Posts Tagged ‘staying in touch with family’

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?

InternetThe man in 222 North has two daughters in elementary school. Every night they send him an e-mail and he writes back to them. Sometimes they ask him for help with their history homework. He checks his facts on the web and then communicates with them by instant messenger. Since his wife has to work longer now that he’s doing time, the kids depend on their father more for help with school. Because of the Internet, he can help them.

In 333 South the pictures on the wall show scenes from 3000 miles away. This man’s parents worry about him and he worries about them. Phone calls cost too much, so he keeps in touch with them by e-mail which is free. Being connected to his family  makes a big difference in his life. His mother frequently scans in pictures of  friends and of their small farm. 333 South sees a picture of their rice field ready for harvest. These scenes from home make him regret his drug-running.

After e-mailing his parents, 333 South logs on to Dave’s ESL café and takes an English grammar test on the web. email in jailAfter each test question he can see the answer right away. He doesn’t have to wait a week until his teacher corrects him. He’s doing a lot better with English now.

But evil lurks in 444 East. This man wants some hot Internet sex. He types in an address a guy sold him for 3 smokes. A blue screen comes up: BLOCKED. He goes to a good search engine and types in SEXY SLUTS. Oh man, too good to be true, 133,000 sites. He clicks the first one: BLOCKED. And the second and so on. All BLOCKED just as they are in any secondary school.

555 West works late into the night. He’s getting out in three months and he needs work. Even though the crisis has eliminated a lot of computer jobs, he knows there’s room for a system administrator who knows UNIX and LINUX. He studies hard. No more prison for him.

He finishes at 1 AM. Used to be the last drink of the day at that time. He misses it, so he signs on to AA ON-LINE.

supervised internetIn the central guard room, On-Duty Joe sips his coffee and smiles. Three months ago he got a lay-off notice. “Electronic security has eliminated the need for…etc. etc. “ But Joe is working again. He monitors all Internet action. It’s a beautiful job because he knows who to watch. He sees 444 East go for the SEXY SLUTS. He chuckles because he knows what’s going to happen. But when 444 East gives up on sex and sends an e-mail to someone demanding money, Joe goes into action. He types a few numbers on his computer and 444 East is off the web forever.

Up in the front office during the day, the budget director is happy. Internet access costs each guy $30 a month. 300 guys have signed on, that’s $9,000 a month. “After expenses,” he tells the warden, “we’ll have a profit of at least $5,000 a month. Imagine that – a profit.”

There are great advantages and some disadvantages to the Internet. Some American prisoners now have access to email. A more fundamental problem exists in Canada, because our prison officials forbid almost all personal computers.

What is your opinion? Should the Internet be allowed in prison?

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