I, like many Americans, have a relative serving time in prison. Ten years. People like me don’t usually talk about it. I recently visited him. If you’ve watched prison movies, you have some idea of how it feels to go through the security process and finally hear the big metal door close behind you, leaving you on the inside without a key. That’s a faint taste of what the prisoner feels when being locked up for the long haul.
In order to visit, I had to pass through a security check similar to the airport ordeal. At the prison, you have to leave most of your belongings in a locker in the visitors lobby. You can keep your ID, the key to the storage locker, and some quarters for the vending machines. You get in line to pass through the metal detector. You remove your shoes and belt. The guard pats you down.
The building is clean and well lit, with a reception desk and corded barriers. I crossed the prison yard and entered the similarly sterile visitation hall, a windowless space with vending machines along one wall, and green plastic chairs set out for visitors to sit facing the prisoner without a table between them. I knew already that the rest of the property, where the prisoners are housed, is dilapidated and on the verge of needing to be demolished. These public rooms were reassuring antechambers to a much less hospitable interior.
Some families were already seated, and several prisoners were there. The incarcerated men wore simple forest green jumpsuits pulled over their usual clothing. They looked like members of a religious cult, or Robin Hood’s Merry Men. Their sack-like costumes had no pockets and served as a barrier in case of any direct contact with visitors.
When a prisoner arrives, his visitors greet him by the overseer’s desk. A young man entered the room, and soon his mother and grandmother were standing across from him. They were permitted a hug. The grandmother squeezed him hard and wouldn’t let go. She was crying, as I saw when she finally pulled away. I watched this small group take its place among the lines of green chairs. The grandson spoke quietly, smiling broadly. Under the umbrella of this warm occasion, the convicted men looked as innocent as anyone. Most of the visitors were women. They bought soft drinks and packaged sandwiches and desserts for the men. During the visit, the prisoner sat with a paper plate on his lap, consuming food which was, although processed to the extreme, a real treat for guys who’ve been eating prison food.
The sweetest scene was taking place two rows in front of me, where a young man sat across from his wife. She had brought their baby. During their visit, the man cradled his baby in his arms. He didn’t eat.
When my turn came, I began the same process. The overseer told me to open my mouth to show that I wasn’t concealing any contraband there. Then I was allowed a hug. I got food for my loved one and heated the sandwich in the microwave. We talked. We joked about things. He smiled the whole while. These were his happiest hours. When they ended, he would return to a world in which his life was wasting away, among other men who would spend the weeks and months and years becoming more hopeless and less capable of living in society.
Music: "Po' Lazarus" by James Carter and the Prisoners from the film soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
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