vist chairsI will never forget the first time I visited an inmate in prison, a maximum-security prison in the USA. These are my reflections as I waited in the visiting room. It was not like what you see on TV with inmate and visitor separated by a hard plastic or glass window with a telephone on each side. That’s typical of remand centers. Here fifteen groupings of molded plastic chairs and nicked coffee tables filled the windowless room. At one end of the room a guard watched the whole scene from a platform. Another guard patrolled the groupings of people. The ceiling was low, the paint old, the ventilation poor.

The guard assigned me to a coffee table/chair cluster.  “It’s going to take a while for us to find your inmate and search him, so you can relax.”

Search him?  He’s been in prison.  What was he going to smuggle out of prison?  License plates?

I sat down and waited.  I could hear everything the family in front of me said.  The father was the prisoner.

“Dad, can I play with that truck?”  The five-year-old boy had his eye on a sturdy, prison-made, wooden truck that another boy played with.

“When the other boy is finished.”

“When will that be?”

“You wait.  He’ll be done soon.”

The woman sat back and looked at her husband and son.  She looked tired.

After a few minutes the boy saw that the other child had abandoned  the toy. He moved to the floor and began to work the truck.  The man and woman moved their chairs closer together.  They kissed, then broke away from each other.  The woman looked as if she’d come alive again.  The tough convict appearance of the man softened.  He was a lover now.  They kissed again, their hands reached out to embrace each other.

Then a tap on the man’s shoulder.  “Williams, you know the rules about embracing. Visit’s over. Say good-bye.”

Williams’ face changed.  He wasn’t a lover anymore, he was a convict.  Hate filled his eyes.

The woman stood and called the boy to come.  He refused to leave the toy truck.  His mother pulled him away.  He began to scream.  The sound filled the low, windowless room.  She slapped him and dragged him back to her husband.  “Say good-bye to your father,” she ordered.  The father picked the boy up, but he continued to scream.  He tried to push away from his father.  Holding the boy with one hand, the father spanked the boy with the other.

While all this screaming, slapping and spanking was going on, the guard stood right behind the father to make sure there was no more embracing.

The woman took the man’s hand.  Her eyes spoke of longing, of loneliness and of fatigue. She alone had to deal with a screaming child.  One minute, two minutes they held hands.  I could feel their desire to hug each other.  The guard stepped forward. “I said, ‘Break it up.’ Now get back to your unit, Inmate Williams.”

The convict went through the door where I assumed he would be searched again.  The woman and child left.  I sat and thought.  How could this separation be good?  A boy needs a father, a man needs a wife and a woman needs a husband.  What kind of system breaks up the family in order to punish and supposedly rehabilitate someone?

I wondered about all that slapping and spanking.  Abused children can easily become abusers.  As I watched Mr. Williams slap Son Williams, I wondered if I was not looking inside picture within picture?  Would Son Williams be in prison someday and spank his boy, who would then – and so on into infinity.

My attention turned to a quiet middle-aged couple.  Their son came into the visiting room.  He was

visit area

a typical visiting area (minus the windows)

lean, six feet tall, with an acne-covered face.  He didn’t walk toward his parents – he swaggered toward them, his eyes on the other convicts in the room.  The woman stood and hugged him.  Tears filled her eyes.  He let her hug him, but he glanced at neighboring tables to see if anyone witnessed this emotion.  He saw me eyeing him and snarled.  I looked away.

I’d waited twenty minutes and still my inmate had not shown up.  The prison wasn’t that big.  You could walk around the whole place in twenty minutes.

I glanced back at the young man.  He sat now and his mother talked to him.  The father listened, but an intermittent look of incredulity flickered across his face. How could this have happened to my son?

Here sat two parents who cared about their son.  Why were they seventy-five miles away from him?  Why were they not part of his treatment plan?  What the hell was this place I was in?

I thought about my own family. It was my family that kept me on the ‘straight and narrow.’ I may have longed for wild adventure, but ultimately my son and my daughter determined my behavior. Look after the children – the message is written on the human heart. This crazy place ripped a man from his family. Yes, a small number of men destroy their families or their families destroy them, but don’t the vast majority of convicts belong in the basic unit of our society, the family?

I watched more and more of this family action.  I saw fathers come into the visiting room, I saw fathers being told to leave.  I saw more emotion than I could handle.  Through it all one guard sat at the desk, the other made the rounds and tapped people on the shoulder when it was time to go or when some illegal embracing had occurred. Both of them looked bored.

As I waited, I discovered why the prison allowed people to keep coins. A cola machine and a candy machine occupied a corner of  the visiting room.  Visitors, unable to bring things into the visiting room, fed many coins into these machines.  A promising area for an enterprising reporter to investigate, I thought.  What kind of kickback was necessary for the privilege of keeping a machine in this lucrative spot?

Finally the man I’d come to visit walked into the room. The family is the key unit in our society. Is this the way to reunite families?

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