Jen Senft has served her sentence.
Yet she was never slapped with charges, never tossed into the slammer with a bare-bones bed, exposed toilet and scary cell mate. She was never issued an orange jumpsuit, or even one with black and white stripes.
Ms. Senft’s sentence was served on the outside.
The author of “Prison Visit,” a work of short fiction that was to be released in paperback on May 1 by Mustard Seed Press, was just 17 when her father was sent to a federal maximum security prison in the 1980s. It was the same week as her high school graduation, she recalled during a recent telephone interview. Ms. Senft was 14 when the white-collar crime investigation began.
Her father served approximately half of a 15-year sentence at a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut. Her uncle, his business partner—she requested their names not be printed—was sent to the same prison and served approximately two years.
“Prison is huge. Prison is an enormous thing, ” Ms. Senft, now 46, and a Southampton Village and former East Hampton resident said. “This is a huge part of my life that is missing, that is taken away.”
Since she was just a teen at the time, she never knew the exact crimes of which her relatives were convicted, other than that they were “along the lines of tax fraud,” she said. Today, she maintains their innocence.
But her father’s (and her uncle’s) prison stint left its mark on her, nonetheless.
“I would think I can’t eat this food because my father can’t do it. I can’t see this movie because my father can’t do it,” she recalled, a twinge of sadness in her voice. It’s not like when someone’s dead. “No one tells you how to deal with it.”
For Ms. Senft, being the daughter and niece of inmates was a form of imprisonment itself.
And it is this emotion that lies at the heart of “Prison Visit.”
The fictional short story, just a few dozen pages, delves vividly into a single visit to jail by an unnamed young woman to see her brother behind bars. Told in the second person—”You have to go through four sets of doors to get to the visiting room,” it begins—the reader is instantly yanked into the cold, impersonal world of “yellow walls, yellow linoleum floor, blown light bulbs, dirt,” metal detectors and metal doors. Here, her brother is known by inmate number, not name. The visiting room itself is “stifling” and “clammy” and “smells like vending machine food.”
The narrative is interspersed with the protagonist’s flashbacks that reveal a chilling, incestuous past.
“She can’t live her life because she feels so bad,” Ms. Senft said of the visitor. “There’s a line in the story that says you’re always in prison. That stood out to me. You’re always in prison.”
Ms. Senft, who visited her relatives during their prison stays, first penned “Prison Visit” a decade ago as part of her master’s thesis at what was then Long Island University’s Southampton campus. But it was so painfully intimate that she did not want to publish it at the time.
“This story really, really means a lot to me, personally,” she said. “After I wrote it, I didn’t want people to read it. I didn’t want to put it out there.”
The freelance editor’s writing students provided the impetus. As a writing instructor at art schools, galleries and libraries throughout the East End, including Hampton Bays and Rogers Memorial public libraries, Ms. Senft works with adults. They would ask her to read her work, but she would bring in obscure journals instead, she said.
She also realized that prison culture is not something that is widely written about and that many people are unfamiliar with it.
She revisited the painful story, and a version was published in “The Southampton Review” last summer. She was shocked at the positive response and surprised at how much the incest element resonated with readers.
That aspect of the story, for her, is a metaphor for the emotions stirred up by the corrections system.
“Prison Visit” is nominated for the Pushcart Prize, a literary honor for poems, short fiction and essays published by the small presses. Winners are to be announced in November.
In the meantime, Ms. Senft seemed to brace herself as going through the prison visit process once more.
“I don’t want to read this story anymore,” she said. “It’s hard for me. It’s very disturbing.”