Receiving my husband's first phone call from prison was both joyful and despairing. Joy at hearing his voice, despair over him being far away. He sounded alone and sad and we could do nothing to help him.
In the federal system, phone calls are limited to fifteen minutes. How much can be said in fifteen minutes?
In our first call, we had time for the kids to ask what he wears and what he eats. We learned that the corrections officer (CO) in Reception didn't allow him to keep the CPAP machine he took with him, the machine that enables him to sleep at night. Instead, they gave him a prison-provided CPAP and then put him in a cell that had no outlet for him to plug it in. His second day was spent finding another cell with an outlet he could use.
We learned that the Bible we sent with him, the Bible in which we wrote messages of encouragement, was not allowed, either. The Bible and the CPAP would be shipped back to us.
The CO did tell him that we could send the Bible back to him in the mail, as long as we remembered to write "One book" on the envelope we use to send it.
That was a difficult call. So much to ask, so much to answer; and no time for satisfying anyone.
I try to write down questions for him so I don't waste time trying to dredge my memory for what I thought of earlier in the day. He does the same. Efficiency matters; it leaves more time for other questions, other topics of conversation.
In one phone call, I asked an important question about a business matter; he misunderstood me. I asked again. He tried to answer but had obviously misunderstood again. The noise on his end sometimes prevents him from hearing us clearly so we waste precious minutes clarifying. That time, we had to give up.
There is no time for leisurely discussions about our day, about how the kids are doing in school. No time for long, funny stories from the kids about their friends or the teacher who did something outrageous or the homework that keeps them up late.
No time for the long, rambling discussions about books and what the pastor's sermon was about this week. We save that for letters. Our letter-writing is a delight for both of us. We write pages and pages and enjoy doing it.
His voice, though. It is important to hear his voice as frequently as possible. I can tell when he is sick or worried or afraid. I can tell when he's had a good day and I can tell when he needs to hear me as much as I need to hear him.
Fifteen minutes. That is the longest phone call possible at one time. If he wants to call a second time, his phone system will not allow him to call my number again for another hour.
Fifteen minutes. If we try to stretch the 300 minutes he purchased so that we can talk every day, every phone call needs to be less than fifteen minutes.
Seventy dollars--for 300 phone minutes, the most an inmate can purchase each month--can be a lot of money to find for some families. For them, fifteen minute phone calls or daily phone calls are impossible. How do those families get their questions answered? Questions about filing taxes, about who carries the homeowner's insurance, about how to clean the gutters, about how to make chili the way we all like...
If your husband or wife were suddenly away from home tomorrow and you had to take over their duties at home, what questions would you have?
Think about how many minutes you spent talking with your husband or wife today. Count up all the passing bit of conversation that you don't even count as conversation: Gas prices are up again. Boy, that math teacher hands out crazy-hard assignments! Do we still have hamburger in the freezer? I wish the kids would keep the back seat of the car clean. Your mom's birthday is next week. Add in the conversations over dinner about the city council's latest screw-up and the bedtime conversations about how your brother's wedding is going to be a fiasco. Don't forget to add the minutes you used to text each other about who will pick up the kids after soccer practice and who will pick up milk at the store.
How would you do if you were limited to less than fifteen minutes each day?