This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
I have been in prison for nearly two decades. In that time, only visits have made me feel like a human being.
On Aug. 15, 2013, I was talking to my older sister, Angela, on the phone. I come from a big family: Mom and Dad had eight kids — six boys, two girls. But Angela and I were always the closest. She’s just a year older than I am, and I could talk to her about the things I needed to. When she was 10 and I was 9, she had me play “paper dolls” with her, and I didn’t mind because I loved her.
Since my incarceration, none of my brothers or my other sister have “made the time” to write, visit, send money for commissary, or be concerned with my well-being — only Angela.
So I was thrilled when, during that phone conversation on that Aug. 15, Angela said, “You know I’ll be up there tomorrow for your birthday!” Then, to rib a guy closing in on 50, she added, “How does it feel to turn 40?”
“You should know, you hit it before me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m only 26!” she said. We both burst into laughter.
“You want anything special to eat in your food package for your birthday?”
“Nah, whatever you bring is good... How’s Sherry and Darrell doing?”
“They’re both fine, Sherry and Steph just brought a new car, and now Steph is all pumped up, thinking he’s Mario Andretti, wanting to drive everywhere. Darrell’s doing real good, he’s got a new security guard job and lives with his girlfriend, Holly.”
These are the bits that I get about my family. We chatted a little longer about other siblings, and then the weather, then hung up.
The next morning, I got up at 6 o’clock to get dressed and ready. Preparing for a visit is a prisoner’s most emotional time — someone from the free world is actually taking the time and making the effort to come see how we’re doing. Not only that, it lets the other inmates know that you have people who love you, which is invaluable.
My prison starts calling visits at about 8:45 a.m., and all visitors must be registered by about 2 p.m. or they get turned away.
By 6:15, I was already doing push-ups in my six-foot by nine-foot cell. It’s a tight fit, because there’s a metal bed extending out from the wall. A small table and metal toilet and sink are also bolted to the wall, way too close to my face when I lie down. There are no windows.
On the gallery, there are 40 of these cells, then the officer’s station, then another 40. I’m in cell number 62, so I get a full dose of all the noise — people yelling, cursing, protesting. Guys playing chess, 10 cells apart.
After doing my push-ups, I plugged in my hot pot to make hot water for coffee. I lit a cigarette and waited for the water to boil.
At 7:15, the count was finished, the breakfast bell rang, and the cell doors all opened for our exodus to the mess hall. But I stayed in my cell, sipping coffee — because I would eat later, during the visit.
When an officer came by, I asked, “I’m going on a visit, can I get a shower?” The officer nodded and signaled to a fellow guard to open 62 cell.
I took a quick shower and shaved with care.
It was 9 o’clock. I laid out my best clothes on the bed, and reached for my visit shoes. I had ironed my state-green pants the night before, and picked out my shirt deliberately. I gave my shoes a dust-off and reached for a bottle of Muslim oil, dabbing on some imitation Sean John fragrance.
I clean-up nicely.
Sitting on my bed, I lit another cigarette and waited for my call. Ten o’clock came and passed. At 10:30, I called down the gallery: “Officer, did you call Francis for a visit?”
“No! I did not!”
At 11, I started biting my nails. I had a thought that something might have happened to my sister: a flat tire, a car accident, maybe one of the kids got sick or worse. I lit another cigarette.
At 11:45, the officer did another count, and lunch started. A buddy of mine noticed that I hadn’t come up for breakfast, and now lunch.
“Yo, Al,” he said, using my nickname. “What’s up? You right?”
“Yeah! I’m expecting a visit!”
“O.K., just giving you a shout out.”
When noon came, I felt low. It was my birthday. I took off my shirt and hung it up. I paced the floor of my cell. I heard the phone ring down the gallery. Please let this be my visit. It wasn’t.
At 1 p.m., the afternoon yard time started. One by one, men walked by my cell on their way outside. “Al, you ain’t going out?” an inmate we called Lite asked. Before I could answer, Fat-Boy said “come out that cave and let’s get some money” (meaning let’s go work out with the weights).
“I’m good, I’m good,” I said. “I’m just waiting.” I lit another cigarette and sat down.
This is what it feels like to be unloved, I thought. I was afraid to look at my watch, so I put on some sweats and took a nap.
Later that evening, I shot out of my cell and headed directly for the phones. I dialed my sister’s number, and she answered on the first ring.
“Hey honey,” she said. “I’m so sorry I didn’t make it today, Boo (her live-in boyfriend) got called in to work, don’t be sad, I’ll be there as soon as I can — if not tomorrow, the weekend, O.K?”
“It’s O.K., sis, I’m good,” I said, resigned to the situation. “I’m just glad that you and everybody are all right.”
“How was your birthday?” Angela asked.
“It was all right. I don’t feel 40.”
We both laughed.
“I’ll be there soon, honey. I love you and miss you.”
“I love you too, sis. I’ll be waiting.”
John Francis, 51, is incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, N.Y., where he is serving 25 years to life for robbery and burglary.