Sentenced to waiting

Tenderness and freedom

They were back from vacation, about to go shopping, and someone knocked on the door. Dagmara opened. ‘Good morning’, they showed the badge and took him. She knew it would happen, with jail time hanging over them. She knew the first time too, but surprise and despair set in anyway. She was pregnant at the time. ‘Alone in childbirth, alone in everything’.

The second time was easier, but Dagmara announces that a third time is out of the question because this is no life.


For Magda, this is the only life she’s known since she met Paweł. They have been together for five years and he has been serving his sentence for 13. That’s how they met – the inmate and the tutor. Magda prefers the masculine form ‘tutor’, although she likes to emphasise her femininity and has not given it up, even while working in prison. For this reason, their beginnings were not successful.

‘He later told me that he was thinking of me: “I’m not going to be told what to do by a doll in make-up”. I involved the inmates in charitable activities, some baubles for the foundation, some bunnies, to do something good. He got into it, we talked more and more.’

Paweł gave her the impression of a strong guy with principles. She was convinced that he was part of the prison subculture, i.e. grypsmen[SW(1] . He turned out to be what’s known as self-confident sucker, meaning he can handle himself behind bars without the support of a group. He’s been around long enough to know what he wants and what he can do. When he became interested in the tutor, he easily obtained her private phone number. He called while she was on leave. That’s how it started.


In Aneta’s case, too, a phone call could have changed everything, but she was at the gym and didn’t answer. There was a text message left: ‘They stopped me at the airport’.

‘I just thought: okay, they already stopped him once for some unpaid ticket and let him go after paying’.

He reportedly did not know there was a wanted notice for him. Aneta didn’t know about anything. She started searching: the airport, the police station. She learned from the police that she would have to wait for him longer, although she still didn’t understand why. Because of the pandemic, Michał was in solitary confinement.

‘After four days he called and I was so happy that I didn’t ask about anything.’


Dagmara’s younger son is just two years old and was a few months old when his father was arrested. The elder son, born during Tomasz’s first stint, this time started to ask questions. They told him that his dad worked abroad; however, the boy was worried that dad was gone because he was sick, something bad happened to him. Her husband protested, he was afraid or maybe ashamed, but Dagmara was determined: her son must find out the truth. She asked for help the Probation Association of Małopolska, an organisation that helps inmates and their families. With a psychologist from Probation, she determined how to talk to a seven-year-old about his father in prison.

‘I knew he could be angry, that there could be crying. I took time off to spend that time with him, to listen to him, to answer questions if he had any. I suggested we go to a visit. The first one was the worst. Only the next ones started to make him happy, he was already looking forward to them, he knew they would meet, spend time together, do something together and draw.’

The son sometimes asks what dad does, what his room or day looks like. Sometimes he gets sad – when he’s watching a film and some dad shows up or when there’s talk of Christmas. He knows his father is in jail because he took something that wasn’t his. Dagmara wanted him to know that daddy hadn’t hurt anyone.


Magda assures that as long as Paweł was her protégé, their relationship was professional, except for maybe talking on the phone. When he was transferred to another facility, she resigned from her job so she could visit him. Their coming out, she says, was poorly received by the guard community.

‘At the train station, as I was returning from a visit, I met a colleague with whom I had worked at the prison. She was with some guy, and she pointed at me and said: “Oh, it’s that thief’s”. And I said, “I’m glad to see you too”.’


Aneta has been with Michał for three years. He spent half of that time in prison. Before the arrest, they hadn’t had time to live together, to get used to each other, to think about whether they were wasting their time together. Aneta flips through their old Facebook conversations: private issues intermingle with business, some gossip and trivial topics. At first she resented him for putting her off. Then she realised that she was putting herself off. Prison proved to be a new opening.

‘When such a crisis of confidence comes, everything built before falls apart. You can leave that rubble and walk away, but you can also build trust anew. This is a very different quality of honesty. What could he not tell me now? What could he lie to me about?’

When it comes to trust, Magda and Paweł’s beginnings were difficult. It improved when she stopped working in prison – he didn’t trust her colleagues. When Magda says she is going on holiday with a friend, there is no jealousy, only regret that he cannot go with her. However, he doesn’t expect her to give it up.


Dagmara ensures that Tomasz participates in family life. There is a decision to be made – she asks his opinion. When he leaves prison, he will be involved in their daily lives. Their elder son knows that if something is wrong at school, dad will find out. It’s been established that mum is more demanding, dad is more of a talker: ‘Oh, it’ll be better, you’ll learn it, you’ll get a better grade, mum will be happy’.

‘I want my sons to have a normal childhood so that nothing is neglected: extracurricular activities, going to the playground. I talk a lot with my elder son.’

During the pandemic, they saw each other on Skype every day. Tomasz calls often, when one of the sons is sick, even six times a day. They don’t write to each other regularly; it’s been a long time since they sent any drawings. Letters happened – Dagmara wrote, and so did their son. As she says, they are both terribly emotional when they receive something.


At the very beginning of the stint, Michał insisted: ‘Leave me, don’t wait for me’. He asked if she wanted to stay with him. Aneta wondered about it too. Not because of him, but because of all the other things that, as it turned out, she suddenly has to do for him, even though she doesn’t know what’s what. His company needed work and attention, it was going bad due to the pandemic. Aneta worked at it, so it wasn’t just about saving his business, but also about saving her job. She took over his phone, his contacts with contractors.

And it would have been a difficult time for her even without all that. She was on a visit once – she cried for two hours on the bus home. She cried as she discovered he had called and she hadn’t answered. And when the postman left an advice note and she couldn’t pick it up right away. She recalls his mum crying when she missed a call from him because she had left the house. His daughter cried as she missed a Skype call. Everyone wanted to help him and didn’t know how. They wanted Aneta to tell them how to do it. At one point, all of his relatives who wanted something from him or wanted to know something, turned to her. She felt terribly cornered, although she had been pushing it out for several months.

‘Prison dismantles life. For several months, I didn’t want to notice that my life was dismantled. If I could talk to me from the beginning of it, I would say: “Write on a piece of paper what your life looks like. Now cross it all out. You don’t have that any more”.’


The word ‘prison’ evokes standard associations. Many were surprised when Magda started working there, for many of her loved ones a relationship with an inmate would be unthinkable. That’s why few people know about it. During the pandemic, live visits were replaced with Skype, first every Friday, then every two to three weeks. A half-hour conversation is more than the standard 10 minutes on the phone, on top of which they were able to see each other.

‘I was on holiday with a friend and Paweł called several times during that time. My friend saw it and was delighted. And I thought: “If you knew the truth, you probably wouldn’t say that he is a cool guy any more”.’

Magda thinks it will be easier for Paweł after leaving prison if he doesn’t have the reputation of ‘the jail bird’. He says he sometimes doesn’t understand interpersonal relationships. People are together for years, then – more often than not – he ends up in jail and she hears from everyone around her: ‘Well, what are you going to do, wait for a criminal?’. And she walks away, succumbing to that pressure, not listening to herself. Magda found it difficult at times, she had no one but Paweł to talk to about it.

‘I made the decisions I wanted to make, and that’s what I have to face.’


Aneta waited at first. She told herself that he would be back in two weeks, in October for sure, for Christmas. She guessed, looked for clues all around, read everything she could about prisons.

She did not tell it to her parents. She shared it with her sister, and after consideration, she also let her sister’s husband in. Several people know about it and none of them have given Aneta the impression that something is wrong with Michał. ‘For his parents, this is a big embarrassment. They wrote him a card, for Christmas I think: “Son, we know you have sinned, but we love you anyway”.’


Dagmara says she has two faces. She didn’t tell anyone at work about her husband. She didn’t tell her friends right away either. Once she opened up, she stipulated that she would understand if they didn’t want to hang out any more. However, no one left her. She once knew a girl who was in a similar situation. She didn’t even like talking about it with her.

She could meet with a psychologist in Probation, but she avoids it with all her might. ‘Maybe it would help me, but I would definitely fall apart, be taken out of my life for a few days and have to order everything in my head that is somehow put together.’

She taught her son that he shouldn’t talk about his dad to anyone casual or at school. He can talk to her, his cousin, his uncle, his aunt, and at the Probation meeting. But not at school.

The boy goes to Probation for group classes twice a month. It means a lot to him because he can open up. There are kids out there, and the only thing that distinguishes them is whether they have a mum or a dad in prison. When the pandemic took those meetings away from them, Dagmara saw a change in her son’s behaviour, learning problems appeared, he was distracted. ‘He worried about his father and had no access to children who felt the same way. Everything returned to normal when classes were reinstated. He recently told me: “Mum, I can say what I feel there”.’


When Aneta met Michał, he didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, exercised, read, and slept at normal times. He was calm, intelligent. He told her once that there had been a time when he had smoked cigarettes. She couldn’t believe it.

They used to talk about bad people. She said then that there are no bad people, only wronged people. He asked her if she thought people who take a man to the woods and put a gun to his head were bad or wronged. She thought he was teasing her, it never occurred to her that he was opening the door to his past. Whatever Michał did, it was long before they met. She’s seen the file, she’s read the article, but she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t ask; she assumes that he learnt his lesson. She felt sorry for him – that he had to experience this. She just wished he had warned her.

During the pandemic, Magda did not see Paweł in person for over a year. Before COVID, they saw each other once a month for two hours, including one hour of non-custodial time. In the pandemic they used Skype, phone, letters. During those five years, they wrote a tremendous amount of letters.

‘I am terribly snippy. I responded to his letters, and on an extra pink sheet of paper I wrote down all the mistakes he had made. Pink is the worst colour in prison. You don’t get the nickname ‘Ms. Master of Arts’ for nothing. With each letter there was less of that and there were times when I didn’t have to correct anything.

With her, he began reading books. He asks her about news, collects reviews. He attends the prison computer science technical school. He makes up for what he can, he wants to be ready for life on the outside.


Dagmara still flinches at the memory of her first contact with prison. Those first visits, while still in custody, are always through glass, which is an additional complication and stress. 45 minutes through the glass, on the phone, she was shaken. Then, with more visits, emotions subside, and the visits become normal too – at the table, face to face.

‘I only took the kids to face-to-face visits. I wouldn’t stand the children at that glass, my husband wouldn’t stand this either.

During the first stint, my husband asked around, called and told me about everything. Back then you could still bring in packages, now you can’t.’ Now they let people with children enter first, before she would often wait a long time. Only the guards haven’t changed. Dagmara speaks only badly of them: they treat others with prejudice, they have no understanding for people waiting for hours to meet someone close.


Although Magda worked in prison and knows how it functions, every visit is stressful for her, and she refers to prison as an ‘inhumane’ institution.

‘After each visit, I get into my car, Paweł calls. He tries to run as fast as possible to the phone to call and say: ‘Just don’t cry”.’

Magda sympathises with women who don’t know prison, go there with their hearts in their mouths, and then sit in that crowd: someone kissing, someone brawling, chaos, noise, unpleasant guards, and humiliating procedures. She knew from the beginning what it would look like, and still, while she waits for a visit, she tries to think of being anywhere else.

Aneta couldn’t imagine prison. She asked Michał to draw it all for her. He didn’t know what for, but finally he drew it – the cell, the bed, marked with a cross: I am here. He described the plan for the day. He described the conditions.

He complained about the food, so she thought she would assemble a package for him that he would be happy with. Parcels are sent virtually, however, by selecting items from the prison canteen. There was nothing to choose from. Many products have commercial value, inmates exchange them: cigarettes, coffee, and sweets.

‘He doesn’t eat sweets, drink coffee, or smoke cigarettes. They said he was a freak, and it hurt him a lot.’


Does your husband complain about the prison, the conditions or the food? ‘He doesn’t even try to’, Dagmara laughs. She admits that while waiting in line for a visit, she sometimes listens to stories of women who need to work three jobs to meet all the needs of their partners, sons, and fathers who are serving sentences.

‘They ask why the package wasn’t there, and why she sent so little money, or they ask a woman to buy a card for them. If my husband made any claims, I probably wouldn’t take calls from him for a week.’

Sometimes the season changes and Tomasz needs to change clothes, to get something lighter or warmer, or he gets permission for magazines or books, so he counts on a package. Dagmara sometimes forgot about her package and had it for a week in her car, she didn’t have a post office on the way or something else bothered her. The husband is waiting, not pushing. He keeps telling Dagmara that he admires her.


Magda says you can be close in their situation, but it’s hard to care for each other. She has moments when she would like to grab the phone, call him, complain. But since he gets to talk for 10 minutes – and it’s always him making the call, since that’s the only way communication works in prison – she doesn’t want to whine. She has learned that when she is in a bad mood and shares it with Paweł, it hits him harder. She can always talk to someone, go to boxing or walk the dog. He will be alone, locked up, with her problems. Paweł has been in prison almost his entire adult life. He didn’t have normal experiences and never lived with a girlfriend. She is used to sharing a flat with a dog and has her own habits. She assumes they’ve gotten to know each other well and know what to expect. That they have been through so much that everyday life together will be the least of their problems.


Aneta misses Michał. She had to learn to talk about it and she does, although she prefers to write. Early on, he asked her to send him pictures. She chose ones where they are together. He asked for photos again, specifically this time: ones with just her in that red dress. It makes her a little uncomfortable, but she accepts it as a gender difference.

Sometimes Michał calls and says: ‘Tell me a story’. Sometimes he calls and narrates by himself for 15 minutes. Sometimes he calls once a day, sometimes eight times. The phone interrupts, there are times when they don’t understand each other, or he resents Aneta for not sensing his mood.

‘Once I added crayons to his pack and said: “Draw something for me”. And he did. Water, an island, in a purple boat a figure in a red beret. I started thinking: why one character, who is it, why is the boat purple, why is the beret red? When I asked him the significance of all this, he was puzzled. It was just supposed to be a pretty picture. I wanted him to do something new. He took the subject up, which is good. You have to look for the pros so you don’t have to worry. I’m already tired of worrying.’

Aneta has a dream: that he would come and that they could sit in silence for one whole day. She doesn’t want anything else at this stage.


‘Since my husband has been gone, I’ve been more awake than asleep. I mean I’m kind of asleep, but I listen, something knocks – I wake up. Is the younger son up? Perhaps the elder one? Or the dog?’

Dagmara says that in the worst-case scenario, she will wait a long time for her husband. She does not specify how long. At best – maybe an early release or at least passes will work. That would be something, he could spend weekends with his family. Go out alone at least for half an hour, run or ride a bike, lie down for a while and not listen to what the children are doing – these are Dagmara’s dreams. When she talks about it, she stipulates that she loves her children more than life.

There are people who will help if she had to go to the doctor with one child and leave the other with someone. However, she asks for help only in no-go situations. She doesn’t want to burden others with her problems. She says the key to coping is good planning. She has her day thought out down to the minute. Just when something goes wrong for some reason, everything falls apart.

‘I resent my husband sometimes. There is so much to do with kids, there are so many responsibilities, I also have a job, because you have to support the kids. I get angry, but I know I can’t do anything about it. I hope he doesn’t waste this time and when he comes back, we will already be living like normal people.’



Author: Nina Olszewska

Illustrated by Marta Frej

The text was published in „Wysokie Obcasy” a magazine of „Gazeta Wyborcza” on 8 January 2022