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Excerpt: 'Visiting Life'

Visiting Life Book Cover

Chapter 1: Just Visiting

The first time I walked into a maximum-security prison I dressed like a lawyer — though it wasn't my intention. Let's just say there are lots of rules about what a woman can and cannot wear inside a men's maximum-security prison: no inmate-blue denim and no cop-green khaki seemed the most important ones. I figured it best to have a modest hemline and thought to-the-knee was plenty modest. The guard didn't agree and sent me back to my car to change.

The last time I'd changed clothes in my car was the summer I worked two jobs and went to night school. Somewhere stopped in traffic along the New Jersey Turnpike between my job at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson and class at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, I decided to wiggle out of my work skirt and into my student cutoffs without looking to see if there were any truckers who might get an eyeful. This time I am more conscious of changing in the open as I shimmy out of my pale green dress deemed inappropriate and into a black-and-white number I think will pass prison scrutiny.

How did I get here? I ask myself, scanning the myriad fences, razor wire, and looming guard towers of Pelican Bay State Prison. Yes, Pelican Bay. Whenever anyone writes or speaks of this notorious prison in Crescent City, California, they usually call it "the worst of the worst." They mean the worst criminals and the worst treatment.

I think back on my twenty-something self cruising along in my white-with-red-vinyl-roof Pontiac Sunbird as my thirty-nine-year-old self changes shoes in my rust-colored Chevy Cavalier not much bigger than my beloved first set of wheels. The older I get the more I realize we never actually shake off the internal image of our younger selves but hopefully evolve from it. Out of about three hundred students in high school I graduated something like thirteenth (just my luck). At the top but not the top — A minus — because Mrs. Bliss was right: things came too easily to me and I didn't always apply myself. Nonetheless, I displayed all the trappings of a young woman ready to make her mark.

Cheerleader. Yearbook editor. The dutiful youngest daughter of five in a loving Irish-Italian working-class family putting herself through school. Girls like me don't grow up to visit convicted murderers in maximum-security prisons.

Yet here I am.

"'Twas reading that did me in," I say out loud as if I'm spinnin' a yarn for some imaginary person in the passenger seat now littered with discarded clothes. I laugh because after eight years of living alone, much of that time spent working at home, I notice that I talk to myself a lot.

As I step out of the car I do think I look like a lawyer. I assume that I am a very different sort of person than the other people visiting today, but I cannot put my finger on why I think that way. I wear black patent leather high-heeled Mary Janes, a pleated dress dangling just below the knee, a black blazer that covers me from shoulder to midthigh. All I need to complete the effect is a briefcase. Instead, I clutch the plastic Ziploc bag containing the only things I am allowed to bring into the big house: thirty one- dollar bills (which the prisoner is never allowed to touch), some old pictures, and my car keys.

How did I get here?

Excerpted from Visiting Life by Bridget Kinsella Copyright © 2007 by Bridget Kinsella. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Bridget Kinsella