When I arrive at Soledad State Prison the first person I meet is the mother of the groom. She comes forward in the bright sunlight beside the squat building, the Visitors Receiving Center.
“Hi, I'm Diane, Alex's mother.” She shakes hands warmly. She is a handsome woman with upswept salt-and-pepper hair. Her son is serving time without possibility of parole for kidnapping and child molestation.
Moments later we are picnicking under pine trees on the ground. I am passing paper plates of deviled eggs and sharing celery sticks with people I have only just met –– quite an assortment of people, some of whom, like the bride, were strangers to Alex Cabarga until they were moved by a newspaper story to seek him out, write to him, and one, on this day, to marry him.
A van drives up and a guard with a rifle leans out and hollers, “No picnicking on the grounds! Are you visitors?” I want to yell back: No, we're inmates with lavender roses pinned to our clothes. The picnic ends abruptly. Someone has smuggled in a bottle of Mumms and it is quickly depleted among the eighteen of us. The van returns to make another sweep; a guard jumps out, just as the Mumms is hidden. Left prominently displayed is a bottle of sparkling cider. The guard peers into the picnic basket and says to no one in particular: “No alcoholic beverages allowed on prison grounds,” and leaves.
Laura, the bride, and her soon-to-be mother-in-law seem more like mother and daughter. Laura is eyeing the lavender roses we are wearing and wondering if they will survive. The buds are tight, but in this heat, I'm doubtful.
“We shouldn't have any trouble getting processed,” Laura says. “I've registered all of us already as a group. They should speed us right through. But you never know.”
Months before, I had applied for visiting permission and received approval. My name was recorded on the guest list. Most of the wedding guests have visited many times previously. We gather outside the Visitors Receiving Center, talking softly, joking, getting to know each other.
Laura is beginning to get prenuptial jitters now. She has changed out of her white sweats and returns wearing a neck-to-ankle beaded white dress. The harsh sunlight bounces off every bead. She is, literally, dazzling. The knot of us moves inside.
The old adage that all brides are beautiful on their wedding day is certainly true. In the waiting room I see Laura has the glow all brides seem fated to have. It may be a slight film of sweat; it may be the excitement of getting married, but she is radiant.
“I'm so sorry,” she apologizes again for the bureaucracy, the delay, the stupidity of the guards. “They're really slow,” she says laughing at her double meaning.
“It's OK” we tell her.
“Something old!” she says suddenly. I need something old.
I move forward to loan her a gold ring I'm wearing.
Another guest has something similar. “It's my mother's,” the woman says, “and she'd be proud to know you're wearing it.” Laura slips on the ring. Another guest produces a linen handkerchief with hand-tatted edges. Laura shoves it into her bodice.
“Can you help me unwrap the rings?” she asks me. “I seem to be having trouble. We need to get them in.”
“Get them in?” I don't understand.
“Yeah, they might take them away.”
I wonder how a wedding can be approved to take place within prison walls and not allow for the rings.
“OK, then,” I say and slip on Alex's wedding ring. It fits easily on the digit finger of my right hand. It feels very heavy.
The visitors' regulation list I received the day before from Laura warned visitors in matters of clothing, conduct, and what may be brought into the prison. Absolutely no blue denim or chambray. A maximum of $20 is allowed to be taken inside the walls in ones and fives only; a comb and keys. Anything else can and will be confiscated.
Today is a regular visiting day and the room quickly fills with other visitors, mostly women and children. There are some old people in wheelchairs. Laura and Diane begin again to deal with the desk guards. “Shouldn't be any problem,” Laura assures us again. All I can see behind the counter is confusion. The wedding guests move forward in a clump to begin the group check-in process. I can see it's not going to be simple. The reception desk is clearly unorganized. It is ten after one.
I notice that nearly all the women carry a small, clear plastic coin purse. I wonder if this is some local fad and quickly realize that this allows keys, comb, and money to be easily viewed by the guards; it supposedly speeds the check-in process. There are no computers anywhere, not even an electric typewriter; everything is done manually.
To check each of us in, the guard searches through a stack of approved visitors sheets. They are not in any kind of order. The process begins, but others, not in our group, are called also. We remove wristwatches and belts with metal buckles. One woman goes through the metal detector three times until the guard suggests she remove her shoes. “Metal tips, you know.” The detector sounds again: it is a small child holding a Pepsi can. Everyone smiles.
A poster on the wall in Spanish warns women not to use drugs while pregnant. There is a flypaper baton suspended from the ceiling crusted with flies. One side of the waiting room is devoted to a gift shop selling items which the sign declares proudly are convict-made. There are hand-tooled leather items, jewelry, pipe-holders, clock cases. The centerpiece of the display is a leather wall hanging –– Home Sweet Home. Another sign says exact change only and another, no change given. The gift shop is manned by an inmate. Beneath the no smoking sign he lights up and flirts with two young women who lean on the counter talking with him.
The admittance procedure goes in fits and starts. Nearly an hour after the processing has begun, we are told to move to another side of the room where we will be processed as a group. There is no order and some people have given up their places in line to allow Alex's family and the bride to go ahead. Laura, Diane, and Alex's father have made it through –– they're inside.
Someone's prescription medication is confiscated and a receipt is written out. After we go through the two metal detectors, our hands are stamped with invisible ink. We surrender our driver's licenses in exchange for a yellow slip –– our ticket into and out of Soledad. Then we wait at the inner door and, after yet another clearance, we are mercifully outside. The next electronic gate is activated by a guard in the watchtower. Again, we wait, the gate slides open, and at last we are inside the prison grounds proper. As we move on, Alex's brother, Ray, nicknamed Opps, walks beside me. “Whatever you do, don't step on the lawn or they'll shoot your foot off,” he warns.
“No shit,” someone says.
“What, are they really proud of this lawn or something?” I say. “It look kinda brown in patches to me. Are you kidding?”
Opps laughs and says he is completely serious.
We arrive at the Visiting Room where we again must sign in and hand over the yellow permit slips. A pile of mimeographed sheets sits on the tables, the program for a guitar recital. An inmate and his teacher are playing a piece by Albéniz and I see by its place in the program that we have missed nearly all of the concert that Laura was so excited about –– some good stuff, Bach, Poulenc. I'm disappointed especially since the playing is excellent. What's left of the concert is concluded and Laura again apologizes to us for the hassle at the gate.
Even before she brings Alex over to me I recognize him as the groom. He is taller and lighter than I had imagined. His prison clothing is pristine –– blue jeans that have never seen a wash, and in his chambray shirt pocket, a sparkling white handkerchief. He is wearing new wallabies. I am introduced and he says, “Oh, yes, I've heard so much about you.” He turns to continue receiving embraces from his old friends. He is obviously shy around us new people. I think he is more nervous about getting married than anything.
Yet another delay –– the minister Laura and Alex had chosen to perform the ceremony has been taken ill. Someone they do not know will officiate. The ceremony time is changed to accommodate the replacement minister's schedule. This occasions yet another musical selection –– Alex is invited to playa duet with his teacher from Songs for the Guitar, Book I. Halfway through he flubs, but gamely continues. He is rewarded with rousing applause. A woman in our group asks Opps what tier Alex's cell is on. He reflects a moment and answers that prison is prison. She seems surprised that his family does not know the exact location of his cell.
“What does it matter?” he says before she speaks again, as if reading her thoughts. “This is one of the best prisons in the state.”
I look out over the expanse of lawn and the glinting barbed wire, so new it looks like it was unwrapped that morning.
“Oh, right," Opps continues, “Alex has the penthouse suite, the one that's fully carpeted, the one that's air-conditioned. Well, at least he doesn't have to get up tomorrow morning and go to work.”
More waiting, and one of the guitar-playing inmates sings a song he has composed for the occasion. The melody is sweet and his voice is surprisingly good. The reprise is “ ... someday when I'm free, I'll still be thinkin' and dreamin' of lovin' you.” Laura's eyes shine with the beginnings of tears.
Laura hurries over to me –– “I need the ring!” She is beaming now.
At last the minister arrives and begins the brief ceremony by asking her if this is indeed the man of her dreams. The exchange of vows is punctuated by the intermittent crackle of walkie-talkies. The minister concludes by inviting us to. " ... g'wan now and muss up the bride.”
Laura follows tradition and asks all unmarried women to gather for the bouquet toss. The only unmarried woman appears to be one of our group who shyly raises her hand and is delighted when Laura throws the flowers directly to her. Laura flings her garter to the row of young men and one of them catches it easily.
The wedding photographer is an inmate with a Polaroid and he is snapping shots furiously. He requests a re-enactment of the garter removal so once again, in instant replay, Alex slides the garter down the shapely leg of his new wife.
This prison allows inmates three conjugal visits a year and today is not one of those days. Visiting hours end at 8:30 P.M. It is now nearly four o'clock and most of us prepare to leave.
What now, I think. Laura plans to move closer to the prison. Diane will continue to work to get Alex's sentence reduced. His friends and supporters consider him more the victim than the perpetrator of a crime.
Some people might have considered Alex Cabarga's life over when he was kidnapped and molested, or when, in turn, he molested two other children at his abductor's bidding. Driving home, I don't think much about that. I think about the subtle ways of the guards, the plastic see-through purses, the limp lavender roses in Laura hands. And I think of Alex Cabarga, who will sleep alone on his wedding night.