Visiting Life: Women Doing Time on the Outside

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9780307338365: Visiting Life: Women Doing Time on the Outside

When a friend who taught creative writing at a maximum-security prison asked Bridget Kinsella to read the work of one of his best students, she readily agreed. As a publishing professional, Kinsella was used to getting manuscripts from all sorts of sources. Who knows? she told herself. Maybe I can help this talented inmate get his work published. She had no idea that her correspondence with a convicted murderer serving life without parole would lead to a relationship that would change her life forever. Why in the world would anyone get involved with a prison inmate?

In this beautifully written, brutally honest memoir, Kinsella shares how she stumbled into a relationship with a lifer and became part of a sorority she never thought she’d join. Over the course of three years, she spends time with and ultimately befriends the wives, girlfriends, and mothers of some inmates at Pelican Bay. On this unexpected journey, she learns of the hurdles, heartbreaks, and hopes they have for their relationships as she experiences a connection with someone who helps heal her own wounds.

As the United States continues to incarcerate convicted criminals for increasingly long periods of time, our prison rolls swell to unprecedented levels—more than two million today—as does the number of women and children whose lives are thrown into limbo and who live for their next “visiting time.” Through the lens of her own unlikely experience, Kinsella examines those impacted by crime and punishment with keen observation, candor, and compassion.

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About the Author:

Bridget Kinsella is an editor at Publishers Weekly. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Chicago Tribune and Writer’s Digest, and on NPR and Salon.com. She lives in Northern California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Just Visiting

The first time I walked into a maximum-security prison I dressed like a lawyer–though it wasn’t my intention. Let’s just say there are lots of rules about what a woman can and cannot wear inside a men’s maximum-security prison: no inmate-blue denim and no cop-green khaki seemed the most important ones. I figured it best to have a modest hemline and thought to-the-knee was plenty modest. The guard didn’t agree and sent me back to my car to change.

The last time I’d changed clothes in my car was the summer I worked two jobs and went to night school. Somewhere stopped in traffic along the New Jersey Turnpike between my job at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson and class at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, I decided to wiggle out of my work skirt and into my student cutoffs without looking to see if there were any truckers who might get an eyeful. This time I am more conscious of changing in the open as I shimmy out of my pale green dress deemed inappropriate and into a black-and-white number I think will pass prison scrutiny.

How did I get here? I ask myself, scanning the myriad fences, razor wire, and looming guard towers of Pelican Bay State Prison. Yes, Pelican Bay. Whenever anyone writes or speaks of this notorious prison in Crescent City, California, they usually call it “the worst of the worst.” They mean the worst criminals and the worst treatment.

I think back on my twenty-something self cruising along in my white- with-red-vinyl-roof Pontiac Sunbird as my thirty-nine-year-old self changes shoes in my rust-colored Chevy Cavalier not much bigger than my beloved first set of wheels. The older I get the more I realize we never actually shake off the internal image of our younger selves but hopefully evolve from it. Out of about three hundred students in high school I graduated something like thirteenth (just my luck). At the top but not the top–A minus–because Mrs. Bliss was right: things came too easily to me and I didn’t always apply myself. Nonetheless, I displayed all the trappings of a young woman ready to make her mark.
Cheerleader. Yearbook editor. The dutiful youngest daughter of five in a loving Irish-Italian working-class family putting herself through school. Girls like me don’t grow up to visit convicted murderers in maximum-security prisons.

Yet here I am.

“ ’Twas reading that did me in,” I say out loud as if I’m spinnin’ a yarn for some imaginary person in the passenger seat now littered with discarded clothes. I laugh because after eight years of living alone, much of that time spent working at home, I notice that I talk to myself a lot.

As I step out of the car I do think I look like a lawyer. I assume that I am a very different sort of person than the other people visiting today, but I cannot put my finger on why I think that way. I wear black patent leather high-heeled Mary Janes, a pleated dress dangling just below the knee, a black blazer that covers me from shoulder to midthigh. All I need to complete the effect is a briefcase. Instead, I clutch the plastic Ziploc bag containing the only things I am allowed to bring into the big house: thirty one- dollar bills (which the prisoner is never allowed to touch), some old pictures, and my car keys.

How did I get here?

It’s simple, really. For ten years I worked as a journalist covering the publishing world. Then a year ago I tried my hand at being a literary agent. It made sense. I had earned a reputation as someone who could judge the commercial or literary viability of a book. Why not do it from the other side?

Once you head down that road, manuscripts appear from the strangest sources. Seems like everyone has an uncle or a friend or a spouse who wrote a book and just needs someone to help them get it published.
One of my friends is a writer who taught creative writing at Pelican Bay.

He assured me that each week during his class the other inmates would read first, saving the star student’s latest installment for last as if it were dessert. Although my friend wanted me to read his student’s book, he was reluctant to give a woman’s name to a convicted murderer doing life without parole, plus fifteen. Besides, he wasn’t supposed to help a convict with any potential commercial enterprise. Instead, he hinted to his student, CDC#K78728, that he might send the unfinished manuscript to his own publisher in New York.
When the publisher rejected the manuscript, he forwarded it on to me.
The inmate’s letter to the publisher included these postscripts: “I am currently incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison. This will cause a slight delay in our written correspondence. P.P.S. Life sentence. Murder. And if you have any more questions, feel free to ask me.”

The book blew me away. Snap! From the first page it took off and barreled its way along to a shocking conclusion. I decided to contact this Rory Mehan and tell him I thought he was a talented writer. At the very least I knew I’d make his day. Knowing it’s not smart to give your real address to a man in prison, I got myself a private mailbox address just in case (Of what? That he’d break out of prison?) and sent off the letter: “Dear Mr. Mehan, blah, blah, blah.
Talented writer. Send me more. Oh, and keep writing. Sincerely, Bridget Kinsella, Literary Agent.” I didn’t mention murder.

A month later I found a white envelope with my name and address written in a small-cap penciled print in my mailbox. I opened it in my car. There was no salutation, no “dear so-and-so,” it just took off. Much like the novel he wrote. My first real glimpse of Mr. Mehan came on three-hole-ring-punched, school-ruled paper:

So I’m sitting here in my concrete box, just looking out my tiny sliver of a window, amazed at what I see. Ash is falling from the miscolored afternoon sky in thick swirling flurries like snow, like dead grey skin falling from a psoriatic finally giving in to the constant promising pleasure of the itch.

And the television tells me that 32,000 fires are currently blazing across America. Oregon, eight miles away, is not the only state burning.

And the ash, it just keeps falling, filling a foreign orange world, fluttering down from a steadily purpling sky, a fresh bruise growing darker right before my eyes. It clings to the stinging razor wire. It piles up in drifts.

It’s the middle of the summer.

I haven’t seen the sun in weeks.

And thousands of dead squid are washing ashore in California, littering the postcard beaches, disrupting the fantasy/delusion that everything is all-right. The newscaster says that “nobody knows why.”

I’m laughing.

It’s my new way of crying.

Because I’m thinking if thousands of dead squid covering California beaches is not a natural occurrence, then isn’t it obvious that we [underlined three times] are the reason why?

And that, Bridget Kinsella, is when your letter slides under my cell door, skidding across the smooth stone floor to land inches from my right hush puppy.

Murderer or not, the man knows how to make an entrance. Nearly a year and many letters later, here I am visiting my client at Pelican Bay.

The guard approves of my change of clothes. I fill out a form with Rory’s California Department of Corrections (CDC) number on it, my name and address and relationship to the prisoner. I write “friend,” because we are friends by now, having written to each other for months, and it is no business of the prison if I am his literary agent. The guard, a pleasant man with close-cropped hair and a well- ironed uniform, processes the paperwork to make sure I am an “approved” visitor. Since it took awhile for me to change clothes, I am the only person left in the visiting way station. It’s not much to look at. It could almost be a small-town post office. I am fascinated by a glass-encased display with T-shirts and sweatshirts sporting the Pelican Bay logo as if it’s some sort of sports franchise to cheer on. Someone with an odd sense of humor came up with the slogans for the shirts. “Felony Day Camp” is my favorite.

I am nervous, but I am not sure why. There are several guards behind the counter, a handful of men and one woman. The guard who asked me to change clothes calls my name. I walk forward and another guard tells me I almost look too good to be going in there–but he says it with a smile, as a way to ease my nerves. He instructs me to take off my shoes, jewelry, or anything else that might set off the metal detector to my right. Even though it’s summer, the linoleum feels cold and the carpeted hump comes as a relief when I step into the machine. That is, until the alarm sounds and I have to turn back.

“Underwire?” asks the second guard. “Yes,” I answer, a little flushed because no one likes setting off an alarm. He hands me scissors with the tips chopped off and tells me to go into the ladies’ room to cut them out. “But this is my favorite bra,” I half joke. “Can’t I just take it off?” That elicits a resounding “no” from both guards. So I go to the ladies’ room and do as I’m told. The second button comes off of my dress when I remove it to get to my pretty pink bra that is about to become wireless. Cutting silk–even faux silk–with sawed-off scissors isn’t easy, but I manage. My jacket covers my dress so I just button up as best I can. I return to the desk and hand my dress button to the guard to hold for me.

The alarm goes off again. I can’t imagine why. I have never had such trouble in airports–and that’s with the u...

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Book Description Harmony Books, New York, 2007. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. First Edition. When a friend who taught creative writing at a maximum-security prison asked Bridget Kinsella to read the work of one of his best students, she readily agreed. As a publishing professional, Kinsella was used to getting manuscripts. Who knows? She asked herself, Maybe I can help this talented inmate get published. She had no idea that her correspondence with a convicted murderer serving life without parole would lead to a relationship that would change her life forever. Why in the world would anyone get involved with a prison inmate? This is a bluntly honest memoir in which Kinsella shares how she became part of a sorority she never thought she'd join - spending time with the wives, girlfriends and mothers of some inmates at Pelican Bay. 262 pages, with red remainder dot on bottom. 5 3/4" x 8 1/2. Bookseller Inventory # 003434

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Book Description HARMONY, United States, 2007. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. When a friend who taught creative writing at a maximum-security prison asked Bridget Kinsella to read the work of one of his best students, she readily agreed. As a publishing professional, Kinsella was used to getting manuscripts from all sorts of sources. Who knows? she told herself. Maybe I can help this talented inmate get his work published. She had no idea that her correspondence with a convicted murderer serving life without parole would lead to a relationship that would change her life forever. Why in the world would anyone get involved with a prison inmate? In this beautifully written, brutally honest memoir, Kinsella shares how she stumbled into a relationship with a lifer and became part of a sorority she never thought she?d join. Over the course of three years, she spends time with and ultimately befriends the wives, girlfriends, and mothers of some inmates at Pelican Bay. On this unexpected journey, she learns of the hurdles, heartbreaks, and hopes they have for their relationships as she experiences a connection with someone who helps heal her own wounds. As the United States continues to incarcerate convicted criminals for increasingly long periods of time, our prison rolls swell to unprecedented levels?more than two million today?as does the number of women and children whose lives are thrown into limbo and who live for their next ?visiting time.? Through the lens of her own unlikely experience, Kinsella examines those impacted by crime and punishment with keen observation, candor, and compassion. Bookseller Inventory # FLT9780307338365

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Book Description HARMONY, United States, 2007. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. When a friend who taught creative writing at a maximum-security prison asked Bridget Kinsella to read the work of one of his best students, she readily agreed. As a publishing professional, Kinsella was used to getting manuscripts from all sorts of sources. Who knows? she told herself. Maybe I can help this talented inmate get his work published. She had no idea that her correspondence with a convicted murderer serving life without parole would lead to a relationship that would change her life forever. Why in the world would anyone get involved with a prison inmate? In this beautifully written, brutally honest memoir, Kinsella shares how she stumbled into a relationship with a lifer and became part of a sorority she never thought she?d join. Over the course of three years, she spends time with and ultimately befriends the wives, girlfriends, and mothers of some inmates at Pelican Bay. On this unexpected journey, she learns of the hurdles, heartbreaks, and hopes they have for their relationships as she experiences a connection with someone who helps heal her own wounds. As the United States continues to incarcerate convicted criminals for increasingly long periods of time, our prison rolls swell to unprecedented levels?more than two million today?as does the number of women and children whose lives are thrown into limbo and who live for their next ?visiting time.? Through the lens of her own unlikely experience, Kinsella examines those impacted by crime and punishment with keen observation, candor, and compassion. Bookseller Inventory # FLT9780307338365

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