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A childhood photo of Claire Tak holding her infant brother Isaac on her lap
A childhood photo of the author holding her brother Isaac. (Photo courtesy of Claire Tak)

“Outside/In” is an occasional column by Claire Tak about what it’s like to have a loved one in prison from a sister’s unique perspective. From sending commissary money to visiting prison for the first time, Claire shares tips, advice and of course, stories.

Four years ago, my younger brother Isaac, then 32, was sentenced to 19 years in prison. His crime was carjacking and accessory to murder. I can still see my elderly parents, overcome with grief, sitting in the back of the courtroom as the judge’s ruling came down.

Time has eased the shock and the initial pain of his incarceration. But it’s been a frustrating and often confusing journey trying to navigate the opaque prison system as I tried to communicate with Isaac, plan visits and support him from the outside.

Besides Isaac, I didn’t know a single person who was incarcerated. I was overwhelmed and had so many questions.

How do I accept a collect call from him? How do I sign up for GTL, the phone service that Isaac’s prison used? How do I load up my minutes? How much does it cost?

How will my non-techy parents figure this out?

I had no idea how to send him money so he could make purchases at the commissary. Or that he would need quarterly care packages filled with toiletries, clothing, candy bars and beef jerky. Isaac told me the prison provides the bare minimum. Even a bar of soap, for example, would not last a full month.

In this monthly column, I will share stories about how I learned to navigate the system, from setting up an online appointment to sending my brother books from Amazon. I hope it might help other families impacted by incarceration for the first time.

A failed video call, a web of confusion

When Isaac first went to prison, I turned to Google a lot. I would type in queries such as:

“Is GTL a scam?”

“GTL fees vs. JPay fees”

“How to schedule a video visit for Kern Valley State Prison”

Nothing I pulled up provided the information I was looking for.

Eventually, I went to the most obvious source: the government website. Kern Valley State Prison, where my brother resided at the time, had its own page on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation website, but it was unsurprisingly unhelpful. Most prison websites look like they were designed in the late 1990s.

I learned that if I wanted to make an appointment to secure an in-person visit, I had to first get approval from the prison. Then I had to create a username and password to set an appointment date on their website. Each time I logged in, however, the appointment dates were never available. It was a frustrating process that made me question whether the site was simply broken. It wasn’t until I joined a Kern Valley Facebook group that someone explained I had to log in at exactly 6:30 a.m. a week before I wanted to make a visit. I tried that too, and to this day I have not been able to secure an appointment. (The website now makes this more clear.)

Around the time Isaac was locked up, in-person visits were suspended indefinitely amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The prison website indicated that family members could sign up for video calls, but it didn’t provide instructions on how to do so.

Eventually, my sister found the information buried on the website. We had to email the prison directly to set up an appointment. After many failed attempts to get a response, I was able to set a date, but there were more complications.

On the day of the online visit, I sat in front of my laptop in the Webex waiting room for 45 minutes. Then, the call dropped. I received no explanation about what happened or how to reschedule.

At this point, I hadn’t seen my brother for two and a half years.

The failed video call was indicative of what I had come to know about all of the prisons where Isaac has resided: They were difficult to navigate and there was little human support if you had questions.

The day the video call was dropped, I learned a valuable lesson — no one was going to help me.

My first in-person visit

In 2022, nearly three years after Isaac’s sentencing, I finally made my first visit. As California prisons lifted pandemic restrictions, Kern Valley had reinstated walk-in days, which meant we didn’t need to make an appointment to visit. Slots were awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

My parents and I arrived at 1 p.m. and stood in line for the doors to open at 2 p.m. We didn’t get inside the visitor’s room to see my brother until 3 p.m.

While I was waiting, I tried to engage the guards and peppered them with questions, including how I could secure an appointment online for my next in-person visit. With blank faces and icy demeanors, they told me to go online.

The other visitors were much more helpful. One person, for example, offered me advice on what to wear next time I visited. On that day, I had on dark blue pants. That’s against the rules because it was too close to the colors worn by the prisoners. I had to go to the visitor’s trailer to borrow an acceptable pair. And I didn’t know until then that hoodies were also prohibited because the drawstring could be used as a weapon.

When I finally made it into the visitor’s room and saw my brother, I nearly gasped. He was rail thin, white as a ghost, and had grown his hair so long he had it tied into a ponytail.

My eyes filled with tears as I hugged him. I touched his ponytail and asked what made him grow it so long. He said he was tired of cutting it with dull clippers. Because they don’t allow razors inside, growing it out had been the next best option.

As we talked, he never cracked a smile, and he kept his eyes fixed on the table.

Isaac said he was still adjusting to life inside. He said his security level had recently changed from three to four because his last cellmate got caught with a sharp object during a routine cell search. As a result, both of them had been placed in solitary confinement for eight months.

If levels were like grades in school, a four would be an “F.” Four meant more time inside his cell and less freedom to walk through open doors to the yard and cafeteria.

I asked how he had felt while in solitary. He said he was bored. “Don’t you remember?” he asked. “That’s when I was calling you all the time.” I couldn’t recall.

I wondered why he hadn’t told me about the incident or his time in the hole. The thought of him being punished in such a way for something that wasn’t his fault made me angry. It broke my heart. It reminded me of his crime and his long sentence — another situation in which I believed he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

That first encounter was bittersweet. It simultaneously felt emotional and comfortable — like three years hadn’t gone by. Even though he had lost so much weight, he seemed physically OK — I didn’t see any bruises, cuts or scars on his arms or face. But the eight months in the hole had definitely affected him. He wasn’t the same person. He seemed tired and spoke so softly I could barely understand him.

Sharing Isaac’s story — and mine

That first visit to prison opened my eyes to so many things. While in line before the visit, I had observed the other visitors — mostly women and kids. I watched the love and affection in their interactions with their fathers, husbands, boyfriends and brothers. I wondered if they ever successfully got on a Webex call and how long it took them to get accustomed to devoting an entire Saturday or Sunday to make these in-person visits.

I thought about how they navigated the tricky U.S. prison system. Like my parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Korea in the 1970s, most of the visitors spoke English as a second language. I thought about the language barrier — the long blocks of text on the prison websites, the jargon, and how confusing it was even for a native speaker.

How many of them shared my struggles and frustrations?

Seeing the visitors and talking to some of them gave me a sense of comfort and connection. I felt compelled to write about my experience as a sister and started a Substack newsletter called Stories About My Brother. I wrote about my brother’s life before prison and how our family had been impacted by his incarceration.

Through this column, I hope to discuss the emotional realities and the initial shame I felt having an incarcerated family member. I will also share advice, tips and practical how-tos, such as setting up a Global Tel Link account. I hope this column and my blog will spark more empathy for the incarcerated and allow other families to feel connected.

If you want me to cover a particular topic, or have stories or questions, please email pjp@globalforumonline.com, attention Claire at Outside/In.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Claire Tak is a storyteller and writer with a background in editorial marketing for tech companies. Her connection to the prison system began when her younger brother Isaac was sentenced to 19 years. He has been incarcerated since 2018. When she’s not writing, she enjoys snowboarding and hiking with her dog. Learn more about Isaac in Claire’s Substack, Stories About My Brother.