Trip to the Big House

Need to visit a loved one doing time in one of the many state prisons up near the Georgia line? Who you gonna call? Right. Prison Connection.

Spriggs stops the van at about 4:00 a.m. at a bright 24-hour mall called Turkey Lakes Plaza on the turnpike outside Orlando. He and George disembark and return ten minutes later with giant Burger King coffees. Their conversation is relaxed and casual; they might be two men heading out for a dawn fishing trip. Like fishing buddies, they talk about the usual things -- sports, work, the weather, their families. But the family talk is not typical. George's wife is serving a twelve-year sentence at Jefferson, with little hope of early release. He doesn't want the specifics of her case or their real names published, because her crime and prosecution received a lot of attention from the media, the public, and politicians. That was two years ago. Since the conviction, George has moved to South Florida to try to start over again. (Throughout this story, Prison Connection patrons' last names are not used. Most first names have been changed.)

"It's been tough to go through," George says quietly, crossing an ankle over one knee. He runs a pale, narrow hand up and down his sage-green sock, perfectly coordinated with pants of the same color and a yellow button-down shirt. The lenses of his eyeglasses are thick and yellow-tinted. Even his neat white-blond mustache and hair go with the color scheme. "My life's ruined. I lost my home, my cars, my friends, my everything. I ended up with just me and my old dog." Now even the dog, he explains -- an eleven-year-old English bulldog -- is so sick he may die at any time.

George doesn't make excuses for his 43-year-old wife, Nancy, whom he had hired out of high school to work in his successful real estate business. As an officer of the company, she scammed a million dollars from dozens of investors, some of whom were politically influential. George says he never knew about the scheme until his wife was arrested, and despite being subjected to intensive investigation and the freezing of his assets, he was never accused of any wrongdoing. But the business, and his reputation, were destroyed. His son left college and joined the army when George no longer could afford to pay the bills for tuition and room and board.

At the time Nancy was taken handcuffed and sobbing to prison, neither her husband nor her son was in any mood to forgive her. George sold every possession he still had and rented a tiny apartment. He recalls subsisting on boxes of noodle dinners, six for a dollar. "I sat at home and drank and thought about killing myself for five months," he remembers. "I hear about people committing suicide, and I always thought it was the stupidest thing. But when you go through something like this, you think about it. It's more than losing what you have. They take away your future."

After a year, George felt able to visit his wife for the first time. Little by little, communication between them improved. He got a job in the field he thought he'd never work in again, and he began to receive regular promotions. Now he's usually smiling when Spriggs comes by to pick him up after his Saturday visit. His son met with his mother once at Jefferson. Ever since, he has refused to go back.

All this Spriggs has learned over several trips with George. He enjoys conversing with his passengers but he adheres to a strict rule: "I never ask them anything," he explains in his expressive Southern drawl. "They'll tell me what they want to, but I never ask."

The sun rises slowly as the van speeds up I-75. On the west side of the freeway, rolling pastures are disconnected from the lavender sky by thick mist. Then long stretches of evenly spaced pines, all the same height, timber company plantings that will be cleared in a few years and the ground replanted. To the east, tall pine trunks rise from fog-blanketed swamps. Like almost every other town in this part of north Florida, the woods of Live Oak are broken by an occasional old clapboard house, a shed, a tiny market or church, until the bright new gas stations and fast-food restaurants loom into view.

The van pulls into the McDonald's parking lot a little after 7:00, and the rumpled, ill-rested women step out into the chilly morning. In the bathroom, Michelle changes from a light cotton dress to a long satiny navy skirt and plaid blouse. Her hair, short and curled under, needs little work. Pearlie's upswept variation on a French roll, with a gold streak running diagonally across the waves framing her forehead, has remained immaculate. But Janet's new style, long strands cascading from the top of her head, isn't working. Michelle tries to help, but the hair won't stay put. Janet rolls up the front tendrils with curlers. "Oh, Lord Jesus," Pearlie sighs to no one but Jesus, and Michelle finally puts on her earrings, big green glass hearts that dangle from blue circles.

This is Michelle's first ride with Prison Connection. She used to drive up from Riviera Beach to see her husband, Charles, with a couple of other women she'd met on visiting days at Belle Glade, where he was imprisoned previously. But when Charles gave her the Prison Connection number he'd seen on an inmates' bulletin board, Michelle decided to try the service. So far, she says, it's less tiring, and it makes sense to let someone else do the driving. A heavyset, strong-willed woman with a direct and decisive manner, Michelle refuses to pity either herself or her husband for the loss and loneliness that have come as a result of his conviction on drug charges. He has served four years. He has another year and a half to go.

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