What It's Like To Visit A Loved One In Prison

It’s a bright winter morning and I’m sitting with my dad, watching my sister tumble across the AstroTurf with her two-year-old son.

He’s squealing in delight, scampering after his Mumma with arms outstretched. “Tickle tickle tickle!” he threatens.

“Look out!” warns Dad as Mia*, a wiry ball of energy at nine-years-old, leaps on my enfeebled sister from behind.  Ollie has become the meat in the sandwich, and for a moment the three are tangled together, at a loss as to how they might get back up.  I think Ollie might pass out from laughter.

“I hope Mia isn’t being too rough,” says her Nana, Tracy*, as she comes to join us on the bench.

“Are you kidding?” I reassure her, “I’m just hoping she gets out alive.  Ollie is on the rampage.”

The playground is brimming with excited kids, juiced up on soft drinks and slices from the adjoining café.  Mums and Nanas and siblings stand around chatting and sipping lattes.  Some of the braver adults have joined in the muddle of little bodies, chasing and shouting and kicking footies.

Can you guess where we are?  If you answered the Victorian maximum security women’s prison, you’d be correct.

If I had read that little anecdote a few years ago, I would have found it almost impossible to reconcile with my assumptions.

Like a lot of people, I imagined prisons as they were portrayed on American TV: stark and unwelcoming; policed by menacing guards. Visits, I assumed, were conducted in those cavernous, florescent-lit rooms where family members are forced to stare at their loved-ones through glass. I’m embarrassed to admit I also had a pretty bleak view of what the prisoners themselves were like.

But that was back when I wouldn’t have dreamed that I'd ever visit a prison. Before drugs and mental illness ravaged my sister’s life, bringing the lives of her family tumbling to the ground in her wake.

It was before the day we learned that Anna had done the worst possible thing to her friend and housemate.

Anna (L) and Katie (R) as children. (Image: Supplied)

And it was long before my family, still numb with shock, began visiting the Victorian women’s prison every weekend. First just the three of us: me, my Dad and Mum. Then, after a few months, with the addition of Anna’s perfect newborn son, who was first passed through the metal detector and waved with the wand as a wide-eyed five-day-old.

So it was with immense anxiety that I sat in the waiting room in 2015, about to see my pregnant sister in her prison-issue jumpsuit. I was afraid of the guards, and of the process of being searched and vetted.

But I was also surprised. Around me, the packed waiting room was alive with chatter. Kids were being scolded by their grandparents and carers as they bounced around the little space, bursting to see their mums.

Anna and her mother Mary before Anna's incarceration. (Image: Supplied)

The dreaded search never eventuated: I was merely told to empty my pockets and put my things in a locker.  The guards weren’t standing against the walls and casting a menacing glare: they were eating lollies behind the reception desk and laughing about some in-joke.  They knew some of the other visitors by name.

But the biggest surprise was waiting in the visitor’s centre: a fully-stocked café, with trained baristas on the coffee machine and an array of freshly made slices in the display case.  It took me a few more visits to realise that the staff, baristas and chefs, were all inmates.

The space was like a school lunch hall: open-plan and full of chatty families sitting around tables. Outside, the playground and basketball court were teeming with kids. If not for the young women meandering around in their green jumpsuits, there’d be nothing to distinguish the place as a prison.

When Anna did emerge, it was with a weary smile and a suit that was stretched conspicuously over her growing belly.  She looked better than she had in years.

Anna battled mental illness and addiction for years before her incarceration.  (Image: Supplied)
Anna's family, including her two-year-old son, visits her every weekend. (Image: Supplied)

Fast forward two-and-a-half years and we’ve joined the community of 40 or so ‘regulars’-- family members who faithfully make the trek each week to see loved ones. In the waiting room, I’ve had some of my most candid conversations about mental illness and the quagmire that is ‘the system’.

There is no pretense in this place; no judgement. We’ve all been through the same shit and it can be a relief to shed the feeling of having to constantly explain yourself.

The family long before regular prison visits entered their lives. (Image: Supplied)

Ollie has grown up in front of the staff’s eyes -- coming in twice a week for the duration of his little life. He enters the reception centre like a celebrity -- “It’s Ollie! Hi Ollie!”-- and is only too happy to greet his “fends”, the guards, with high fives and stories of his week.

When I insist to the guards that they spoil him rotten, they protest -- “I’ve known this kid since he was a few days old,” one of the young women reminded me the other day, “he’s like my son!”

Brian*, an elder guard who affects grumpiness but is a softy underneath, has taken to making an announcement when Ollie enters the visitor’s lounge.  “Oh no, let the Ollie-itis begin.”

Katie and her nephew Ollie. (Image: Supplied)

Of course, it’s not all sun and rainbows. The process of getting into and out of the prison is a long and cumbersome one, and there are days when the regimented nature of it can make us visitors feel like we are prisoners, too.

But more than anything, visiting the prison has been a reminder of just how powerful, and just how wrong, our assumptions can be.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of fellow visitors.

*Ollie is in my care after unfortunately being removed from Anna at birth. He adores going to visit his Mumma.