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.” 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.