Why you should care
Behind every unsuccessful man is a woman holding things down.
For too many of the Southie women I interviewed for my upcoming book Women of Southie, Finding Resilience During Whitey Bulger’s Infamous Reign, prison was as much a character in their stories as Bulger was.
It was here they lost the men they loved, and here it was determined when and where they would be with their loved ones, and in what physical and mental state they would find these men. For one of these women, Anna, prison was the reason she spent most of the 25 years she was with Michael, the man she loved, married and finally divorced, alone. Not only alone but also unable to start the family she desperately wanted, as exhausted, confused and pathetic as she had been in the throes of her own drug and alcohol addictions, which she’d worked so hard years before to successfully overcome.
Anna insists she saw more of her husband in prisons than she did anywhere else.
For Michael, never-ending prison sentences were for driving under the influence, assault and battery on a police officer — usually when high and resisting arrest — shoplifting and attempted murder. “He went to prison on two separate occasions for stabbing someone,” Anna says. “As his addiction progressed, so did his crimes.”
“Time and again, Michael would get arrested and go to court and then to jail,” Anna says. “Or, should I say, we both went to jail, since I never missed a visit during those jail sentences. Yet the truth was, the only time I deemed Michael or me safe was during those incarcerations.”
He would receive two-and-a-half-year sentences, come home for a month, owe them another two months of his sentence, break probation and end up going back to do the rest of his sentence. The longest sentence he served was six years and a day. It would start with DUIs, then progress to actual stabbings, twice, where his victims would end up on operating tables, close to death, which would have carried a life sentence.
Anna insists she saw more of her husband in prisons than she did anywhere else. If Michael received a three- or four-year sentence, he was eligible for three visits per week. And Anna was there for every one of them. She had quickly learned the strict set of rules for these visits, some written and some not, all of which she had to follow religiously. Any slip-up on her part meant there would be no one waiting to see Michael in the visiting room.
To begin with, for each visit, she would need to arrive between two and three hours early in order to be assured she would get in that day. At the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Concord, for example, the guards lined up the visitors in the order in which they had arrived in the parking lot.
“I learned very quickly that some visitors were there because they loved the person behind bars; some because they were scared to death; some just to ease their guilty consciences because they were having a mad love affair,” Anna says. “Still, all of us who entered the prison as visitors were, no matter what our reasons for being there, doing time right along with our inmates.”
Anna also learned the obvious differences between the prisons. “In state prisons, like Concord and Bridgewater, you were more apt to be with rapists and murderers,” Anna says. “Yet, though county prisons might not have harbored such hardcore dangerous inmates, they still sucked, and all I wanted from the moment I entered was to leave. Not much different than the way the prisoners all felt.”
Once Anna walked through the heavy metal doors of any prison, she stood in a long line, waiting to fill out a slip with her name, address, date of birth and social security number. If everything checked out, she received a stamp on the back of her hand, later shown under a fluorescent light, along with a key for her locker, where she locked up her belongings.
During one visit, Michael told Anna to glance at another prisoner. “He killed his wife, cut her lungs out and left them on the lawn. Then he went inside his house and made himself a spaghetti dinner.”
“After you had waited a good three hours on long metal benches, the female guards would check out your clothes, look into your mouth, have you turn your pockets inside out,” Anna says. “This was tough if you had on tight jeans. You had to take off your shoes and walk around in your socks. The guard would then use a wand up and down each side of your body, have you spread your legs a bit and wand you. If the wand beeped, then you had to be strip-searched, which was beyond humiliating.”
Anna found every prison visit humiliating. “I received the message early on that if I had a loved one behind the wall, I must be just as sick,” she says. “Inside the prison, I couldn’t expect any sympathy for the fact that I was giving up years of my life, my hands stamped, my whole body patted down, my shoes and socks removed, my arms raised above my head to be sure no piece of skin was exposed. For if that happened, even though I could see the sly smiles on the guards’ faces as they caught a look at a thong or flesh, I would not be allowed in for a visit.”
During one visit, Michael told Anna to glance at another prisoner. “He killed his wife, cut her lungs out and left them on the lawn. Then he went inside his house and made himself a spaghetti dinner.” It was all Anna could do not to vomit.
Another visit, Michael was more agitated than usual. That day he’d noticed a puddle of blood seeping into his cell from under the door. The prison was put on lockdown, after which they found out that the inmate had hung himself and managed to cause extensive bleeding at the same time.
Anna met some of the most intelligent, kindest women on those benches. But she questions if all of those women, including herself, were there because of dedication or mental illness. “Were we dedicated to the man we were visiting?” she asks. “Or merely crazy to hang onto that man?”
When Anna thought about all those hours of her life she lost traveling back and forth to prisons, waiting to visit the man she loved or actually visiting him, she believes she lost an entire lifetime to those prison walls. “But if this is what I needed to do to be with the man I loved, then I would never have missed even one of those visits,” she says.