Voices from See Us Support Us: Melissa Tanis

Throughout #SeeUsSupportUs month, we will highlight the voices of people directly impacted by parental incarceration. Below is a piece by NYCIP partner Melissa, a graduate student at Columbia School of Social Work, about the effect her fathers' lengthy sentence had on her from childhood until now.


 

More Than a Sentence: What Time Feels Like in Prison

 

In just a few short months, I will be 30 years old. It still astounds me how time can move so slowly when you are a kid, especially when awaiting a holiday or a birthday, but as an adult, a year feels so short. It is still the same amount of time, it just feels entirely different.

Time in prison operates the same way that time does when you are a kid, except it isn’t because you are anticipating an exciting event or want to be a teenager already.

When I would go to visit my dad at Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange, Kentucky, I caught the slightest glimpse of how time feels in prison. Because I had traveled a long distance to see my dad, I was allowed to visit with him for the whole visiting hours which was from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., barring a lock down or delay in the visiting process. I continually felt guilty that I wouldn’t show up right at 8:30 because I was too drained to wake up that early or did not get much sleep the night before. I felt guilty that I would somewhat dread these visits and feel sick to my stomach most of the time. I would feel guilty that I would glance at the clock multiple times during our visit, not because I did not want to be with my dad, but because I hated being in that environment. Visiting rooms are not designed to encourage families to visit their loved ones. The entire process is mentally and emotionally draining. I was usually there for about 5-6 hours but when I left, it felt like the whole day had already gone by and I was ready for bed. It always made me feel so sad that my dad experienced that every single day, and that his life just consisted of staring at the clock, counting down the days, feeling every single second of his 20+ year sentence.

But time in prison also feels scarce. When I found out my dad’s cancer had returned and he had at best two years left to live, two years did not mean the same to me as it would for someone whose dad was with them on the outside. I started to calculate in my head how many more visits I would be able to squeeze in in that amount of time. I had been going to visit twice a year, since I live in New York City and visiting is very expensive. Two visits a year meant I could at most see my dad four more times, with potentially room to manage a couple other visits. Two years suddenly felt like two months. Every time my dad would call or write a letter, I would feel so much pressure to make the most use of the time as I could because we had such a limited amount left. But how could I fit in all the years that we missed of each other’s lives before we reconnected in 2014? How could I casually talk about how my day was going when I did not know if that was going to be my last call with him or the last letter he would be healthy enough to read?

For people in prison and their loved ones, time is never on your side. You never have enough of it when you need it. Family members get cut off from visiting their loved ones all the time. Phone calls are capped at 15 or so minutes. Visiting in some facilities are restricted to certain days.

And yet, there seems to be an excess when you do not want it. The sentencing practices in the United States are draconian and barbaric. The excessive nature of them just on paper is absurd. Furthermore, when you factor in how time feels in prison, what time in prison does to a person’s health, and the anguish they and their family members go through waiting to visit their loved one, waiting for them to come home, waiting for parole decisions, and on and on, a 20-year sentence can feel like a 40-year one. 

For my dad, a 20-year sentence and a parole denial ended up being a death sentence. When he became so sick that he could not come out to the visiting room to see us, we just had to wait. For about a month before he passed away, I was just waiting for a phone call. It was the most excruciating month of my life.

And still, time is not on my side. No matter how much time goes by, the irreparable damage the criminal justice system has caused to my family still remains. I hope for myself to find healing, but I hope even more for the sake of others in my situation that judges, legislators, and those in power begin to wake up and realize that this is the reality of what we sentence people to when we send them and their loved ones to prison. Additionally, the Parole Board essentially re-sentences them with each parole denial, prolonging the waiting and anguish of prison beyond their minimum sentence. Those in power can help to mitigate harm by advocating for and administering shorter sentences, increasing the use of compassionate release, considering a person’s health at the time of the parole hearing and before, and acknowledging the transformation people undergo in prison rather than denying them release based solely on the nature of their crime.

My dad’s sentence feels like a life sentence because I never had and never will have him home with me. At times, it still feels like I am waiting. My grief seems to be stuck on prison time. But no one has told me when this sentence will end. 

Melissa is a graduate student at Columbia School of Social Work. She is also a NYCIP partner, member of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, and a volunteer with the Parole Preparation Project.