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Last Saturday, Tina Ramsey paid her three dollars to board a private van from D.C. to the Lorton Correctional Complex in Virginia for one of her regular visits to see her fiancé, Silas Holt. Once at the prison, she went through the usual drill: She signed in, waded through the paperwork, got searched, and then waited for Holt to appear in the visiting room. And waited. She waited for what seemed like forever, until finally Ramsey asked one of the guards what was taking so long. The guard informed her that Holt wasn’t there. Early that morning, he had been taken to a new private prison in Youngstown, Ohio, where the District is sending as many as 1,500 prisoners who’ve been housed at the troubled Occoquan facility at Lorton.

Ramsey later learned from a friend that at 2 a.m. the corrections department had sent a large group of officers armed in black, Ramboesque outfits, with riot gear and billy clubs, to rouse the men from their beds. Officers shackled the men and put them on a bus, sending them off to a new home in the dead of night. “They didn’t even let him make a phone call,” says Ramsey.

While the corrections department apparently anticipated riots when it planned moving Lorton inmates to Youngstown, officials didn’t give much thought to the ripple effect the move might have on women like Ramsey. A beneficiary of a thriving prison matchmaking system, Ramsey was one of about 10 women who left Lorton last week without seeing their men. Many of them left clutching a flier printed by RTC Express Transportation Services offering van trips to the new prison in Youngstown.

But while Ramsey used to pay $3 to get to Lorton via private van, getting to Youngstown will cost her $50. Consequently, even though Youngstown is a six-hour drive from the District, for Ramsey Youngstown might as well be Cape Town. Ramsey is jobless and living in a transitional facility for homeless women called Hannah House, where she’s putting her life back together.

As a longtime volunteer at Hannah House, I happened to be on hand last Sunday as Ramsey frantically called Lorton to find out what had happened to Holt. She desperately wanted to go to Ohio to make sure Holt was OK, and we kept in touch during the week as she tried to scrape together $50 for the van to Youngstown. But on Friday evening when we talked, she sighed dejectedly over the phone, “I can’t go. I couldn’t come up with the money.” I decided to go to Youngstown without her, armed with a D.C. Department of Corrections inmate number and messages of love for a man I’ve never met.

At 1:30 a.m Saturday, I arrive at Metro Center to board the RTC Express van to Youngstown. The RTC Express is basically a van driven by Teressa Taylor and her husband, who anticipated the Youngstown journey several weeks ago. This weekend is their first official trip, and when I get to Metro Center, the van is already packed with six women and one man, who have taken the choice seats. I grab one of the few remaining spots and settle in.

None of the van passengers is a blood relative of any prisoner in Youngstown. It’s love and not familial loyalty that will pull them across the miles to Ohio. The two back seats are populated by a gaggle of 19-year-old girls with overstuffed bags full of snacks and beauty supplies who are off to see their boyfriends, fiancés, or their babies’ fathers. They’re all friends, and the atmosphere in the van is festive, as if they’re going off for a weekend at the beach instead of to a maximum-security prison. Unlike the rest of us, the three girls in the back are spending the whole weekend in Youngstown so they can visit both Saturday and Sunday. They jabber casually about their last high-school homecomings and their jobs at CVS, swap tips about getting jobs at the post office, and trade names of all the guys they know who’ve been killed. One of the girls, dressed in black jeans, a tight yellow T-shirt, and platform sandals turns to me and asks, “Who you going to see?” I stumble over the question a little and tell her, “Silas Holt.” She looks at me, perplexed, and says, “Is that your boyfriend?”

As the only white woman in the van, my presence is reason for curiosity. I tell her I’m a reporter and I’m visiting the friend of a friend who couldn’t come. She gives me another quizzical look before turning back to her vanmates. In front of me is a quiet, heavy-set Muslim woman named Rasheeda who is wearing a mustard-colored head covering and works for a local nonprofit group. Next to her is a bubbly, fashionably dressed woman in her late 30s who gives her name as “E.J.”

E.J. looks as if she could be a sales clerk at Nordstrom, but it turns out she works in the D.C. Public Schools. She and Rasheeda are both going to visit their husbands. In the seat in front of them is a poised, 50-year-old grandmother of 11 wearing a bright red raincoat and heels. She just had a liver transplant in April, but is determined to visit her fiancé. And next to her is the sole man on the trip, who wishes to be identified only as John. Wearing an earring and clutching a purple crocheted pillow, the soft-spoken young man is also going to visit his “husband,” a man who’s been in prison now for 15 years.

As we pull away, Teressa takes roll call and realizes that we’re missing someone. We drive back to the bus shelter on 11th Street and wait while another young woman parks her car. The woman, who lets me identify her as Boo, returns and climbs into the van with her cousin Redz (also 19) and her 2-year-old daughter Kieara. They all pile in next to me, and we scrunch up our knees so we can fit in the tiny space allotted us. One of the girls in back offers me some Cheetos, and we finally hit the road at 2 a.m.

All the people in the van have been going out to Lorton regularly, and they display an amazing understanding of how the corrections system works, like how much mail you can send, what kinds of packages will get through security, and most importantly, how the phones work. The phone is a crucial element of prison romance, and as we leave the District, the women in the van get into a discussion about how much the collect calls from Youngstown are going to cost. No one has gotten a bill yet, but they’ve been told that just the initial connection is a whopping $5. This is a private prison after all, and the Correctional Corp. of America (CCA) knows where it can make some money. Nine hundred bored men in captivity are easy targets, especially since most of them seem to have women on the outside ready to accept the charges. Even though collect calls from Lorton got cut off after 10 minutes, a few of the ladies in the van managed to rack up $400 and $500 monthly phone bills.

Despite the late hour, the women in the van are wired for the trip and can’t seem to sit still. “You got the Slim Jim in there?” asks one woman, as her friends in the back seat argue over who packed the beef jerky. Their conversations wander from girl fights to go-go clubs and the desirability of Republic Gardens. While several of them have young children, they’re not old enough to drink, and getting into any of these places requires some caginess. But they’re resourceful and they manage. Just as they’ve learned to navigate the District’s correctional system, now they’re planning weekly excursions to Youngstown. Next weekend is Father’s Day, and they eagerly anticipate getting their babies up to Youngstown, too.

Finally, some of the anticipatory chatter dies out, and we all nod off as the van zooms through the darkness toward Ohio, mimicking the path of the corrections department bus that stole away with the men last weekend.

After almost six hours of driving, two stops, and one wrong turn, we pull into the McDonald’s just outside Youngstown at 7:30 a.m. Eleven kinked and wrinkled passengers spill out of the van door, rub bleary eyes, and stumble off in search of the restroom. Once inside, the women take over the place, setting up a beauty parlor in front of the long mirror, their curling irons squeezing out the white, Midwestern roadtrippers trying to get a peek at their frizzed hair.

Teenage girls who were clad in jeans and T-shirts are suddenly transformed into lush-lipped vamps in slinky, long, black skirts. (Short skirts are banned, to prevent quickie sex on the visiting room tables.) After many minutes of primping, the girls strut back to the van, primed and ready for their visit. But as the van rolls along rural streets lined with clapboard houses and stretches of green fields, the girls start to lose their sang-froid. Far out of their element, they look more like scared adolescents than the tough and worldly women they seemed to be when the trip began. They nervously spray each other with Tommy Girl perfume and fish out “Ghetto Girl Gold” lipstick from the bottoms of their bags.

One woman confesses that the “Exit Lorton” sign on the ride to Occoquan always gave her butterflies in her stomach: The “Exit Youngstown” sign is having a similar effect. The older women commiserate, saying they too are nervous. They’re facing men they know mostly over the phone—and the prospect of going into a new, unfamiliar prison. But the butterflies are part of the thrill, too.

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Romance with a convict has its own allure. These nine woman (and one silent man) have the unique experience of falling in love over and over again. The separation that prison dictates only heightens their passion. Their romance is not dulled by mundane trips to Safeway or haggling over who takes out the trash. There’s only the heated rush of squeezing weeks of life into a few precious hours in the prison visiting room, and wanton desire created by the impossibility of sex.

As the van passes from the freeway into a rundown part of town, one girl says, “This must be the ‘hood.” Another answers, “Yeah, this must be the ghetto part.” The van passes Youngstown Oxygen and Welding, turns down a short road through some trees, and comes out in the parking lot of the Northern Ohio Correctional Facility, run by CCA. “I don’t like this at all,” says

one woman.

She isn’t alone. Devoid of human life, the sprawling, one-story concrete building isn’t even finished yet, and it looks as if it has been constructed overnight. Slivers of windows peek out from the concrete, and the only outside adornments are bales and bales of razor wire. For landscaping, someone has thrown hay over the dirt around the chain-link fences. No one is out to greet us as we crawl out of the van and approach the front gate. After some investigation, someone finally pushes a buzzer on the door and a voice out of nowhere blares, “Identify!” The girls give their names, which produces no response. Finally, Taylor’s husband says, “Visitor,” and the gate buzzes and slides right. We pass through, the gate crashes shut behind us, and we repeat the exercise at the next door. Finally, we get inside the building, and are greeted by remarkably fresh-faced correctional officers dressed in CCA uniforms.

One by one, we are taken inside the glass security “bubble,” where we fill out some paperwork and get searched. Boo is held up as the guards search 2-year-old Kieara and pat down every Pamper brought along for the six-hour visit. Kieara has been nearly silent for the entire

trip, and she’s not even flapped by the metal detectors. She may not have been to this particular prison, but Kieara knows the routine. She hardly makes a peep during the whole trip and sheds not a single tear.

We’re only allowed to bring in our ID and $10 in change for the vending machines. As the last one in, I get to see what the other women have written on the sign-in sheet. The 19-year-olds have written that the person they’re visiting is either boyfriend, fiancé, or husband. The last two are wishful thinking, as none of the girls has an engagement ring and the one who wrote down “husband” later confesses that she is not really married. John, who bears the same last name as the man he’s visiting, has written “cousin” in the relationship box.

After passing through the metal detector, we’re ushered into a blazing white hallway equal parts cinder block and linoleum. On the wall is information on employment opportunities with CCA. We go through another couple of locked doors and emerge in the visitors’ area, and the guards begin to usher in the inmates. Dressed in brand-new Day-Glo orange uniforms, they come out of the chute looking a little dazed, and scan the room for familiar faces. The older women from the van jump up when they see their men and run over to throw their arms around them. The others are greeted with dispassionate hugs, and some of the younger couples walk around each other first and then embrace awkwardly. The scene is moving in its own way, but the beginning

of the visit is oddly lacking in tearful reunions.

The van passengers are the only visitors this morning, since few D.C. residents have been able to make the long trip so far, and D.C. exports are the private prison’s only customers. The guards bring out chess and checkers sets, and the couples pair off and settle into plastic chairs and tables. The CCA guards seem unnaturally friendly for people in a maximum-security facility. After all, the District has just unloaded 900 of the city’s most violent inmates on them. But the people in charge here bear more resemblance to shopping-mall security guards than correctional officers. They are disproportionately female, and the rumor among the prison population is that they have no experience working in a correctional facility. They don’t even seem to know the procedures for letting people go to

the bathroom.

(One of the inmates later tells me that the guards are so skittish that the first time one of the prisoners started talking trash to a guard, the guard wigged out and called “Code Blue.” All the prison cells are apparently equipped with little holes in the ceilings, and those words sent 17 tear-gas canisters spewing into the cellblock, where the men had nowhere to run. Nearly everyone in that unit ended up in the infirmary after vomiting, choking, and suffering burned skin and eyes. Some of them were still there when I visited. The incident was reported as a “riot” on the local news.)

To settle the bathroom question, a woman with mounds of blond hair piled on top of her head and green fingernails showing through rubber gloves is dispatched to escort women to the ladies’ room in the outside hallway. She buzzes in and out, yelling “Pet-roo-sivich” into a little intercom. Aside from the bathroom trips, she and the other guards mostly hang out, keeping the couples from mashing too passionately. Couples peacefully hold hands and stroll back and forth from the vending machines, making microwave meals and snacking on Ho-Hos. John sits quietly leaning forward, talking to his friend. Their legs touch discreetly under the table, the only sign of their affection.

After I spend an hour or so meeting with a client of D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services, Silas Holt is brought down to the visitors’ room. He’s a bit surprised to see me, but when I tell him I’m a friend of Tina Ramsey’s, he nearly jumps up in excitement. A tall man with eyes that light up with his big smile and ears that wiggle when he laughs, Holt is not one of the prison’s more violent inhabitants. He’s only got eight more months to do for a parole violation stemming from a drug conviction he got back in 1986. But Holt tells other inmates he’s doing 10 years so they won’t bother him. He knows he came from a very dangerous place, and while the CCA prison may look shiny and nice, and the food is better, he’s still living with the same guys who made him sleep “one eye open and one eye closed” when he was at Occoquan.

After complaining a little about prison conditions and the “Fred Flintstone cave” he now resides in, Holt spends the next four hours telling me his love story. He met Ramsey while he was doing time at Lorton. A guy named Charlie who bunked near Holt had his girlfriend ask Ramsey to write to Holt, just as a sort of pen pal to help pass some of the time. The pair exchanged mounds of letters, and finally Ramsey went out to Lorton for a face-to-face visit. Holt says the minute he laid eyes on her he knew Ramsey was the woman he wanted to be his wife. He passes the time with dreams about getting them a house in Maryland and taking Ramsey on trips to the Caribbean or other places she’s never been. He envisions taking her on shopping sprees with the money he plans to make as an electrician and audio technician.

By 2 o’clock, Holt has bummed a cigarette—his first in a week—off another inmate. We have, of course, nothing in common besides Ramsey, but he keeps talking to avoid having to go back to the cell. Today is the first time he’s been allowed to go anywhere but to the gym for an hour, because he still hasn’t been “processed” or put through orientation. We watch silently as the couples say their goodbyes. E.J. is in tears, sobbing her farewell. Rasheeda is keeping a stiff upper lip, as seems to fit her lot in life. The younger women are making out like mad. Eventually, Holt gives me a big hug and reminds me of all the things I’m supposed to tell Ramsey when I get back.

As my little group heads rather morosely to the van outside, E.J.breaks the silence and elicits some laughs when she says, “I’m ready for McDonald’s, for some real food!”

In the van, the women can’t get over how clean the prison is. There is a consensus that the CCA prison is a lot nicer than Lorton. “All the guards are real nice—even the whites!” exclaims the Lady in Red. They are all amazed that the food was good—some of them ate off the trays the guards brought out for the men. As the van travels southeast, the women seem overcome with a sense of relief. They begin to talk about the roots of their courtships as “Second Hand Love” plays on the van stereo. Rasheeda and the Lady in Red claim to have found love at first sight in the waiting room at Lorton—the last place either of them expected to find it. Rasheeda got married at the D.C. courthouse last fall, while the Lady in Red is waiting until her fiancé gets released from prison to tie the knot.

“We talked on the phone for a whole year before I started going down [to Lorton],” says E.J. Like most of the people in the van, she met her husband while visiting someone else at Lorton. None of them seem to have expected to hook up that way, but they took love whatever way it came. When E.J. talks about her husband, her face turns radiant, and one of the younger girls observes, “You really in love, aren’t you?”

Rasheeda answers for her: “You think we’d go all this way if we weren’t?”

E.J. tells the girls about her wedding at the Lorton chapel two years ago. She says her girlfriends held a shower for her and they had a cake at the chapel, almost as if it were a normal ceremony. “I got presents and everything,” she adds. I ask her how she got the diamond wedding ring on her hand, and she says, “I bought it. I liked it and I thought I deserved it, so I went out with my sister and my girlfriend and bought it.”

Seeing the need to explain her two-year marriage to a man she’s never had sex with, E.J. explains that she’s used to being alone. She says she’s so busy raising three kids and paying her mortgage that she doesn’t really have time for anyone else’s demands. E.J.’s husband provides her emotional support on the phone every week, and she says that’s enough for now. These are strong, independent women who’ve survived single motherhood and a host of other trials. They aren’t looking for pity.

Yet as they talk, among themselves, as if marrying a man in prison is the most normal thing in the world, they know that every one of them could be a guest on a daytime talk show. As a result, none of them wants to be identified in this story, so they pick pseudonyms for themselves. Boo says she knows that people look down on them for hooking up with prisoners, but she is unfazed by the criticism. “People don’t think you can fall in love without sex,” adds the Lady in Red. “But sex is not everything.”

Boo, who gave birth at 17, notes that sex often means things are moving too fast. “I don’t care where you find him. If you find a good man, you better hang onto him,” she concludes.

Just like Silas Holt, the women in the van have grand plans for the future. The Lady in Red says that when she gets married she wants to go bungee jumping and kiss on the Golden Gate Bridge. E.J. wants to have a big country wedding. She has three kids with another man but never got married. She wants the real thing this time. Boo, whose boyfriend has already served five years at Lorton, wants to have a son when her man gets out in two years.

As they talk about their relationships and their plans, I am jarred by the notion that in many ways prison love is an old-fashioned kind of romance that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Since sex is not an option, relationships can actually be forged through talking and love letters. There’s no competition from the boys on the street or from other women. The relationships are manageable, and even dependable.

But the absence of any twentysomething women in the van is somewhat ominous, a sign that yesterday’s excited 19-year-olds on the buses to Lorton are likely today’s jilted 22-year-olds. In the end, prison love isn’t about real life. It’s about fantasy, reveling in the potential and possibilities of the future. The dreams are unsullied by the realities of getting a job when you’ve got a prison record, or getting a house when you’re living in a homeless shelter. Nonetheless, at 9 p.m. Saturday night, as we pull up to Metro Center, where our journey started, the women are already making reservations with Teressa to get on next week’s van.

Twinged by guilt and sadness, I quietly take leave of Boo and E.J. and Rasheeda to return to my real-life fiancé, who bought me a ring, who’s giving me a country wedding, shopping sprees, and trips abroad. Real love with a man I don’t have to get searched to see. The trip makes him seem all the more precious.

Monday morning I call Ramsey at Hannah House to deliver Holt’s messages. “Silas loves you,” I tell her. CP