Keeping It Real

Going up top

By: Pardoned Illinois death row prisoner Stanley Howard

I was recently talking with another prisoner about the loving visit I had just had with my daughter, and right in the midst of sharing my joyful moment, he began telling me how much he’d love to visit with any of his loved ones. He has had contact with them off and on through out his 17 years of incarceration but hasn’t seen them in almost 12 years.

I immediately recognized what he was feeling because that same pain has played a major role in my life during my 20 years of incarceration--it was even worse when the prospect of imminent execution loomed over my head for 16 years. I wasn’t surprised when he said that his family and friends don’t love him--many prisoners are under the false impression that if they don’t visit or keep in contact, they don’t love them. The hardships of confinement fluctuate from prisoner to prisoner, but the one hardship that all prisoners and their loved ones share in common is the misery associated with separation.

Pictures, phone calls, letters, cards and especially visits are highly cherished. They help to reinforce the bond shared between separated loved ones. Otherwise separation can be emotionally and mentally devastating.

Regardless of how hard some officers work to discourage it, visiting rooms are always bursting with joy, laughter and excitement. You can search the world over and never find a place like a prison visiting room, where the untold pain of forced separation is never mentioned, but is met head-on with hugs and kisses all around.

Visiting rooms in Illinois are referred to as "up top" by all prisoners, because, in my opinion, after being locked down by horrendous conditions for so long, being with loved ones is a refreshing change of pace that leaves prisoners with the feeling of being on top again. It’s not the top of the world, but it is the top of this dark world, and one of the main reasons why all prisoners love "going up top."

To Keep It Real, one of the strongest bonds in nature is the love that binds people together. Prisoners and their loved ones must never buy into the notion that their loving bond could be broken or diluted by forced separation.