Posts Tagged ‘visiting room’

I received a letter from an inmate I know. He had this to say:

When visitors came to our prison, they found three washrooms that were provided for them. They could change a baby in one of them.

A few weeks ago we got a notice from the deputy warden:

“Access to the visitor washrooms which are located inside the Recreation Building will not long be available for use during Family Events. Any visitors requiring use of a washroom will be escorted to the Principle Entrance. Visitors with infant/toddler children will no long be permitted to change diapers of their children in the Recreation building. They will be escorted to the Principle Entrance. Visitors will be re-processed by the Principle Entrance Staff prior to being permitted back into the Gym area. “

So if a visitor wanted to use a washroom, they had to be escorted back to the principal entrance. After they were finished with the bathroom, they would be inspected again, their purse, their pockets etc. etc. For people with compromised bladders and for parents with a small baby who needs to be changed, these rules make a visit to see their inmate very difficult.

Family support is vital for an inmate. The prison system says they believe this and support it, but then they show by their actions that families are just a big pain.

All right, so somebody obviously broke a rule, perhaps brought in something illegal. Will every visitor from now on be punished for that infraction?

A small point – as a teacher of writing I would hold up the deputy warden’s memo as an example of how NOT to write. There are at least a dozen mistakes.

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For years we held weekend writing workshops in the programs building of the prison. 15 outside writers joined 15 inside writers to spend the weekend talking about writing and about prison. We ate together, but the outsiders went home at night. Everyone who attended these workshops loved them. The insiders forgot they were in jail and realized there was a world out there that might just accept them. The outsiders found out that inmates were not snarling killers, but people who had made a mistake in life. One year the director of education said that the workshops had to be moved to the visiting area. Here there was no way to break down into smaller groups, and it was very uncomfortable for the inmates. A camera spied down from above while a microphone picked up every conversation on every table.

Over and over I suggested we return to the programs building. Answer no. Reason given – none. Finally someone told me the truth. Administration did want outsiders into the “deepest part of the prison.” I argued that it had worked fine for years. Why was it changed? No answer.

My friend Mike Oulton told me about life in Mexican prisons. Yes, they were poorer, but families often came in and ate meals in the cells.

Why are the public in general kept out of Canadian and American prisons?

visiting room

prison visiting room

I learned a lot the first time I went into a prison to visit an inmate. It happened in a maximum-security prison in the States back in the eighties.

I wanted to see one of my students, Brian, a man who didn’t finish grade school, but talked and wrote like a college graduate. I had to apply in writing, and it took several weeks for the approval.

I sat in the small vestibule of the prison.  I was part of the visiting public, mothers and fathers to see their sons, wives to see their husbands, children to see their fathers.  On Friday, when I taught, I might assume a little status as a ‘volunteer.’ Today, it seemed, the brand ‘friend of a convict’ blazed on my forehead.  The guard on duty in the gatehouse treated all of us as vermin.  If we claimed friendship or relation to the disgusting animals in this prison, then we must be animals too.  He phoned the cellblock for one convict after another, finally coming to me.

“Who are you here to see?”

“Brian Grancorvitz.”

He looked up Brian’s cell number, just one of a thousand men in this prison.  When he found it, he called the guard in the cellblock.  “Send Inmate Grancorvitz to the visiting room.”  I noted how he and everyone else on staff in this prison referred to people as ‘Inmate’ so and so.  No one used first names.  I couldn’t think of any other institution that did that.  “Patient Jones, Student Jones, Welfare Recipient Jones, Driver Jones.”  Only prison reminded the men at every turn that they did not have an identity other than ‘inmate.’

The guard ordered me to put the contents of my pockets in a locker, everything except my pocket change.  Why the exception? I wondered.

I did as he had instructed and then a guard escorted a few others and me to the visiting area, a windowless room above the area where the men were strip-searched. Fifteen groupings of molded plastic chairs and nicked coffee tables filled the 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 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 no Brian.  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?

After forty-five minutes the door from the prison opened. Brian stood in the doorway and searched for a familiar face. When he saw me, he paced over to me carefully. No emotion showed on his face. He shook my hand and sat down.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked, the cliché hiding my discomfort.

“Okay.”

“This visiting room – it’s quite an experience,” I said.

“Yes.”

“I mean, it shows me how stupid the whole idea of separating families is.”

“Two-thirds of convicts end up divorced.  This is a system that’s supposed to rehabilitate men.  It does nothing but tear them down.”

I relaxed. Our discussion had begun.  Brian had an opinion about everything I asked.  “How are the guards in here?”

“Some haven’t even graduated from high school.  If their father had a job in the system, they get a job.  Many of them are in the same economic class as most of us.  Many have severe personality disorders.  They feed on a job like this.”

“No decent guards?”

“You have to understand.  There are two systems here, the men and the guards.  It’s clearly us against them.  This is not a therapeutic atmosphere; this is a war zone.”

Therapeutic atmosphere? And this man did not graduate from grade school?

“And the caseworkers and the shrinks?”

“They come in here with preconceived ideas. They’re mostly middle-class so they think middle-class is right. The black brothers say the staff tries to make them into little white men.”

Preconceived ideas? Something was vaguely disturbing about that.  What did he mean?

Our conversation switched to gangs in prison.  “I think the warden wants gangs,” he said.  “If men fight each other in the yard, they don’t storm the warden’s office.  Prison encourages convicts to hate other groups of convicts.  It’s the old divide and conquer strategy.”

“How about race?”

“Same story.  If the blacks and whites fight, they don’t attack the administration.  Thursday a fight broke out in the yard.  A black against a white.  The warden threw them both in the hole and used the fight as an excuse to lock down the institution.”

Lock down, what does that mean?”

“Everyone’s locked in their cells twenty-four hours a day.  The staff gets a breather, an easy day.”

I squirmed in the hard plastic chair and there was a pause in the conversation. Brian’s brow knitted and he stared at me. I guessed that the silence made him nervous.  I tried the line my father always used when he visited me in the seminary: “How’s the food?”   My dad believed if I was enjoying the food, everything was all right.

“Prison food is nutritious,” Brian said, “but it’s not individual.  I mean one guy likes his toast dark, another light.  There’s no such thing here.  And mealtime is usually a tense time.  A lot of fights happen at mealtime.  Meals are served when it’s convenient for the staff, not when it’s good for the men.  Most prisons have very early dinners, about 5 PM, because the staff want to get home.  Once everyone is locked in their cell for the night, most of the staff can leave.  The trouble is we are in our cells from 6 PM at night until 8 AM the next morning.  So the institution is run, not for the benefit of the inmates, but for the employees.”

We started talking politics and he got enthused.  He was well read.  News magazines, of course, but also the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic and several books, his favorite author being Noam Chomsky.

“Who’s Noam Chomsky?” I asked.

He told me that Noam Chomsky was the guru of the left wing. I felt embarrassed because I was supposed to be a left-winger, a liberal Democrat.

The conversation switched to Reagan.  Brian tore into Reagan and the Republicans in Wisconsin.

But the real Brian hid under all this criticism. I knew nothing of his background or his family, I didn’t know what he thought about me, I didn’t even know the details of his crime.

The Catholic Church had familiarized me with ‘hiding feelings.’ For years I stuffed fear, love, anger and sex behind a Roman collar. Only the slow, gentle work of my wife freed me.

I tried to break the political discussion by a trip to the machines with him.  “What would you like?” I asked

For a second he was a kid again.  “Peanuts, any candy with peanuts.”

I fed quarters into the candy machine.  “How about a soda?”

“I don’t care.  Anything.  And another thing about Reagan….”

He backed up every charge he made. When we spoke of Reagan’s policies in Nicaragua he said,  “The US General Accounting Office has affirmed that much of the aid already sent to the Contras has ended up in the offshore bank accounts of Contra leaders.”

I felt inadequate.  I wanted to challenge some of his negativity, but I couldn’t – he had too much information.

He talked about Indonesia’s takeover of East Timor, something I knew nothing about.  He discussed the power of the big fruit companies in Latin America and the CIA’s murder of Allende in Chile.

As he talked, I tried to think up ways to shift the conversation to the personal, but the guard came by and tapped him on the shoulder.

He stood up immediately.  For all his criticism of the system, he followed orders to the letter.

“See you in class on Friday,” he said.

“Yeah.  Listen, can I come again some Sunday?”

“Sure.”

“Next month?  First Sunday?”

“Sure.  I ain’t going anywhere.  I’ve got a life bit.”prison visiting room

The guard nudged him toward the door.  He complied immediately. As he entered the doorway, he turned and looked at me, a question on his face: Did you really mean it? The first Sunday?

I drove home in a reflective mood. It certainly seemed that Brian was a writer who was willing to criticize the system. I had found the first citizen of my new order. What disturbed me, however, was that comment about middle class professionals coming into the prison with preconceived ideas.

Did he mean me?

Images courtesy of:

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?

A guest blogger

J. Willmott

 

prisonVisiting someone in prison is not an ordinary experience.  My husband and I drive two hours to see our nephew, who is in prison for life without parole. As prisoners are de- humanized, so are those who visit prisoners.

I nod my head hello to other visitors, but speak to no one, because eye contact is brief and projects the shame we all feel.

We are vetted by a tired looking often-dour guard who slowly looks up our prisoner and gives us a piece of paper that states the time when we may enter.  Another guard, equally as grim, puts us through security and will use a wand if he/she is not satisfied with what the machine has to say.  I have learned not to wear any jewelry, anything metal and have exactly .50 cents for the locker for my purse, coat, and car keys. We may use a credit card to put money on a vending card before we are processed into the prison.

I find myself smiling politely at the guards, as they indicate that it is they who now hold my life in their hands. “Why am prison wireI smiling?” I say to myself. “This is the most forbidding place on earth.” I tell myself they have a tough job, are human beings, and other little platitudes –just to get by.

We are accompanied by a guard, through what I like to call “the vapor barrier” to the visitor rooms. Again we must talk with a guard who assigns us a pod of 3-4 plastic garden chairs and told we can have one physical contact with the prisoner at the beginning of the visit and one at the end. The room is large with vending machines at one end.  I suppose the expectation is that we buy our prisoner prison visiting roomreal food for a treat.   …From a vending machine!!!  Please….!

My husband is a quiet person and I find myself doing most of the talking.  What do you say to someone who is there for life without parole?  Bereft of greeting jargon!  Don’t want to say anything like: “How’s life treating you!”  I already know the answer from the way we have been treated.

“How are you?” I guess is the best.  The visit usually turns pleasant with talk of family and events on the outside, a visit to the vending machines and then a goodbye hug. The nicest part of the experience is watching a trustee sitting with a couple children on little chairs reading aloud from a picture book. When we exit the prison, the air is different—“it’s free air.”

With all of the difficulties getting in and out of prison as a visitor, I wouldn’t change the fact that we visit when we can.  Our goal is to see and talk with our prisoner, a person dear to us and a person living under a sentence for as long as his life lasts.  It is just the reality of it!

 

Images courtesy of:

  • archive.itvs.org
  • prisonersfamiliesvoices.blogspot.com
  • guardian.co.uk