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Women and children line up outside the gates of the prison, waiting to enter for visits. Image by Joe Hiller ;

What It Takes to Hold Your Love: Prison Visitation and Rights to Intimacy in Colombia

Feminist Perspectives - ’Disciplined and Resistant Bodies’
Joe Hiller

PhD student in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University.

25 July 2023

Prisons affect more than prisoners. The family members, loved ones, and home communities of incarcerated people all feel the impact. In this post, I reflect on what those effects include, exploring how practices of prison visitation help us understand incarceration as a structure of punishment that ramifies beyond the bodies of the confined, as well as the gendered contours of intimacy, care, and love within prison worlds.

There is no sign of dawn as we stream from the hotel and onto the bus. Most of the women have damp hair, fresh from the showers. They wear light dresses and sandals. It is warm here. We are in tierra caliente, far sultrier than the high-altitude chill most call home, but these fashion choices respond to more than the humidity: they obey the regulations imposed by prison authorities on prospective visitors. No closed-toed shoes. Nothing with metal buttons. No underwire bras. Nothing too revealing (although this is subjective, and many visitors cheekily push the limits of neckline and skirt length).

I am with a group of family members of the incarcerated, waking at four in the morning to complete the journey to the penitentiary where their loved ones are held. The bus trip from Bogotá is tedious and winding. We left last night, pulling up to our lodging well after midnight. Some visitors first traveled a long way to get to the capital city, their routes like capillaries extending through the Andes, up the Pacific coast, and even to the island of San Andrés, hundreds of miles north in the Caribbean. As we sip coffee from disposable plastic cups, I ask if they rested, and most nod, but others tell me that nerves and anticipation kept them up. They gather themselves over the final leg, quieting children as we drive into the countryside where the prison squats behind razor wire, isolated from towns and cities, far from public transportation.

These visitors have come for the promise of contact - of physical closeness - with imprisoned husbands, sons, brothers, boyfriends, fathers, uncles. At this facility, modeled on U.S. penal infrastructure, visits happen on weekend mornings, 8am to noon. The queue to begin the process of entry starts at 5am. There is an online scheduling system, but it is glitchy and delays are common. When the system breaks down, registration takes the form of a list handwritten by a harried functionary at a desk behind a high gate as the sun rises and the heat intensifies. Eventually, based on this list and how quickly the drowsing guards get their act together, visitors are let into the prison grounds in small groups. Or their entry is denied. I watch, helpless to intervene, as several children are turned away. They struggle to hold back tears, as does the aunt who escorted them to visit with their father - her brother - for his birthday. The prison changed entry requirements for minors a few months ago and has yet to effectively implement the new regulations. The visitors did nothing wrong. The fault lay with bureaucratic indifference or incompetence. Yet, as they explain bitterly, they were left to “pagar sus platos rotos,” to pay for dishes someone else had broken.

Those visitors allowed through the prison gates face a battery of security measures. They are sniffed by a dog, patted down, scanned with metal detectors. Their bodies are treated with suspicion, as potential vessels for contraband, even though it is a public secret that the guards are the major source of illicit cell phones, drugs, and even weapons for the imprisoned population. Todo es un negocio – 'it’s all a business' – is a common refrain when people complain about corruption.[1]

This morning there are both family and intimate visits scheduled. For INPEC (the National Penal and Carceral Institute, Colombia’s prison bureaucracy), the 'family' in family visits to men’s prisons means women and children under twelve.[2] They take place in a large room around small tables. Intimate visits, also known as conjugal visits, are for a single designated lover. For those, the couple receives a measure of privacy: four walls, a bed, and a sink. But sound carries and neither visitors nor prisoners have a key to the room—guards do. The boundaries of their intimacy are fragile.

Visits are four brief hours, maximum. Most times they last closer to three. And then it is back on the bus, seven arduous hours to Bogotá and beyond, to shifts at work, more mouths to feed, rent to pay.

Visits are exhausting and expensive. Visitors tell me about the emotional labor they entail, how people behind bars are desperate for reassurance, comfort, and affection. Visitors hide their own worries, skip sleep, go without in their daily lives so they can buy packages for their loved ones. Through their visits, they provide care to people imprisoned within a carceral system that has been declared systematically unconstitutional by Colombia’s court system for more than 20 years. Without them, prisoners would be abandoned, lacking not only in the intangible benefits of family connection, but in concrete necessities like toilet paper, soap, and clothing. These are not trivialities: the things visitors supply to people in prison afford them a measure of dignity that is fundamental to their survival.[3]

Women perform the great bulk of this work. The reasons for this are multiple: not only do men make up the majority of people behind bars (although rates of incarceration of women are rising faster), but there is a clear gendered double standard at work.

I do this because it’s what a mother does.– Testimonial from women visiting the prison
Men are machista, it’s unfortunate but it’s true, you can’t depend on them.– Testimonial from women visiting the prison
My sister asks if my husband would be there for me, if our situations were reversed, and I have no answer. [She makes a skeptical face.] All I know is that I’m here for him. I hope he’ll stay with me when he gets out– Testimonial from women visiting the prison

These are the sorts of things women tell me when I ask why the labor of visitation falls so often to women.

It is tempting to view women visitors’ sacrifices and struggles as an expression of Marianismo, the construction of Latin American femininity that prizes women as self-abnegating sources of community support. Indeed, much of the literature on visitation focuses on its indignities, challenges, and violences, on visitation as a practice of survival and visitors as undergoing 'secondary prisonalisation'. My research, too, affirms that patriarchal gender norms push women into performing care work that men feel excused from. Some women are desperate to preserve connections to male family members in the hope that they will provide reciprocal care upon release, with no guarantees, or even much faith, that this will be the case. However, as I’ve accompanied and interviewed visitors over months of ethnographic fieldwork, a more complicated picture emerges.

First, women are not simply thrust into these circumstances by bonds of unchosen kinship, resigned submissiveness, or economic necessity. Desire, too, animates the visit. Many women visit people they loved before imprisonment, but many others met their incarcerated lover online, or when visiting someone else in the same prison yard. I heard many stories of romances carried out via secret cellphone, of the longing for physical consummation of connections that blossomed across prison walls. Many of the women I have spent time with endure the difficulties of visitation so they can make love. They want what their partner’s body can provide, and what virtual visits or phone calls cannot replace. Boarding the bus after the visits end, they joke about the hickies they’re bringing back to Bogotá. To understand the importance of visits, then, we need to reckon with lust, eagerness, and embodied pleasure alongside compulsion and precarity. To look beyond injury to recognise ecstasy.

Colombia is an important place to think about these issues because the right to intimate partner visits is constitutionally protected, and not only for straight couples. Imprisoned queer people, too, are guaranteed access to sexual partners as part of their legal rights to family and “the free exercise of personality.”[4] Colombian law recognises that to be fully human, people need bodily contact with others. Imprisonment cannot circumvent this entitlement. The indomitable formerly incarcerated lesbian activist Marta Álvarez fought for years to secure her community’s inclusion in these protections. I come from the United States, where intimate visits are forbidden throughout the federal prison system and are permitted, as a privilege, in only four states. In my country prisoners have no right to intimacy. Colombians are scandalised by this restrictiveness. My experiences here push me to ask what it would mean to fight for intimacy—for the right to privacy and to sex—as a component of the struggle against the violence of prisons, to think hard about what prison reformers (and prison abolitionists) in the United States can learn from experiences in Colombia, where different legal formulations of inalienable rights condition what prisons can and cannot strip from people.

Second, the importance of mutual aid to making visitation sustainable cannot be overstressed. Women do not travel alone. They pool resources, share vernacular legal knowledge, lend each other clothes when prison authorities send someone back for not complying with entry requirements. Furthermore, the fleeting communities that cohere through shared practices of visitation - from spending hours in line, on the bus, in shared hotel rooms - are sources of strength and joy. As one of the organisers of the bus route I travel with tells me, a grin on her weathered face, “aquí no se gana, pero se goza.” – Here we may not have it easy, but we have a good time. The principle of mutual aid is particularly crucial for trans and queer prisoners and their communities. Trans-people are among the most vulnerable population behind bars. Due to family abandonment, lack of resources, and discrimination, they tend to receive far fewer visitors than cisheterosexual ones. In this context, the work of organisations like the trans-led Imprisoned Bodies, Active Minds collective are essential, even 'revolutionary'.

Finally, while it is true that women do most of the work of prison visitation, and many men neglect loved ones behind bars, loads of men and non-binary people do care for the imprisoned. However, their contributions are muted by state policy. Men’s visits are scheduled only for holiday Mondays (lunes festivos), rather than each weekend. Travel on these dates is difficult. Even so, men seize the opportunity when they can, and their tenderness and empathy shine through. The last time I traveled with a group of men to the prison, one emerged after the visit with a tiny, mewling kitten in his hand. His incarcerated brother had found the baby animal in the grass of the prison yard and had cared for it in his cell until visiting day. Now it was a gift for his family on the outside, back in the city. The kitten was on its way to freedom, the token of a love that transgressed captivity

In this post I do not mean to glamorise prison visits. They are often messy; imprisoned husbands can be controlling; visits can be disappointing, painful, and in the worst cases, deadly. There is so much that is unfair and harmful in Colombian prison worlds. Visitation is not a cure for the ills of incarceration. What it is, though, is a process that allows us to perceive how care, desire, obligation, expectation, punishment, and (inter)dependency cross prison walls, binding communities on the outside to those within. To contemplate alternatives to prison - or as I am persuaded is necessary, the end of imprisonment - we need to sit with all the nuances of how prison is lived, and by whom. To witness their entirety. To ride on the bus that rumbles back and forth, every weekend, through rain and heat and dark, to make it possible for someone to hold their love.


[1] Although this negocio isn’t all bad: the possibility of bending prison rules enables a more humane life for many behind bars, via access to phones, mind-altering substances, and better food.

[2] Although this prison is designated as for men, there are trans women incarcerated here.

[3] As members of the trans-led Imprisoned Bodies, Active Minds collective explain, for trans people, access to makeup and other supplies not provided by prison authorities are important to survival: “Taking care of yourself in prison also means keeping yourself regal, adorning your body, beautifying yourself, making you continue to feel pretty, liking and finding that image you see in the mirror beautiful. This may seem secondary or superficial to many, but it helps us with our reality.”

[4] This right is frequently disrespected, however.

Image credits

Thumbnail image: 'A pair of slippers and knitted bag made by an incarcerated man as gifts for his partner'. Image by Joe Hiller.

Hero image: 'Women and children line up outside the gates of the prison, waiting to enter for visits.' Image by Joe Hiller.

About the author

Joe Hiller is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and a research intern at the Grupo de Prisiones legal clinic at the Universidad de los Andes, Facultad de Derecho.

This research is supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Award.

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