Real Story

Malika knows how important family visits are to incarcerated people. Now 30, she has been visiting her father in prison since she was six months old.

Malika knows how important family visits are to incarcerated people. Now 30, she has been visiting her father in prison since she was six months old.

“If you don’t see your family, you start to lose hope,” she said. “You start to give up on yourself.”

And so, to keep hope alive, Malika bought a ticket for the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s first post-pandemic bus trip, last month, from Philadelphia to the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Mahanoy where her father is in prison.

“I know for a fact that I’ll buy another ticket,” she said. “It’s important for me because I don’t drive, and it helps” her continue her already strong relationship with her father.

“If you have no one coming to visit, and showing they love you, it makes you weak,” Malika said. “It makes you vulnerable. It degrades you and it disappoints you.”

But the benefits go both ways, because as important as the visits are to her father, they are just as important to her.

Malika's father was arrested three weeks before she was born. “When he did get sentenced, every month we went to visit him. I’ve been doing this since I was a baby,” Malika said. Her mother, distraught over her situation and caring for an infant, turned to drugs. By age five, Malika was living with her paternal grandparents who regularly took her to visit their son, her father.

Malika had a happy childhood, she said, with love at home, and from her father, who kept in touch by phone and letters. “He made sure I didn’t miss the love,” she said. “I just missed the physical of him being there.”

They talked on the phone every night at 8 p.m. Even though he earned next to nothing in prison jobs, he always managed to save enough so she could have something special on special days. “He has always been there and I’m so thankful that I was blessed with his family. He always made sure that his family took care of me.”

On Mailka’s trip to SCI Mahanoy in January, she rode aboard the first Prison Society bus in a six-month pilot project involving 12 trips – six to SCI Mahanoy, about two hours away in northeast Pennsylvania, and six to SCI Greene, south of Pittsburgh, about six hours away.

For 18 years, the Prison Society had sponsored trips to 21 facilities – 10 trips a month, facilitating over 3,000 visits a year. The Prison Society considered the trips a key part of its mission to connect incarcerated people and their families, particularly families from the Commonwealth’s largest cities, where many people don’t own cars.

But the COVID pandemic had put a stop to in-person visits and the bus rides. Malika hadn’t seen her father since before the pandemic.

When she got to the prison, she almost didn’t get in. Even though Malika had taken care to wear a wireless bra, some clasps set off the metal detectors, and she had to remove it in order to enter the prison.  Luckily, her outer garments were not revealing, or she would have come all that way for nothing.

“The visit was wonderful. We ate and caught up on things past and present. It was bittersweet,” she said. “I am always happy to see him but it’s sad when you go to leave.

“Towards the end, he noticed that I started getting sad. He started reassuring me. You are only allowed to give one hug, so if I’m crying, he can’t wipe my tears. You can’t touch hands. It’s hard at times.”

As a child, she would cry when it was time to leave, but not this time and not outwardly. “But in the inside I was,” Malika said. “I’m older now. Me crying would have made my dad sad. I didn’t want the guards to see him cry.”

Malika said she appreciates the Prison Society’s bus service – and hopes that the program will continue and expand.

“I really commend my father,” she said. “He’s been in prison, and he’s never missed a beat of my life. I commend him because he could have shut down and said, ‘Hey I can’t do nothing for her physically. I can’t physically be there.’

“He could have just given up,” she said. “But he never has, and I don’t think he ever will.”