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Life Inside

How I Break Prison Rules to Keep in Touch with My Family

Skipped meals, smuggled cell phones, and a whole lot of pain.
Illustration by Dola Sun

Life Inside is an ongoing collaboration between the Marshall Project and VICE that offers first-person perspectives from those who live and work in the criminal justice system.

The hardest thing about prison is being alone.

It's very difficult for me to stay in touch with my family. They can't afford to receive collect calls, and I definitely can't afford to make any calls from here. Every now and then, I get a letter from someone about the latest death of a loved one or the struggles in the neighborhood in general, but nothing more than that.


As someone who has been in prison for a long time, I've learned how to get around the fact that we don't have enough money to speak to one another. Sometimes I find a sympathetic guard and tell him everything I'm going through — how I'm trying to stay in touch with my family, and how hard it is. And sometimes that guard will go out and buy me a cheap, prepaid cellphone on his day off. He'll have it activated and bring it into the prison, usually inside his lunch. Then he'll give it to me when the time is right.

All he asks in return is that I don't snitch him out if I get caught.

Another way I stay connected is by selling my breakfast, lunch, or dinner to a fellow prisoner for in exchange for a three-way phone call.

Sometimes I won't hear from my family for years because their home phone gets disconnected, or they change addresses because they can't afford the rent, or I get transferred from one prison to the next. During those long stretches, I start to feel like they've given up on me. And when they finally do call, I ask them whether they really love me. But I curse myself afterward, because I know how hard it is out there for them. When it comes to having food and money, I may have it better in prison than my family does out there in the free world.

What I do know is that it's very hard to be in prison when I don't feel like I have my family's support. In fact, it takes some supernatural energy to keep going.


I almost understand it when other inmates say, "Nobody cares if I live or die."

When I'm with guys from my hometown who are getting released, I desperately offer them pictures and last-known addresses, urging that they find my family, tell them where I am, that I'm okay, that I love them, and that I hope to hear from them soon.

I accept everything I experience here in prison like a man, because I put myself here.

But I'm worried that in the six years I have left behind bars, I'm going to lose my family forever. The author is serving a 17-year sentence in a Southern prison for attempted armed robbery. His name has been withheld for obvious reasons.