"Families are doing the time and paying for it too”

In Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s short film, Visiting Day: The Unrelenting Stress of Family Prison Visits, for the Atlantic, she demonstrates the personal and financial tolls that Daisy Gomez faces while her husband, Max, is in federal prison. The story of Daisy and Max’s family has clear connections to the findings in Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families.

Who Pays? was a national, community-driven research project that illustrated the cost of incarceration on loved ones and their families, highlighting the disproportionate impact on women of color. The research project was led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design, in collaboration with 19 organizations across the country.

In Visiting Day, Daisy’s day begins at four in the morning when she wakes up to prepare for her three-hour drive to the prison. It is still dark and her car windows are condensed when she steps out of her house with her sleepy, young daughter in her arms at 5:20 am.

The drive is long and by the time Daisy is nearing the prison the sun is out and her daughter is awake. Her daughter is smiling and singing a song for her father, Max. She is used to the three-hour drive by now. She has made this trip three times a month since she was a baby, when her father started serving his fifteen-year sentence for a minor drug offense.

Daisy is a counselor and a doctoral candidate in psychology. She makes the three-hour drive to see Max because she knows that the visits help her daughter’s psychological and emotional health. She also wants her daughter to know her father and wants them all to continue functioning as a family, even under the circumstances.

Similarly, families that participated in Who Pays? felt it was important to maintain relationships with their loved one in prison, but found it difficult to do so. The evidence shows that incarceration damages parent-child relationships by separating families and leaving them struggling to maintain family stability.

Though Daisy manages to visit Max several times a month, his incarceration has not been easy on her financially. She has to set aside $250 a week to pay for the costs of these visits and acknowledges that many people in her position are not able to do this.

Families surveyed for Who Pays? also faced a lot of financial costs and financial barriers while trying to stay in contact with their loved ones. More than 1 in 3 survey participants went into debt to cover phone and visitation costs and nearly 90% of family members responsible for call and visitation costs were women.

Additionally, Who Pays? found that nearly half of formerly incarcerated individuals contributed 50% or more to their household income. This loss of income leaves families struggling to cover even the basic costs of living such as food, housing and utilities.

Credit: Micah Bazant

Similarly to the incarcerated individuals in Who Pays? Daisy’s husband Max was also a large contributor to his household income before his incarceration. “When he was gone, I had nothing…I am forced to fight for my life,” she says of her financial struggles.

Daisy pulls off to the side of the road a few miles before getting to the prison for final preparations. She puts on some make-up and places her personal things in a clear plastic bag. This is a routine she has become used to, though by no means something she has come to like. She has some cash in her bag and mentions that Max looks forward to eating an old, cold jalapeno cheeseburger from a prison vending machine.

Daisy waits in the visiting room for Max. Even after all her sacrifices to get to him, there is still a possibility that she will be sent home without seeing him if she does anything to get in trouble at the prison. This includes having her daughter running around the waiting room. 

When she finally sees Max, they don’t spend too much time talking. They spend a lot of their time together in silence, looking at each other and laughing at everything their daughter does.

“There are times when you forget where you are,” she says, as she reflects on her visits with Max, “and then, its like back to reality.”

Watch the full story in Jennifer Maytorena Taylor's documentary Daisy and Max, on demand for Al Jazeera America subscribers.