the cut on tuesdays

What a ‘Conjugal Visit’ Is Actually Like

Podcast marriage.
Photo: Photographs by New York Magazine, based on photographer Ted Spagna’s “Sleep” series.

The Cut on Tuesdays

A weekly podcast from the Cut and Gimlet Media, with host Molly Fischer.

Marriage comes down to a story — one that two people are telling together. On this week’s show, we got two couples to tell us their stories. And for one of those couples, Sheila Rule and Joe Robinson, getting married meant building a relationship in the narrow windows of opportunity allowed by the prison system.

Joe and Sheila started exchanging letters while he was incarcerated, and after two and a half years, they got married. That meant they could apply for what’s popularly known as a “conjugal visit” — an overnight stay, which would be their first time alone together. And even though it took six months for their application to be approved, Joe and Sheila were lucky: Joe was in a state facility in New York, one of only four states that has a family visiting program.

Sheila: The lingo is trailers. So it’s like, “Oh, we got a trailer. We’re going on a trailer.”

“Going on a trailer” is not strictly about sex. People have their kids come and visit, or their parents. The trailers are like little mobile homes, parked on prison grounds.

Sheila: There’s a living area, like a little living room, kitchen, television.

Joe: Like there’s just like you know like two little rooms, two small bedrooms, very small, bathroom. And you know like an open space, like open concept. I mean, it’s a trailer…

Family visits are intended to help people who are incarcerated maintain some kind of connection to life outside — as far as the state is concerned, it’s about reducing the chance that they’ll come back to prison. But as far as the families are concerned, it’s about time.

Sheila: It’s 44 hours. You know, you go in one afternoon, so you’d have lunch and dinner together, then you’d have a whole day, and then you’re gone the next morning.

Joe: So I would get in first … Even though there are like porters that clean the trailers, I would still go over and clean the trailers while I was waiting for Sheila to get processed. The families got processed after we got processed. So I’d be on the site before she got there, making sure it’s cozy as best as I could. Then we could hear the rustling of keys.

She’d arrive, and then they’d close the door of the trailer, and do their best to feel at home.

Joe: [The trailers] gave us a sense of normalcy. We were able to cook together, we’d dance, we would watch TV, we’d dream together. It was really, really something, and it gave me — and, I imagine, Sheila — something to look forward to.

But four times a day — morning, lunchtime, afternoon, and night — a loudspeaker would crackle, and Joe would hear a voice say, “Robinson, step out for the count.”

Joe: So the count I think was about four times a day. So once in the morning, and it’s different from prison to prison, but once, let’s say 7 in the morning, and there’s on might be at 11 ish, like close to noon, then there might be another one at 3 or 4, like when the new shift comes in. And then there’s one late evening. I mean we get up early so I wasn’t concerned about the day ones as much as the evening, because we’d be tired. We’re comfortable and all of that. Doesn’t matter: rain, snow, whatever. You have to step out. It was only four units, so we’re all standing on the count. So, it’s me and four other guys all standing there, waiting for the CO to open the gate, and then he or she counts, and it goes, “One, two, three, four, okay that’s it.”

One of the best things about the trailers was that you got to bring groceries and cook your own meals. There were all sorts of rules, though: You could bring steaks, but not steaks with bones. You could bring bagels or muffins but not ones with poppy seeds — they might show up as heroin on a drug test, and Joe was tested before, during and after every visit.

If you weren’t paying close attention, your food could be confiscated before you got to the trailer — then you had to improvise.

Joe: They had to ask other people in the unit, meaning other families. You know, “We don’t have any milk because they said the size of the container was too large. Or too many ounces.” During the counts in particular, a person might say … “Hey, can I borrow an egg? My wife forgot to bring the eggs, man.” And people are always like, “Oh sure, I’ve got some eggs,” or, “I’ve got some milk.”

Joe and Sheila got their food routine down to a science.

Joe: I would bring beverages because beverages can be heavy. I would bring a whole bunch of bottled water, and it’s cheap there, like 25 cents a bottle or something like that, like small 16 oz bottles. I would bring maybe eight of those. I would bring about an equal amount of orange juice, cranberry juice, like cans of them, because they were cheap in the commissary. So it would save Sheila money, because it’s more expensive out here, but also weight. And it takes up space. She usually had like two things of luggage. I would bring rice, like bagged rice or boxed rice. I would bring pancake mix because I would always make pancakes. Sheila would bring eggs because I didn’t have access to eggs. I would bring these pickles that she liked, when we did sandwiches. Candy, like peppermint, just little things like that.

When they were lucky, Joe and Sheila would have 44 hours together every month and a half — that’s about 15 days a year. When they weren’t lucky, they’d have four visits a year. That’s more like seven days, in a whole year of marriage.

Joe: There were times where I felt guilty. It was like I was kind of sending her back into the world alone.

Sheila: I’d be thinking, I can’t wait ‘til what passes for normal really becomes normal. So it was that yearning — the yearning, the yearning.

For 11 years, their marriage happened in the space of the 44 hours they got in the trailers. And then, in 2016, Joe went before the parole board and got a release date: He was coming home to Sheila.

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What a ‘Conjugal Visit’ Is Actually Like