Marriage in a Prison Visiting Room
BY SUSIE DAY
Dequi Kioni-Sadiki, who married former Black Panther Sekou Odinga over the phone and in a prison visiting room, talks to Truthout about love, bus rides and the conditions that prisoners—and their loved ones—have to negotiate.
On New Year’s Day, Lynne Stewart, the radical defense attorney sentenced to 10 years in prison, was flown from a federal prison in Texas, where she would have died alone of cancer, to her family, friends and competent health care in New York City. Lynne’s husband, Ralph Poynter, had worked for years with thousands of supporters for Lynne’s “compassionate release.”
Watching Democracy Now’s video coverage of Lynne’s New York arrival, I caught a glimpse of my friend Dequi Kioni-Sadiki in the crowd waiting for Lynne. Dequi is a schoolteacher and grandmother in her early 50s who is married to a former Black Panther serving time upstate. There, at La Guardia airport, was Dequi. And she was sobbing.
Dequi met her husband, Sekou Odinga, a few years ago, in the course of her activist work, visiting prisoners in New York State. Dequi and Sekou fell in love and were married almost three years ago.
You think something is wrong with Dequi for getting involved with a prisoner? Then please think the same of me. Twenty-five years ago, I went to the DC Jail to interview a political prisoner named Laura Whitehorn—and we fell in love. Like Sekou, Laura was facing decades in prison; like Sekou, she was not charged with killing anyone. But Laura and I were lucky; after 14 years, she was released. Sekou will not come up for parole until 2033. So I knew why Dequi was crying. And why we need to listen to her.
Susie Day for Truthout: How did you feel, on your way to the airport to see Lynne Stewart?
Dequi Kioni-Sadiki: Absolute joy. I thought, “Yes, she does not have to die behind those walls!” It wasn’t until I got there and was waiting for Lynne to leave the plane that a wave of new emotion came over me. I thought about how many other people are not being released. So it was joy mixed with bittersweet.
Because it made me think, of course, about Sekou and his 32 years in a prison cage. I wanted—not at the expense of anyone else—but I so wished that that could be him, that could be us, celebrating his return to family and community and loved ones. Him walking through those prison gates.
How did you and Sekou meet? When did you realize you had feelings for one another?
When I came to New York in the early ’90s, I met the Black Panther Collective, folks who were original members of the Black Panther Party, who were still activists. In addition to studying and doing community work, one of their things was visiting political prisoners.
I didn’t meet Sekou until shortly after he maxed out his federal time in 2009 and was transferred to New York prison. I went to visit him like I would any other political prisoner. I remember sitting there talking to Sekou the first time, and thinking there was something very special, unique, human, humane, gentle, easy, funny, sweet, thoughtful and caring in our conversation.
I’ve always kept prison visits strictly about the political work. I’ve been careful about what I say and my manners, and I try never to give anyone on the inside a wrong impression. But I started getting phone calls from Sekou, and I began looking forward to them. We would be in the middle of a conversation—you get that half-an-hour cut-off message – and I’d be, “Oh, we can’t go now. Call me back.” We just started enjoying each other’s company and writing letters and talking more and more.
I was the first to say something. I told him that I was writing him a letter, different than any letter he’d gotten from me. So I wrote him about this evolution of my love for him.
He was really relieved. He said he’d felt that way too from the first time he saw me, but he wasn’t going to say anything. He told me, “I was giving you hints, but you weren’t picking up,” and I said, “Well, I’m a little slow.”
Once he realized it was OK to express how he felt, it just grew. Finally, he asked to marry me. He said I didn’t have to say yes right then, but that he would continue to ask me.
What was your wedding like? You had more than one, right?
New York State prisoners have to get permission to marry someone. That took awhile. I got a letter from Sekou’s facility saying, based on his high-profile status, there were investigations and that a decision would be forthcoming.
Originally, we wanted to marry in March. It didn’t come through. Then I wanted to do it on my birthday, June 6. We ended up getting married on the phone first, on June 17, which is Sekou’s birthday. Sekou’s a Muslim, so you have to make a contract about your expectations, so there’s no surprises.
I’m not a Muslim, but I remember getting a call from the imam who asked questions like, “Are you marrying him of your own free will?” to make sure the contract was observed. And he ended up marrying us, believe it or not, on the telephone.
This, to me—even in the absence of us being able to be physically together—meant so much. Because, one, having an imam preside, even on the phone, meant more to Sekou than a state marriage; and, two, it was his birthday. Sekou doesn’t pay attention to birthdays, but I said, “Well, now you have to pay attention because it’s our anniversary.”
We didn’t get the marriage certificate signed until July 14th. So our anniversary is June 17, but the state looks at it as July 14.
On July 14, 2011, you went to the prison, stood together in the same room, and were married?
Yes. My friend Pam stood in with me, and Sekou’s son. There was a woman guard who asked me questions—she wanted to make sure that I knew how much time Sekou had, what he was in for, that kind of stuff.
I’d had one of my sister artists make the most beautiful dress for me. It was from Nigerian fabric, in my favorite color, red. Sekou wanted to give me something, so I said the best gift you could give is to write what you feel and want for our being together. So he wrote me something and I wrote him something. And we shared that. I had him put my ring on my finger.
After the ceremony on the 14th, did you two get to spend time together?
No. It was just a regular visiting-room visit, over at 3pm. We sat across a counter like we normally do. I left with Pam and Sekou’s son, and Sekou went back to his cell.
Have you been together alone, in a trailer visit?
No. Right now, our application for the trailers is in court. They denied our request on the grounds that his having trailer access would undermine prison security. We have to fight to be with one another, just like we had to fight to get married.
What is it like to visit your husband?
In the prison where Sekou is now, you can’t go outdoors. There’s a big visiting room with a counter that runs the length of the room. Our knees don’t touch because the counter is between us, and we’re sitting across from each other.
Can you hold hands?
Yeah. They don’t say anything about that. But you are only allowed to embrace each other when you come in and when you leave, and you can’t do any prolonged kissing. This has been a growing process for me, ’cause I’m not one for public displays of affection. But I can only kiss Sekou in public, and I can never kiss him the way I would like to. They would say that’s too long.
How do you travel upstate to visit Sekou?
I take a charter prison-visit bus. It’s grueling, because if I want to visit him on Saturday morning, I have to get on the bus at 9:30 Friday night. Then Saturday night, I don’t get home until 10 or 11 o’clock. Sekou’s prison is the first stop. That’s usually about 5, 5:30am—so there are people riding even further. They start processing the visitors at 8:30.
So if you get there at 5am, you have to sit around until 8:30?
Yeah. You sign a list when you first get there. They have something called a “hospitality trailer,” where women can go to the bathroom and change their clothes, and they’re offered stuff like English muffins, cereal. You should see it. The first time I went by bus I thought, “Why are people making such a mad dash to get into this so-called hospitality trailer?”
They’re rushing to sign that list! They call you to visit in numerical order. People want to be up high on the list, so that at 8:30, when they start calling visitors, you go right in, or at least begin emptying your pockets, getting searched—you know, the processing part. When it gets really crowded, they cut visits short. This happened to me once, and it was awful. You take a 24-hour journey, and you don’t even get the six hours, which is already not enough time.
If you’re lucky, then your visit starts around 8:30 AM and lasts until 3 PM?
Yes. When I’m getting ready for the bus, I’m a mixture of excited and hesitant ’cause I also hate this. I’m thinking about how uncomfortable I’m going to be on the bus, because I have arthritis. I’m praying that it won’t be crowded so I’ll have a seat to myself. But I’m also looking forward to seeing Sekou because I’ve missed him.
I go on Friday nights because I like the driver. He’s old school. He says a prayer; he’s friendly; he doesn’t treat people like they’re prison families. This bus is not as bad as others because the driver doesn’t play the music that is just noise to me. It’s never rowdy because he sets a positive tone. It’s as comfortable as it can be, sitting in a chair straight upright all night.
How much does this cost?
Fifty-five dollars, round trip. The whole prison experience is expensive because I try to go twice a month, and that’s $110. That doesn’t include, say, $20 for the vending machines—you have to eat—and taking the photos.
Sekou will turn 70 this year. How’s his health?
Thankfully, good. Except the winters so far north are brutal. These people invented cruelty. They put the phones outside. So when Sekou wants to call me, he has to come outside, even if it’s minus 10. Yesterday, he called and he had his scarf wrapped around his face because it was so cold. And if you go outside, you don’t get to go back inside until they say.
There are so many unfinished conversations between us. Like, when he calls, I’ll forget to tell him something. I can’t ever call him back and say, “Baby, I forgot to tell you….” Then maybe he’ll call tomorrow, or the next day—and I’ve forgot by that time. We used to spend hours on the telephone before. We don’t now, because they’ve restricted the phones to 15-minute calls. He can’t call every day, because if he misses the call-out, that means he’s in his cell for 24 hours.
Can you allow yourself to imagine what it would be like if Sekou were outside with you?
Believe it or not, I do, all the time. I imagine us walking down the street. I’m in a park and imagine sitting on a bench with him. I’m home, and I see him sitting on the living room couch. I imagine traveling with him. I do allow myself to dream those things in my sleep and in my waking moments. That’s one thing the prison system can’t take away.
It makes me see how much time people waste on things that don’t really matter. How we look at people every day, and we don’t really see them. I don’t look at Sekou every day. But I see him. Every day.
How is this changing you?
I thought I knew about prison when I was doing prisoner-support work, but being married to Sekou, I know things on a much deeper level. The conditions these prisoners endure—not because Sekou or the others complain—but just being more intimately connected to him now, I see all they and their families have experienced. The sacrifices they’ve made during 30- and 40-year imprisonments. It is unfathomable.
No human being deserves what these people are forced to endure. But it’s invisible. Nobody sees what happens to families when a loved one is in prison. With over two million people in prison, imagine the pain felt by tens of millions of family members outside.
I speak publicly, and there’s so much shame and stigma attached to loving someone in prison. Women will often come to me after I’ve spoken and say quietly, “I have a fiancé in prison.” Or a son or boyfriend. There’s a whole community of women who take the bus together; it’s quite known that that’s what we’re doing. But people don’t want that to be seen by the rest of the world. And that contributes to the invisibility around black women’s lives.
I think that if people can look at me and say, “Damn. She can talk about these things freely—maybe I shouldn’t be ashamed.” Because we have nothing to be ashamed of; we just don’t get a chance to tell our stories. And if we don’t tell our stories, then we’re not healing.
How do people respond when you say you’ve married a prisoner?
Actually, they don’t say too much to me; I think they say things to other people. [Laughs] Cause people don’t want to hurt my feelings. But it’s come back to me, “She’s so intelligent, does she know what she’s getting into?”
I’ve also met people who say, “Oh, you’re Sekou’s wife. Cool!” I’m like, “No, I’m still me.” I’ve lived long enough and I’ve had enough relationships, and one of the things I had to tell Sekou when we started talking was, “I am not a groupie. I am not enamored with the history of the Black Panther Party.”
People mean well. They say, “He’s a lucky man.” But I’m a lucky woman. I discovered the love of my life. I had no idea I would find that person behind the wall. But it’s a journey. Sekou is not in prison because he was trying to get rich or harm his community for his own benefit. He’s there because he dreamed of a better world.
The thing that helps me is that I know I love him and I feel so soothed and comforted and protected by his love. I’ve never loved a man like I love him. And I guess I’m like Ralph, when he kept fighting for Lynne Stewart’s release. I believe that Sekou’s going to come home. The alternative is just not worth considering.