit" button, I get an error message. I have emailed the webservice team about all of this, but you know, I'm not Texan, so I'm not holding out for a response any time soon.