What it’s like to visit jail

I visited Kathleen Folbigg last weekend – remember my old school friend who’s in jail?

She’s awaiting the results of a judicial inquiry into her case. She was supposed to have a response by August last year, then October, then January, then March and now May.

Its not easy to ride that emotional rollercoaster of hope and fear for so long.

No one thinks of the person in the process.

Kathy has been in jail for 14 years now. She still has 12 years of her sentence to serve.

I don’t visit as often as I should. Silverwater is only about 45 minutes drive from my place, but juggling a full-time job and being a single mother makes it hard to find the half day the expedition takes.

On Sunday, I arrived for a 12.30pm visit, but no one ever gets inside until it’s waaaaaay after 1pm. Then the guards wrap it up again just before 3pm.

You feel sad for the kids who only get to see their mums for such a short period of time.

There were lots of kids there on Sunday, sweet-faced ones with ponytails, little terrors playing the “drums” loudly on the waiting room furniture, tired toddlers sobbing in their prams.

I’ve written before about what a totally bizarre, yet completely normal experience visiting jail can be.

I’ve seen a little girl in a pink dress playing hopscotch beside a barbed wire fence, pausing to wave and shout “Bye Daddy” as she glimpsed her father being taken back to his cell.

I’ve watched a visitor coo when a prison guard shows her snapshots of his new baby.

And I’ve overheard some fascinating conversations. One of the most colourful was when a woman wearing fuzzy bed socks and chain-smoking bemoaned being called up for jury duty a second time in just a few months. She told the authorities: “Look, my daughter’s in jail for f@#kin’ murder. I don’t feel like being on a f@#kin’ jury right now. And they got straight back to me that I didn’t have to f@#kin’ do it.”

Good call, authorities.

When we finally get inside the visitors’ room we sit on pastel-painted metal stools, bolted to the floor and arranged around a little bolted-down metal table, like some Tim Burton-style nightmare version of fairy toadstools.

Kathy wears a white canvas jumpsuit, secured with an electrical cable tie at the neck. We sip cans of Diet Coke and snack on bags of Mars Bar Pods and Kettle Chips from the junk food machines in the hallway.

We talk about her latest upheavals in protective custody and my latest upheavals in single motherdom.

I’m often surrounded by infamous prisoners on my visits. But, like Hollywood, the cool thing to do is pretend you don’t recognise them.

When visiting hours end, all too soon, everyone hugs and cries as they separate.

I watch a couple embrace and the woman call over her shoulder as she returns to her cell: “See you in court on Thursday! I love you!”

So mundane, yet so otherwordly at the same time.

I walk out of the security doors and into the sunlight I feel so, so grateful to be free.

I don’t have many jail pictures to share with you, because they are verboten, presumably for security reasons.

There was a total furor when one of Kathy’s cellmates sold photographs (and lies) from inside the prison to a weekly magazine, leading to one of the more horrible chapters in my life that lost me my job.

One day, as I was walking back to my car, the air was filled with the shrieks of those awful ibis birds, clustered in the palm trees at the entrance.

I remember thinking, that’s funny, jail birds. So I took a photo.

A prison officer went absolutely berko at me. He waved his arms around and gestured to a sign on the front gate that explained I wasn’t allowed to take photos.

I stared at him in confusion and asked “what?”. He yelled “Can’t you see the sign?”

“Yeah, but that’s for INSIDE the prison isn’t it? I’m in the car park. I’m just taking a photo of some birds, mate.”

He gesticulated wildly a bit more and I was like “Chill. I just took a photo of some birds.”

Deep breaths … here’s a collection of snaps to give you a brief glimpse of what it’s like …


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