The Conjugal Visit

He’s a lifer. She married him anyway.

At 3:30 a.m. one Monday last summer, under the spotlight of a full moon, Kacey Berry left her home in the San Gabriel Valley foothills and aimed her Volkswagen Jetta at the desert: through the Inland Empire, past Palm Springs, around the Salton Sea, to the blistered prison town of Calipatria, where half of the 7,500 residents live behind bars. She had a stockpile of perfume bottles crammed in the glove compartment, a jumble of lipstick and mascara rattling in the map pocket, and a Monster energy drink tucked between her thighs. Folded in the back seat was a new set of Nautica sheets—silk, black.

On a steel bunk in a closet-size cell, encircled by a dozen gun towers and a 4,000-volt fence, her husband tossed and turned. Sentenced to life without parole for a double murder he insists he did not commit, Travis Berry has learned a few things in his 25 years of incarceration: patience, discipline, the power of contemplation, the freedom in letting go. Still, nothing had prepared him for what he was feeling as Kacey’s visit approached, sensations he had never expected to experience again, at least not until the day he could prove his innocence and embrace his wife for the first time outside these walls.

“Right now he’s, like, so nervous,” said Kacey, as she barreled east on Interstate 10. They had talked in recent days, her cellphone announcing his calls with an R&B verse: He’s still, still the man of my dreams. But Travis’s avowals had grown so syrupy, his anxieties so overwrought, she finally had to cut the conversation short. “He’s driving me crazy,” said Kacey, who, at 43, is five years younger than Travis. “I understand, you know, it’s been so long, for both of us. But he’s in there; he’s got 24 hours a day to think about stuff!”

Advertisement

From the start of their relationship—when they met as pen pals in 2010, when they married in 2012—Kacey and Travis had accepted that theirs was a love defined by the spirit, not the flesh. Although California pioneered the practice of conjugal visits in the late 1960s and today remains one of only four states to allow them, the crime wave of the early 1990s ushered in an era of longer and harsher punishment. Almost as soon as Travis was convicted, the legislature revoked conjugal privileges for lifers. For the next quarter-century, as his hair thinned and his goatee grayed and his tattoos faded, Travis settled into what has been, by his account, a celibate existence.

Only in recent years has the pendulum begun to swing again, toward a rethinking of the costs, human and financial, of warehousing massive segments of the population and removing their incentives for self-improvement. Recognizing that family ties promote stability and that a taste of normalcy gives inmates something to lose, lawmakers last year lifted the ban that kept lifers from participating in what the state officially calls family visits—and inmates know as “f-visits.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced the change in a February 2017 memo to all wardens, opening an intensely personal new frontier for as many as 40,000 previously ineligible inmates, about a third of the state’s prison population. If married, they can now request to spend 48 hours with a spouse (and if a parent, with their children) every three months in a private apartment on prison grounds.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced the change in a February 2017 memo to all wardens, opening an intensely personal new frontier for as many as 40,000 previously ineligible inmates, about a third of the state’s prison population.

So it was that at this disagreeable hour of the morning, amid a record-breaking heat wave, Kacey had cleared her schedule as a property appraiser’s assistant. She had arranged caretakers for her diabetic Chihuahua and newborn Thoroughbred mix . She had showered the night before, then set every alarm clock in her two bedroom Duarte rental, an ENJOY THE LITTLE THINGS flag staked in the front yard. Over the years, she has made the 360-mile round-trip to see Travis more than a hundred times, but their encounters have always been limited to a few hours, in a crowded visiting room, under the watchful eye of a correctional officer. Today, upon her arrival at Calipatria State Prison, Kacey will consummate her marriage.

“I want to have a cigarette for some reason,” she said, pulling into an ExtraMile gas station at the junction with Highway 86.

EVEN UNDER THE best of circumstances, marriage takes work: communication, compromise, the ability to fight fairly, the appetite for making up. Half still fail. The challenges that Kacey and Travis have embraced—a long-distance relationship strained by confinement, disrupted by lockdowns, subjected to eavesdropping and surveillance, and for seven years starved of sex—seem overwhelming, proof of an unbreakable bond or a lost cause. “They say that love isn’t love until it’s tested,” Travis once wrote to Kacey, “and, baby, our love has been tested on many levels.”

Photo courtesy of Kacey Berry

If Travis were a murderous sociopath, if Kacey loved him no matter how heinous his crime, then their yearnings and frustrations might be said to come with the territory. (The Night Stalker and the Hillside Strangler faced hurdles with their wives, too.) But Travis and Kacey founded their union on the belief that he had been framed, and they organized their marriage around the possibility that two opposites—a former crack dealer and a former model; the black gangster and the white professional; he, meditative and focused; she, voluble and impulsive—could with some amateur sleuthing team up to win his release. “I’m an all-or-nothing girl,” Kacey said. “That’s how I do everything.” As it turned out, her strategy included contacting me, the reporter who covered the crime, in 1992, that sent her man away.

Kacey began by sharing Travis’s court files with me, thousands of pages of trial transcripts, police reports, and sworn affidavits, a trove of riddles and contradictions. We talked off and on about the evidence she had uncovered and the appeal Travis was preparing, until one day Kacey mentioned a development that had not been part of her campaign but that seemed every bit as life-altering: On July 10, 2017, she and Travis would make their inaugural trip to what is known, in prison vernacular, as the “boneyard.”

“Our first alone-time, ever, in our marriage,” said Kacey, who sounded as apprehensive as she was excited. She had hoped that by now Travis would be out, a free man, and that their physical introductions, the intimate knowledge they had been denied, would come at home, on their own time and terms. Instead, it was Kacey who would be entering Travis’s world—locked in with him for two nights—to see how they would mesh.

In one form or another, conjugal visits have been a feature of American incarceration for more than a century, though not for reasons that would be palatable today. In the early 1900s, Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Farm encouraged prostitutes to arrive by the truckload every Sunday to service prisoners in the “red houses” that many a bluesman has enshrined in song. Because sex figured into some of the most grotesque racial stereotypes, the visits were for decades offered exclusively to black convicts—supposedly, to keep them productive and compliant in the cotton fields.

By the time California began laying the groundwork for the first modern conjugal program, it was “abnormal behavior” that officials feared. “One of the worst tragedies of long-term prison life is the not infrequent transformation from heterosexual to homosexual preferences,” former San Quentin warden Clinton Duffy wrote in an eccentric 1965 treatise, Sex and Crime. While desperation may tempt inmates to experiment, he added, many men become “so used to a male sex partner that they can’t resume a normal relationship when the time comes.” Influenced by Duffy’s “radical solution,” Governor Ronald Reagan approved a conjugal pilot program at Tehachapi State Prison in 1968.

It was so well received by inmates and staff that California began building more family bungalows—“to offset prison homosexuality,” as the Los Angeles Times put it in 1971—and soon tens of thousands of prisoners were availing themselves of the opportunity. (Manson family acolyte Tex Watson used his visits to father four children.) A generation later, the gang explosion and crack epidemic turned public opinion against anything that smacked of coddling. Galled that society’s villains were indulging in taxpayer-funded romps, lawmakers tried to do away with conjugal visits altogether but settled, in 1995, for stripping them from lifers and a few other high-risk inmates.

In other words, Travis knew early in his incarceration that this prize for good behavior, for entering into a devoted relationship, would never be his. No matter what he did to better himself, California had declared him too irredeemable for sex.

BORED AND RESTLESS, Kacey Kiley Rush was spending another sleepless night bouncing from game site to chat room, whatever social networking space allowed her to feel clever and flirty without having to let down her guard. What she remembers is a link, something about a wrongfully convicted prisoner, then a page called freetravisberryfund.com.

Travis’s sister had created it for him the year before, in 2009, to solicit money for a lawyer. She had included a jailhouse picture of Travis—pensive, resolute, and fabulously swole, his biceps exploding from a white tank top—and his inmate number, if anyone wanted to write. Nobody had until Kacey came along and decided to call his bluff: to find out what made this one dude, in a system of schemers and rationalizers, so innocent. “I used to watch Forensic Files, you know, Dateline, all that stuff ,” she told me. “I wanted to know his mind, how it worked.”

It was an odd sort of experiment to inflict on a captive subject, but Kacey liked to think of herself as uncategorizable, a singular bundle of hard edges and soft spots. Extroverted yet emotionally fenced off , worldly and earthy, she could party all night and saddle a horse in the morning, think nothing of blowing a bankroll in Vegas and yet stop everything to rescue an abandoned puppy outside an Olive Garden. “I don’t know what it is,” said Kacey, “I just attract the most original situations.”

On April 12, 2010, she wrote her first letter to Travis. Kacey recognized that there was a type of woman drawn to bad men, and she wanted Travis to know that she was “not just some lonely fat bitch out there.” To remove any doubt, Kacey snapped a selfie—blond bangs, frosted lips, piercing gaze—and slid a copy into the envelope.

When Travis received her inquiry, 17 years into his imprisonment, he assumed that Kacey was just a tease. At the time of his arrest, he had had a girlfriend, a receptionist at Longo Toyota; she stuck with him through the trial but could not bear the finality of his sentence. Over the years, other women had taken an interest, usually old acquaintances from his life on the streets, but reality always set in. Now here was this nosy letter and alluring photograph—from some lady claiming to have been a model. He was C-Roc, from the Duroc Crips, doing LWOP: Did she even know what that meant?

Photo by Shayan Asgharnia

“I’m thinking, like, ‘What do she see in me?’ ” said Travis, whom I spoke with in a series of face-to-face visits and phone conversations. “What is it about me that she’s so interested in?”

Despite growing up just a half-dozen miles from Travis, Kacey came from a world of privilege, of good schools and safe streets. Her father ran a successful pool design and construction company in Arcadia that his father had founded in the 1940s. He never married Kacey’s mother, though—theirs was a one night stand—and when he died in 2009, he left everything to his girlfriend, an entertainer who formed a charity for at-risk youth in his name, and nothing to Kacey.

When Kacey was 2, her mom, a dog groomer in the San Gabriel area, married a UCLA instructor and later had three more kids. As Kacey tells it, her childhood was comfortable on the surface but fractured below; at 8, she alleged an episode of abuse that, she contends, was swept under the rug. “That’s when I started talking to my animals,” Kacey said. “And to this day that’s my secret place that I go to, that I can trust.”

She became pregnant her senior year at Temple City High School and had her baby as a freshman at USC, but neither college nor motherhood provided much of an anchor. Relying on her grandparents to look after her infant daughter, Kacey used her green eyes and mischievous grin to pursue the life of a model, an arena suited for someone wishing to be admired but not touched. She filled her twenties with revelry and glamour, a parade of flashbulbs, nightclubs, and coke-fueled hijinks. Her pinnacle: an ad for Liz Claiborne’s Curve cologne, which features Kacey as a long-haired brunet in a sleeveless black dress, hands pressed against the chest of a fine-smelling man.

“I’ve never given myself completely to a guy,” said Kacey, as she followed Highway 111 south, past Medjool date groves and dustbaked trailer parks. She had stopped to smoke again on the crusty shore of the Salton Sea, the otherworldly basin straddling the San Andreas Fault, until she realized that the crunching under her sandals was not shells but a graveyard of desiccated tilapia, and hurried back to the car.

“Of course, I’ve said the words ‘I love you,’ but of myself I didn’t give,” Kacey continued. “That part of my heart was, like, always with walls around it. Until this fool got in my heart. He’s the only one who ever got to me, period. How it happened, I don’t know. Why it happened, I don’t know.”

THE STORY OF the San Gabriel Valley has been a tale largely of immigrant mobility, of an ascendant Asian and Latino middle class, and the white folks who have run for the hills. Of its 1.7 million people, about 3 percent are African American. Travis lived in one of the scattered black communities, a half square-mile pocket wedged between the 210 and 605 known variously as unincorporated Duarte or South Monrovia Island.

Fleeing the strictures of Jim Crow, Travis’s mother, who was from Louisiana, and his father, who was from Mississippi, landed there in the 1960s. She worked as a machine operator, making adhesive labels, and he hauled decorative stone from the nearby quarries—a geographical feature that the neighborhood gang melded into its name, Duroc. The Berrys taught their kids right: Travis was expected to worship every Sunday at New Zion Hill Church, where his mom was the choir director. When Travis turned 13, though, his dad, a smoker who breathed through a tracheotomy tube, succumbed to lung cancer. “After he died, I went wild,” said Travis, who went looking for solace in the streets. The homeboys obliged by inking “DRC” onto his left forearm.

Being a Crip in the mid-1980s, as hip-hop was reshaping pop culture and rocked-up cocaine was creating a parallel job market, hardly struck Travis as a dead end. Known by then as C-Roc, he would stake out a corner near Pamela Park, unarmed, and let the business come to him. Busted twice for selling crack, he treated jail as a small price to pay for the money he was vacuuming up, which made him like many kids of that day caught in the nexus of economics and addiction.

It was in this insular outpost that the Durocs committed a crime that scandalized the L.A. gang world. On January 30, 1992, a heavyweight from the Rollin’ 60s—one of South Central’s most formidable Crip armies—headed to Duarte in a rented Ford Explorer. His name was Keith Thomas, but everyone knew him as Stone, an O.G. with a hard-boiled code of honor. He had come with a friend, who had driven the SUV down from Seattle, to visit a Duroc named Anthony “Ant Dog” Fitzpatrick. Stone, who was 30, trusted the younger Fitzpatrick, a regular guest at his home in the Crenshaw District. They had been in the consignment business for years: Stone fronting weed, then returning to collect a cut of the profits.

When Stone pulled up outside Fitzpatrick’s place this time, however, he was ambushed. Having blown Stone’s money, Fitzpatrick had decided to jack his supplier. Stone and his friend, Danny Chapman, were ordered facedown at gunpoint, then handcuffed and blindfolded. The Ford Explorer was ransacked. “You ain’t got to do us like this, Cuzz,” Stone pleaded. But the Durocs had no exit strategy; they had gone too far to let Stone go. The two men were told to crawl into the back of the SUV. They were covered with a shower curtain and a tablecloth, then driven several miles north, into the thick of an avocado grove.

Stone was shot once in the head. So was Chapman. The Durocs took off in another car, leaving the victims to rot.

When word of Stone’s murder began to spread, even rival hoods were aghast. It was unthinkable that someone of his stature, a warrior and a survivor, would die not in battle but in a betrayal perpetrated by a second string gang in the burbs. I was privy to some of this angst because I had met Stone while covering gangs for the Los Angeles Times, and I managed to slip into Inglewood Park Cemetery’s Grace Chapel for his funeral, a gut-wrenching exhibition of grief and introspection. When I wrote my story, no arrests had been made.

That changed on April 29, 1992, the day the verdicts in the Rodney King trial were announced. As the city dissolved into chaos, Travis was charged with robbery, kidnapping, and first-degree murder. He was 22.

As he would insist to Kacey years later, he had driven his girlfriend to work the morning of the crime, then spent a few hours helping his brother at an auto detailing shop. Travis met his girlfriend for lunch, then went back to Pamela Park to sell some crack before picking her up again that evening. It was not far-fetched to think he could have been complicit—Fitzpatrick and two other defendants, Lamarr “C-Nut” McDaniels and J.C. “Rat Dog” Ware, were his homies—but Travis, who had no previous record of violence, maintains he was never there. “Man, I was set,” Travis told me. “I didn’t need to go rob or shoot nobody.”

To place everyone at the scene, homicide investigators needed a Duroc to cave, and they found their weak link in a crackhead named Tyson “T-Dog” Pearce, who admitted his involvement. Instead of charging him, the state trotted out Pearce as the star witness—“a devil to get a devil,” as the prosecutor told the jury. Pearce proved to be an erratic narrator, repeatedly reassigning roles to the different defendants, but he stuck to his story that Travis had helped loot the SUV of drugs and cash. Even though Travis was never alleged to have fired a weapon, it was all the same under California law: If he participated in the robbery, he was as guilty as the triggerman.

Travis, who had no previous record of violence, maintains he was never there. “Man, I was set,” Travis told me. “I didn’t need to go rob or shoot nobody.”

There was little physical evidence, though, to corroborate Pearce’s account. Ware walked from the courtroom a free man. So did McDaniels, one of the alleged shooters. The other shooter, Fitzpatrick, had left fingerprints all over the Ford Explorer; he got life without parole.

Travis’s freedom rested on a tiny cardboard box, a plain corrugated rectangle about the size of an Eggo carton, that had been found in the back of the SUV. It had Travis’s prints, the middle and ring finger of his right hand, or so Travis was told. His court-appointed lawyer did not examine the box—when he sent an investigator to the Sheriff’s Department, there was no record of it—and by the time the box was introduced at trial, the fingerprints had faded; only photographs remained. Even if they were his prints, nobody could say when Travis had touched the box or how it had ended up in the Ford Explorer. “The district attorney has presented no proof that this box belongs to the [SUV],” Travis’s lawyer said in closing arguments.

But the prosecutor had a final card to play. In a rebuttal he revealed that the box had an alphanumeric code stenciled on the side: F17B-15A416-AC. Not a single expert had testified about its meaning—and Travis’s lawyer was never given a chance to question what it stood for—but now the prosecutor explained that the code pertained to a wiring kit for the brake lights of a trailer. And it was made for Ford vehicles. “I think you come to a very firm conclusion,” he told the jury, “that this is stuff that belongs in a car.”

With that, Travis was condemned to prison forever, his fate sealed by a pair of ghostly prints on an elusive box whose provenance was disclosed only after it was too late to be challenged.

PRISON ROMANCES CAN be hard to figure and easy to judge, the kind of leap that should come with a warning label. Logic dictates that falling for someone doomed to live out his days behind bars makes no sense, yet emotions play by their own tricky rules. A love built on adversity, the privations imposed by rigid institutional forces, can appear to burn hotter than a conventional relationship. And if sex, with all its urgencies and complications, is removed from the equation, the restraint might even come to seem liberating.

“They say imagination is more important than knowledge,” Travis wrote to Kacey in 2010, “for knowledge is limited, baby, whereas imagination embraces the whole world.”

Within weeks, their correspondence had graduated to moonstruck affirmations, Travis’s perhaps more self-interested than Kacey’s yet still sweet, almost chaste. “Honey, you touch an organ inside me that’s hard to explain except by saying you touch my soul,” Travis wrote. A few days later: “Sweetheart, when you speak, and the words flow from your lips, the sounds of those words ring with great substance.” Travis often quoted passages from books he was reading—The Twelve Universal Laws of Success, The Contemplative Life—and applied lessons from them to his case, to their future. By that first summer, he had begun calling her “Mrs. B.”

“The first time I met Kacey, I was kind of apprehensive—like, I’m thinking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” said Travis’s sister, Shawn, who had created the website that brought them together. “Me, personally, there would be no way I would ever be interested in dating someone in prison. But she’s been a godsend. It had gotten to the point where Travis wasn’t himself. When Kacey came into his life, his heart began to lighten up.”

With each letter and call, Kacey struggled to reconcile the chasm between the outlandish crime Travis was doing time for and the sober, attentive man she was getting to know. Male figures in her life had let her down; Travis, ostensibly more dangerous, actually seemed safer and more reliable. “He’s the type of guy you’d want your daughter to date,” said Kacey, whose own daughter, Taylor, was living then in Arizona with her father. “He really is. He’s got the morals, everything. Except for where he’s at.”

For his part, Travis was coming to see that Kacey, while enterprising and independent, lacked some of the inner quiet that his six-by-nine cell had imposed on him. She was a potential ally but also a new worry: a spendthrift, a chatterbox. He suggested that she try meditation. He counseled her to stop smoking. He prodded her to be a more engaged mother—“Have you ever really sat Taylor down and broke your life down for her?”—and he praised her for overcoming the hurt she endured as a child. When he discovered that Kacey had not entirely given up drugs, Travis conceded that “none of us are perfect, and all of our shit stinks,” but pleaded: “You cannot fall weak or victim to old ways, babe.”

“Everything that’s happened—me being here, her finding me—it’s all for a reason,” Travis told me. “I don’t know yet what that reason is: Maybe it’s to get out, maybe it’s not. But I don’t believe nothin’ happens by chance.”

For a couple of months, the relationship remained abstract, an infatuation born of college-ruled dispatches and 15-minute calls. Then, on the Fourth of July, 2010, Kacey made her first trip to the desert. Travis was being housed then at Centinela State Prison, closer to the Mexican border than Calipatria. Kacey had promised to be there the day before but stayed out too late and slept through her alarm. The next day, determined to prove her dependability and arrive well put together, Kacey hit the road in the darkness, only to find herself waiting for hours in triple-digit heat, flies swarming, with a brigade of hardbitten regulars.

“Everything that’s happened—me being here, her finding me—it’s all for a reason,” Travis told me. “I don’t know yet what that reason is: Maybe it’s to get out, maybe it’s not. But I don’t believe nothin’ happens by chance.”

Worse, when Kacey tried to clear security, the guards objected to her outfit: too sexy for prison. She had to go back to the car and change, and on the second try her clothes were still too tight or too sheer. Kacey had no choice but to shuffle over to the Friends Outside trailer, which maintains a closet for such emergencies, and select a baggy, hand-me-down ensemble. “I just gave up,” Kacey said. “Everything I had put on, my makeup, my hairdo—it was all flat, gone, nothing left.”

Collecting herself, she navigated the gantlet of metal detectors and ion spectrometers that led to the visiting room, where she was told to sit at a knee-high table that ensured no lewd maneuvers underneath. The state allows inmates and their visitors to “briefly kiss and/or hug” at the beginning and end of a visit, but nothing more. That proved to be enough.

“When I kissed him,” Kacey said, “I just knew: Dammit, I’m in trouble.”

THE DRIVE HOME that Independence Day was the worst, a fit of longing and despair that made Kacey feel as though she had left a piece of herself behind. The terrible weight of Travis’s sentence may have scared off others, but not her. The possibility that he was innocent, that an injustice might be enforcing their separation, filled her with a sense of purpose she had never known.

Kacey became Travis’s investigator. She tracked down old friends and coworkers, anyone who could back his alibi. Then she set her sights on his double-crosser, Tyson Pearce, who had spent two decades in and out of prison. A Google search led to an address in Texas, and for $90 an hour, Kacey hired a private detective. In September 2010, at a McDonald’s in Dallas, Pearce told the detective that he had been using drugs at the time of the murders and that police kept squeezing him to implicate more suspects. “I just gave them Travis Berry’s name so they would leave me alone,” Pearce said in a recorded statement. He added: “Travis wasn’t there, and he didn’t kill nobody.”

Kacey hired another detective in Los Angeles to find the two codefendants who had beaten the case. Ware and McDaniels each swore in a signed statement that Travis was not present for the crimes.

Taken together, these were extraordinary admissions, the sort of break that Travis had prayed for, that his mother, before she died in 1998, had promised. “But we cannot hurry God,” she wrote to him, “we just have to wait, trust him & give him time no matter how long it take.” Acting as his own attorney, Travis had challenged his conviction in every California court, state and federal, but the procedural window had closed. To reopen his case, he would need newly discovered evidence—and Kacey, his audacious, occasionally exasperating girlfriend, had unearthed what he could not. “She crazy as hell,” said Travis. “But she’s a trouper.”

With a $45,000 show of faith from Kacey and her mother, Travis hired a lawyer, and in 2012, they filed a habeas petition in Los Angeles Superior Court. Although the law treats the testimony of recanting witnesses with suspicion, Judge Larry Paul Fidler took the unusual step of ordering an evidentiary hearing. Over the course of four days in 2014, Travis was allowed to put on a mini-trial—to his thinking, the final act to a long drama that, he was certain, would end with his coming home to Kacey.

Twenty-one years after he last testified, Pearce continued his about-face, insisting that he had invented Travis’s role in the crime and now felt obligated to “look him in his eyes and say that I messed up, that I lied on him.” It could have been a devastating rebuke to the prosecution’s case, but Pearce struggled to explain why he had picked Travis to sell out and why, after so many years, he suddenly felt inspired to speak up.

When it was McDaniels’s turn, the acquitted gunman willingly admitted that he was the killer—that he had indeed shot both victims—and that Travis was never there. “In the gang ethics, it’s like whatever happened, it happened, and we just leave it like that,” said McDaniels, explaining his delay in correcting the record. But McDaniels, who had recently been sentenced to life in prison for an unrelated murder, had credibility problems of his own: Free to tell the truth, he also had no reason to fear lying. And then there was the family connection, a fling in the early 1990s with Travis’s sister that had resulted in a baby; McDaniels was testifying for his daughter’s uncle.

Finally, Travis had to answer for the cardboard box, what Judge Fidler called “the elephant in the room.” No matter what the witnesses were saying now, Travis had touched a Ford box found in a Ford Explorer alongside two murder victims. Relishing her role as Travis’s gumshoe, Kacey testified that she had purchased an identical box on eBay; to her thinking, it showed that anybody could have acquired one, not just the renter of the SUV. Travis’s attorney suggested that the Durocs already owned the box—that Travis must have come into contact with it sometime in the past—and that they loaded it into the SUV during the crime. But the judge had heard enough: “It’s nothing but made-up possibilities.”

With his attorney agreeing to proceed pro bono, Travis filed a new habeas petition in U.S. District Court, and when that was rejected, he appealed this fall to the Ninth Circuit, where his case is pending.

PAST THE FOUNTAIN of Youth Spa RV Resort, through a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint, and around the psychedelic monument to biblical love known as Salvation Mountain, Kacey at last reached Calipatria. Algae ponds, growing nutrient-rich spirulina, simmered under the oppressive sky; a gridiron of solar panels cast a purplish glow across the scorched earth. At 184 feet below sea level, the prison is said to be the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. “Can’t you smell it?” asked Kacey, catching a whiff of a nearby feedlot, home to tens of thousands of cows. “If for some reason I ever get out of this life, I’m never coming back here.”

After seven years of desert pilgrimages, Kacey dreaded the desolation: the gnarly accidents she had witnessed, the speeding tickets she had incurred, the stray dogs she had whisked off the highway and delivered to animal shelters. Back in 2011, to be nearer to Travis, Kacey moved to the border town of El Centro, renting an apartment with Taylor, who enrolled there in high school. Stupefied by the heat, they cracked an egg on the sidewalk to see if it would cook.

In 2012, before a First Christian Church chaplain married Kacey and Travis at the Centinela prison, the couple tattooed each other’s name on their ring fingers. “Honestly, it was a little intimidating at first,” said Taylor, who is 24 and works with Kacey’s mom as a dog groomer. In time, she and Travis developed an affectionate rapport, and they, too, got tattoos of each other’s name. “I see him more as a person—as my dad and her husband—than as the black man who is incarcerated,” said Taylor, who visits Travis regularly. “Tay is not my stepdaughter, she is my daughter,” wrote Travis, in a letter to Kacey, worried that his bond with Taylor had complicated an already distant relationship with his biological daughter, born during his dope-slinging days. “I don’t know what to do about that,” he added, “because Tay is my baby, and that won’t ever change.”

With Travis transferring to Calipatria in 2013, Kacey moved back to the San Gabriel Valley, working for a Pasadena real estate appraiser Monday through Friday, then queuing up with the other prison wives on Saturday mornings outside the sand-colored, maximum-security bunkers. The guards constantly scanned for drugs; when women were caught smuggling, their mug shots would be plastered across the Imperial Valley Press. Kacey had to submit to the occasional strip search herself. “You’ve seen more of me than my own husband!” she liked to complain.

The rigmarole—the whole cycle of anticipation and frustration—had begun to wear on them both. As 2017 approached, they found themselves arguing over money, over the visits Kacey had skipped. “I don’t care if you’re inside or outside the walls,” she told me, “no man will ever put me in my place.” Her blind Chihuahua, Looloo, needed insulin injections. Her chestnut colt, Brisco, forever nibbling Kacey’s shoelaces at the Bradbury corral she shared, required daily attention. “Don’t get me started on her animals!” said Travis.

When Kacey rolled into the visitors parking lot for her July 10 rendezvous, she had not seen Travis for at least three months, and even though she had just missed a turn and lost her bearings, she insisted again that it was Travis who was nervous, not she. “I thought my stomach would start hurting here,” said Kacey, “like, OK, now this is more of the reality of it.” She tugged the shoulders of her black V-neck sundress, to keep her cleavage within authorized parameters. She doused herself with a dozen pumps of Amazing, a peachy imitation of a Victoria’s Secret fragrance, and freshened her lips with a stroke of Maybelline Pink Quartz.

By then Travis had risen from his bunk—a springless slab bolted in the concrete wall, inches above his cellie’s—shaved his head, and donned his prison blues. The guards remotely unlocked his door, a perforated grate, and led him through a metal detector. They took a urine sample and teased him about his extended hiatus: “Don’t have a heart attack, Berry, it’s just like riding a bike.”

“It’d been so long, man, I was wondering, ‘Do I still know what to do?’ ” said Travis, who had heard stories of inmates, to their great distress, unable to perform. “Like, do my stuff still work?”

He continued to obsess as the guards drove him to the family units, a row of five stucco apartments, each behind a chain-link fence topped with concertina wire and accessed by a padlocked gate. The bungalows have the institutional feel of a hospital room, disinfected twice a week, but offer the rarest of commodities: privacy. The last time Travis disappeared behind a closed door, Tom Bradley was the mayor of L.A. In unit two, he found a kitchen stocked with plastic utensils, a 32-inch Samsung, and an inmate’s oil painting of a locomotive chugging toward a tunnel. To be closer to the TV and the wall-mounted phone—which, as a security measure, would ring for him at five-hour intervals—Travis pulled two single mattresses from the children’s bedroom and laid them on the linoleum floor, then dragged the queen mattress from the master bedroom and stacked it on top.

The bungalows have the institutional feel of a hospital room, disinfected twice a week, but offer the rarest of commodities: privacy.

When he spotted Kacey being escorted through the fence, Travis took advantage of his exotic new playground and hid, as if he were a guest at a surprise party. “He just jumped me,” said Kacey, delighted to have the ice broken so viscerally. She was still wearing a backpack and carrying their bedding; the guards would be returning soon with groceries.

“Babe, hold on,” Kacey told him.

But Travis had already swung into action, tumbling with his bride atop the unsteady dais he had constructed for their honeymoon.

FORTY-EIGHT HOURS of uninterrupted intimacy: no cellphones to check, no e-mails to answer, no places to be, no places to go; it is the sort of intense connectedness that marriage counselors often prescribe. Fed up with barriers, Kacey and Travis had agreed that not even a condom would get between them.

On the second day, Kacey began to cry. “There were no words,” she said. “You already know what you’re crying about.” Then Travis started crying with her. “He was just like, ‘Babe, tomorrow’s going to be really hard,’ and I was just like, ‘I know,’” she said. “And he said, ‘I can see how good we are, like, this is how we would be.’”

They had cooked together; Travis, a chow hall worker, set off the smoke detector making bacon and eggs. They had bathed together, until they realized the stopper on the tub was broken and all the water had drained. They had tried to watch DVDs—Kacey selected The Vow, The Notebook, and Million Dollar Baby from a preapproved menu—but lying side by side on those silk sheets, it was difficult to concentrate. “You don’t get no closer to freedom than that,” said Travis. “That’s the downside, too. It makes you want freedom more.”

With the Ninth Circuit considering his appeal, Travis senses that he is on the cusp of something big again. Even after so many rejections, he approaches these occasions with an almost sublime equanimity, as if the cosmos will eventually grow weary of toying with him and redeem his years of sacrifice. Kacey, meanwhile, has grown more resigned to the likelihood that this may be all there is. When she first fell for Travis, she became infatuated with the idea—the fantasy—that his freedom was imminent. Had she grasped then what they were up against, she told me, she never would have married him.

“I’m not going to sit here and go, ‘Oh, feel sorry for me,’” Kacey said. “I put myself in this situation.”

It was July 12 and she was back at the wheel, rolling north on a highway littered with tire tread and roadkill. For the drive home, she lit a cigarette, popped a can of Rockstar, and attacked a bag of gas station chicharrones. She was groggy. Her hip was throbbing. Already she was counting the days before she could do it again.


RELATED: The Queen of Florencia


Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.

Facebook Comments