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									Doing Time Together
Doing Time Together
Love and Family in the
Shadow of the Prison


The University of Chicago Press   Chicago and London
M E G A N C O M F O R T is a sociologist at the Center for AIDS Pre-
vention Studies at the University of California, San Francisco. She
received her PhD in 2003 from the London School of Economics and
Political Science and was awarded the Robert McKenzie Prize for her
dissertation. This is her fi rst book.

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637
The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London
© 2007 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 2007
Printed in the United States of America

16 15 14 13 12 11 10 09 08 07             1 2 3 4 5
ISBN-13: 978–0–226–11462–0 (cloth)
ISBN-13: 978–0–226–11463–7 (paper)
ISBN-10: 0–226–11462–7 (cloth)
ISBN-10: 0–226–11463–5 (paper)

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Comfort, Megan.
  Doing time together : love and family in the shadow of the prison /
Megan Comfort.
    p. cm.
  Includes bibliographical references and index.
  ISBN-13: 978-0-226-11462-0 (cloth : alk. paper)
  ISBN-10: 0-226-11462-7 (cloth : alk. paper)
  ISBN-13: 978-0-226-11463-7 (pbk. : alk. paper)
  ISBN-10: 0-226-11463-5 (pbk. : alk. paper)
  1. Prisoners—Family relationships—California—San Quentin.
2. Prisoners’ spouses—California—San Quentin. 3. Conjugal
visits—California—San Quentin.          4. California State Prison at San
Quentin. I. Title.
  HV8886.U5C66 2007

   The paper used in this publication meets the minimum
requirements of the American National Standard for Information
Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials,
ANSI Z39.48–1992.
Pour Loïc,
pour tout et pour toujours
    Acknowledgments ix

1   Outside the Prison Walls 1

2   “On-Line” at San Quentin 21

3   “We Share Everything We Can
    the Best Way We Can” 65
4   “Papa’s House”: The Prison as Domestic Satellite 99

5   “It’s a Lot of Good Men behind Walls!” 126

6   The Long Way Home 185

    Appendix 1: Setting and Methods 199

    Appendix 2: An Orientation to
    the Research Literature 214

    Appendix 3: United States Carceral
    Population, 1980–2000 223

    Appendix 4: Field Documents 225
    References 231   Index 251
I am immeasurably grateful to the women who participated
in this research by sharing their time, space, thoughts, and
experiences with me. Without their generosity, this book
would not exist, and I offer them my heartfelt thanks. I
am particularly indebted to Queenie and Sarah, who pro-
vided feedback, fact checking, and encouragement from
my early days of field observations up to the very last
months of writing and editing. In addition, I appreciate
my correspondence over the years with L.M., J.C., M.A.,
and J.M., who enabled me to get a sense of aspects of life
“inside” and were particularly informative regarding is-
sues addressed in chapter 3.
   This book grew out of my PhD dissertation at the Lon-
don School of Economics and Political Science, where
I was supported by an Overseas Research Student award
from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals
of the Universities of the United Kingdom. A dissertation
award from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation
greatly facilitated the final year of writing. When I arrived
at LSE, Paul Rock reached out to me, becoming my super-
visor and giving me the scholarly engagement I needed
to stay for the long haul. At the end of my time there,
Richard Sparks and Janet Foster were stimulating and in-
sightful as my examiners in the dissertation defense. My
warm thanks to all three, along with Stan Cohen, David
Downes, and Leslie Sklair, for broadening my intellectual
and cultural horizons.
   Jack Katz graciously provided detailed comments on
early drafts of several chapters, and Pat Carlen offered a


close reading of key arguments in chapter 5. Thanks are due as well
to Ursula Castellano, Rachel Condry, Alice Goffman, Olga Jubany-
Baucells, Kim Koester, Barbara Mason, Kathleen McCartney, Josh Page,
Gretchen Purser, Sharon Shalev, Nicolas Sheon, Wayne Steward, Scott
Stumbo, David Sweeney, and Chris Wildeman for reading and com-
menting on various versions. I also benefited from feedback on presen-
tations of this work at different stages: a seminar hosted by Rick Fan-
tasia at Smith College; the “Gender, Race, and Incarceration: Activism
and Scholarship” conference organized by Mary Katzenstein and Barry
Maxwell at Cornell University; the “The Prison, the Asylum, and the
Street” conference coordinated by Manuela Ivone Cunha and Cristiana
Bastos at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa;
the “Strategies for Harm Reduction: Penal System and Drug Policy”
conference held by the Universidade Federal Fluminense and the Insti-
tuto Carioca de Criminologia, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to which I was
invited by Vera Malaguti and Nilo Batista; and sessions of the American
Sociological Association and the American Society for Criminology.
    At the University of Chicago Press, Doug Mitchell lived up to every
wonderful thing I had ever heard about him, and more. Tim McGovern
and Mary Gehl made the sailing beautifully smooth, and John Ray-
mond was attentive to every tree in a dense forest. David Garland and
an anonymous reviewer offered helpful feedback and timely encour-
agement for the final revisions of the manuscript. A preliminary ver-
sion of chapter 4 appeared as “‘Papa’s House’: The Prison as Domestic
and Social Satellite,” in Ethnography 31, no. 4 (2002): 467–99. An early
version of chapter 2 was published as “In the Tube at San Quentin:
The ‘Secondary Prisonization’ of Women Visiting Inmates,” in Journal
of Contemporary Ethnography 32, no. 1 (2003): 77–107. And a portion of
chapter 5 appeared as “‘C’est plein de mecs bien en taule!’: Incarcéra-
tion de masse aux États-Unis et ambivalence des épouses,” in Actes de
la recherche en sciences sociales 169 (2007): 22–47. I thank the publishers
of each of these journals for their permission to include that material
here. I also am grateful to Paul Willis, Jody Miller, Franck Poupeau,
Etienne Ollion, and these journals’ anonymous reviewers for their as-
sistance in clarifying and strengthening several core arguments.
    My colleagues at the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the Uni-
versity of California, San Francisco, continually inspire me with the
commitment and compassion they bring to heartbreakingly difficult
work. Olga Grinstead has been a cherished mentor since day one of my
involvement with women visitors at San Quentin. Barry Zack supplied


me with that most precious of commodities during field work: a quiet
interview room. Many times over the years, Harold Atkins and Xochitl
Fierro have thoughtfully shared their perspectives on central issues,
and my high school English teacher and friend, Patricia Ludwig, me-
ticulously copyedited the entire manuscript before I sent it for review.
For love, robust support, and timely distractions I am beholden to my
family: Randy Comfort, Josh Comfort (who also produced the graphics
for figures 2.1 and 2.4) and Kate Culligan, and Justin, Mathew, Susan,
Loren, Emmett, Mollie, et toute ma famille française. And, for more than
I ever could say, I dedicate this book with love to Loïc Wacquant.


Outside the Prison Walls
Toward the end of visiting hours today, Grace, who is mar-
ried to a man serving a life sentence, came out of the prison.1
I’ve seen Grace visiting at San Quentin since 1995. She always
greets me warmly but has never really opened up to me about
her personal life—so I was particularly intrigued when she said
excitedly, “I have a present in the gift shop! Come on, you can
come get it with me.” The gift shop (or “hobby shop,” as it is
officially called by the San Quentin authorities) is located just
outside the main gate of the prison and is staffed by one highly
trusted inmate decked out in a blindingly bright yellow jump-
suit (an outfit mandated after a hobby shop worker wearing
the customary prison attire of a chambray shirt and blue jeans
walked away from his post and into the “free” world unnoticed).
This peculiar store consists of a dimly lit sallow room with three
long display cases arranged like a horseshoe. Inside the cases
and hanging on the walls are hundreds of objects crafted by
prisoners, available for purchase by anyone who takes a fancy
to them: paintings, drawings, earrings, note cards, clocks, and
other trinkets produced by those inmates lucky enough to be
permitted to engage in such “hobbies” behind the walls.
    As we strolled the short distance to the shop, Grace ex-
plained that her wedding anniversary was this week and her
husband had made a gift for her that she could now retrieve.
Before I could ask any questions we reached the front of the
shop and came upon the prisoner-worker standing outside the
door, smoking. Visibly eager to claim her present, Grace told
the worker that she had a gift to collect but added kindly, “You

   1. Grace is a pseudonym, as are the names of all the participants.


can finish your cigarette first.” The man smiled shyly and took a few more
self-conscious puffs, then stubbed out the cigarette and headed into the shop.
Once inside he seemed a little uncertain of what to do, so Grace coached him
through the process of giving her the correct form to fill out and of locating
her gift, noting wryly, “I’ve done this a few times before.” She signed the pa-
perwork, and the inmate handed over a package about double the size of a
shoe box, which Grace clutched to her chest. “I already know what it is,” she
told me, her voice quickening with anticipation. “Come on, we can go to the
car and open it.”
    We walked over to the parking lot, and she set the gift on the hood of her
car, unlocked the vehicle’s door and threw her jacket inside, then pulled a
pocket knife out of the glove compartment and began slitting open the box.
Tearing away the protective packaging, Grace lifted out a wooden jewelry box,
the general style of which I recognized from the others on display in the hobby
shop. It was beautifully made, and Grace commented happily on the luster of
the orange-colored wood and the obvious attention to detail. We both stood
there admiring it, and then she opened the lid, revealing that it doubled as
a music box: a tune began to tinkle, and I recognized it as a popular ballad
for lovers, “Unchained Melody”: “Oh, my love, my darling / I’ve hungered for
your touch, a long lonely time / And time goes by, so slowly and time can do
so much.”
    While I was listening to the little chimes, I stole a glance at Grace and saw
that she was teary eyed. Without saying anything, she set down the box and
turned and wrapped her arms around me. We stood there hugging each other,
much harder and longer than I’d ever hugged her before, and the tightness of
her clutch overwhelmed me with sadness. My melancholy was keenly inten-
sified by the gray misty December weather, a fitting backdrop for the bleak
scene: a lone woman with only a graduate student conducting her fieldwork
for company, opening her anniversary gift on the hood of a car in a deserted
prison parking lot, having just said good-bye to her husband before leaving
him behind to be locked back into his cell . . . as he likely would be for a great
many anniversaries to come.

Constructed with convict labor between 1852 and 1856, San Quentin
State Prison is the oldest penitentiary in California and occupies 432
acres of prime real estate in Marin County on the northern shores of
San Francisco Bay. In the summer of 1995 I arrived at San Quentin
as an employee of a nonprofit organization and began working with
women who came to the facility to visit one of the approximately six

                                                        OUTSIDE THE PRISON WALLS

             Figure 1.1 Sign at front gate of San Quentin

thousand men incarcerated there. My primary duty was to coordinate
an HIV-prevention intervention designed for women with incarcerated
male partners, a program that took place directly outside the prison
gates in a house owned by the nonprofit organization, which served
as the San Quentin visiting center. My efforts to conduct health edu-
cation and program evaluation were routinely interspersed with the
provision of the more mundane services offered by the visiting center:
lending clothes to people who were “inappropriately” dressed for their
visits, caring for children whose mothers could not or did not want to
bring them onto the prison grounds, and explaining the intricate visit-
ing policies and procedures to newcomers.
   When I accepted the job with the nonprofit I had long been inter-
ested in working in a prison without working for a prison. Being at the
visiting center seemed an ideal stepping-stone toward what I really as-
pired to do—find a position where the action was, as it were, “on the


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