Glimpse of My Family

by Joya Russo, Sept 2010

My name is Joya Kathleen Russo and this is an intimate glimpse of my family’s experience during our 90-minute contact visits at New Jersey State Prison (N.J.S.P.) in Trenton, New Jersey.

My husband David Mark Russo was incarcerated on March 9, 1984 for murder. 

At the time of his arrest we were a broken family. Living apart and going through an ugly divorce. David was 29, I was 27, my son Davi 6, and my daughter Alexis 2. 

The death sentence and sentencing trial took two years. As a result, David was sent to N.J.S.P. to serve out his sentence. It took about three months for David to get processed into the penal system as prisoner #208920. During this time we had no contact until his phone and visitation privileges were approved.

The first time I was allowed to visit David at N.J.S.P. I was young, naive and mostly alone. On the inside I was scared to death and dreaded having to learn the new rules and regulations of this Maximum Security State Institution. 

Let me begin by stating that upon entering this or any other prison for the first time is a rite of passage. I can tell you from personal experience that there is no “welcoming committee” ready to receive and assist a new arrivals with the visitation process. The guards bark out orders and give a 60 second mandatory speech on what is and is not permitted onto the premise. The other visitors look you up and down, they know you’re new, and watch in silence as you make costly mistakes that don’t allow you to get in for your visit. 

If a visitor isn’t allowed in then they have three options: wait around for the afternoon visit, have a window visit, or simply leave.  In our case, it takes two hours just getting there so it’s always crucial to make it in on time.

Visitors must arrive to line up for a certain check-in time, or the registration window will not allow them to sign up for a visit. A total of four visiting adults and unlimited children per inmate are permitted into each visit. For security purposes all visitors receive hand stamps, clothing checks, pat downs while traveling through three separate holding areas before reaching the actual contact room. 

I quickly realized how corrupt the correctional institution is on both the inside and outside worlds. They create an extremely demeaning environment. As a family we learned to deal with being treated as if we were the ones who had committed a crime. As we began to visit David every weekend we started learning the fine art of blocking out our prison surroundings, much in the same manner as the inmates do. We never spoke or became friendly to anyone unless David gave us the OK.

My first visit with David was an extended outside evening visit. It was the first time David and myself were outside together since before his arrest. It was also the first time we had seen each other since the trial. Our visit was amazing as we had such little time to share our private thoughts and emotions to each other in one visit. 

This was when an inmate photographer came to us and asked if we were ready for our photo. I was so shocked and unaware that the correctional system allowed such a simple and humane act of kindness. Upon realizing the visit was at end, I broke down crying right after we took our first photo. Little did we know at that moment how important these photographs of us in prison were to become.

Sometimes we needed to pick a “right time” to get up to take our photos. There might have been another visiting couple close to us trying to feel-each-other-up, fuck in their seats, pass money, drugs, cell phones etc. We didn’t want to interfere because if we were caught or blamed to be doing so, it could cause an unnecessary drama for our family or David back inside his cell after the visit. 

Davi and Alexis knew the different inmate photographers by name and over time befriended them. Their favorite photographer was a guy from Brooklyn, nicknamed “New York.” He would take extra care in photographing our family over the years. After we took our photos, David and I would hand them over to the kids. They would stay busy choosing the ones they wanted. Making fun of the ugly ones, with bad hair days, closed eyes, and stupid faces. David and I would take this time to have our private time to speak. It was only during these times that I was really able to be my true self and break down.

As the years passed, many of Davi’s friends took us when times were hard for us to get to the prison. Our family and polaroid collection grew larger, but each photo was just as special as the first. They captured all of our raw emotions of happiness, joy, heartache, frustration, anger, and tears especially as the visits would come to an end.

At the end of the visit, I would hold these pictures close to me as tears ran uncontrollably down my face. I would try to catch my breath without my children realizing how broken I was at that moment. The children would try to comfort me with hugs and kisses and say, “Mom, stay strong, you’re gonna be OK, dad will be home one day very soon.” I would cry so hard as we waited to be released from the visit.  As the children got older they understood my heartache. I would watch David walk away from me at the end of every visit. He was forced to leave my side and return to his cell while I was forced to leave him there and return to my own harsh realities. 

All I had was a simple polaroid to hold onto and take home. I would put them in frames around the house, on the refrigerator and in my wallet. It was the only tangible item I had to remind me I was loved by my childhood sweetheart, best friend, partner in crime, and husband. 

David would call me and tell me that he was looking at my photo as we spoke. When he called or wrote a letter, he would tell me how the photos got him through an exceptionally bad night of depression.  

You could see the wear and tear that the polaroids went through until they were replaced by the new ones. We went on visits as often as I could afford. 

In the beginning it was every weekend, holiday, birthday, anniversary, and graduation. Now, it’s every six months to a year….if am lucky.

Over the 25 years my husband has been incarcerated I have kept my polaroid collection together for my family. I still have the last family polaroid taken in N.J.S.P. on my bedroom nightstand and I am not willing to share it with anyone.