I'm in a cell, he's out there all alone, and there's nothing I can do about it.
Illustration by Jun Cen
This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
When he was in his 60s, my husband Rex was diagnosed with Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy, a slow-moving disease that erodes the muscles and has no cure. By the time I went to prison in 2011, Rex’s health had begun declining, and I was extremely worried about how he would get by without me. I was his only caregiver.
Now it’s gotten worse, and he can barely walk or lift his arms. Without me, he’s alone—we have no children, no other family, and we can’t afford a nurse. I just imagine him sitting there, 24 hours a day, not having anyone to talk to except me when I call him.
Our communication amounts to five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening, every day. Fortunately, over this last year and a half, we’ve had video phones installed here in the prison. That’s been a godsend because now we can see each other. But it also lets me see exactly how much my husband has deteriorated.
He’s losing weight, due to his inability to prepare meals. (He survives mainly on frozen dinners.) Often, it seems like he’s just wasting away. The worst part is, it’s all happening right before my eyes, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Every day is shaped by wonder about whether he’s okay. If I call and he doesn’t answer, I give it a little bit, hoping he just overslept. That’s the problem I have: the unknowing and helplessness.
The first thing we ask each other during every call is, how are you? We always answer fine, even though we’re not fine.
In 2014, three years into my sentence, I was talking with him on the phone and all of a sudden he started slurring his words. I thought he was joking with me. I asked, “Rex, what’s wrong?” He kind of laughed, and said, “I don’t know, I’ve had this all morning. The side of my face feels funny.” I replied, “I need you to hang up and call the paramedics. I think you had a stroke.”
He went to the hospital, and I didn’t hear from him for hours. It was devastating, just the worst thing, that I couldn’t be with him.
When I talk to him on the phone now, I listen for a change in his voice. And when I do video calls, I really watch his facial expressions. Meanwhile, I have all his doctors’ names and their numbers. He sends me all of his appointments so I know where he has to be and when; after each one, I wait to learn of the outcome.
We’ve been married for a long time, but information never flows in the other direction—we don’t talk about my life here in prison. I don’t want to bother him with that. Instead, when we can, we try to talk about good times. For Valentine’s Day, he sent me some of our old cards from when we first got married. I have lots of pictures of him and me and our little dog.
He came to see me over three years ago on our 50th wedding anniversary. I hadn’t seen him in more than two years. When I got a call for a visitor, well, it scared me to death—I didn’t know what had happened. I thought they were about to give me some bad news, and never dreamed it would be him. It was just amazing. We could hug and hold hands. I just kept looking at him. We talked and talked and talked.
I haven’t seen him in person since.
Meanwhile, he falls. He fell getting out of the bathtub, and of course, when he falls, he can hardly get up. He had a fall three months ago on the stairs at his condo and hit his head. Now he has to leave there, and the VA is trying to find him some housing. If we each got Social Security, there would be no problem paying rent, but on his own—I’m not eligible for benefits as an inmate —he can’t afford it. He gets healthcare benefits through the VA and Medicare, but we haven’t been able to get a nurse. He’s trying his best to pack up some things. I’ve tried to send some letters to local churches there to see if they can possibly help. I worry tremendously.
When his health started going downhill, I started researching “compassionate release,” a federal program that allows some people to apply to leave prison early in certain situations, like when they’re sick, old, or the only possible caretaker for a family member. You need your warden's approval first, and then that of the Central Office at the federal Bureau of Prisons. The first time I applied, the warden said I had his approval, and would be getting the final answer from Washington anytime. Of course, I made the mistake of telling Rex that. When I got rejected, it was devastating for both of us. You have a doctor’s statement that says this man can hardly pick up a cup, his body is deteriorating, and he has no money. And still, nothing. Where is the compassion in that?
Now I’m applying again. It’s almost like going in circles, and it’s hard not to just give up. But you can’t let someone die, just sitting there without trying. It tears your heart out when you can’t help somebody and you know, if you were there, you could. I’m 73, he’s 74—our lives shouldn’t end like this when there are other options. My husband shouldn’t worry about turning the heat up in the house because he can’t afford it, or even having something good to eat. I just don’t want to lose him when I could help him.
Connie Farris, 73, is serving a 12-year sentence for mail fraud at the Federal Correctional Institution camp in Dublin, California. She has applied twice for compassionate release. The Bureau of Prisons denied her most recent application in July 2017, saying it “would minimize the severity of Mrs. Farris’ offense.” Read more about compassionate release here.