In August I went to prison

No, I wasn’t sentenced; despite a handful of speeding tickets, I have managed to avoid the caprices of the criminal justice system.  I went to visit a friend, who is now beginning his 30th year as a guest of the State of Missouri, courtesy of its taxpaying citizens.  For the purposes of this essay, I will refer to him as my “friend” and I’ll call the person who accompanied me on the trip my “companion.”

Following are a few reflections on the visit, a couple of helpful hints for those who might undertake such a trip in the future, and some thoughts about the way we administer justice in this country.

First, be aware of your underwear.  I had been warned that underwire bras will frequently set off the prison security system, so I selected another undergarment that day.  My companion had been warned, too, but she forgot.  This resulted in a mini striptease in the front seat of the car on the interstate; fortunately, my companion was not behind the wheel.  Despite her contortionist efforts, she still set off the security alarm, thanks to either her watch or earrings.  But it’s easier to remove your jewelry than your bra in the visitors’ center.

Second, be aware that some rules just don’t make sense.  For example, cell phones are not allowed in prisons.  That means just what it says.  You can’t even have a cell phone in your purse, which is secured in a locker in the visitors’ anteroom.  You can’t have anything on your body other than your clothes, and the fewer of those the better (see previous reference to bras).  You can’t wear a jacket or a sweater. You can’t have a tissue in your pocket, even if your nose is dripping.  You can’t have a pencil or a piece of paper to make a note.  The only thing you can have is a small plastic bag filled with quarters, which can be used to purchase drinks or snacks from the vending machines in the visiting room.  Prisoners are not allowed to insert quarters into the vending machines; a bright yellow line on the floor indicates that they must stand about two feet away from the machines.  My friend told us what he wanted to drink; we had to put the quarters into the machine for him.

My friend had requested a “food visit.”  Twice a year, family members or friends are permitted to bring in a limited amount of food, which the prisoner must consume during the course of the visit.  There are very specific rules concerning the number and size of the containers as well as the kinds of foods that are allowed and how they must be  prepared.  My friend had requested fried chicken, mangoes and watermelon.  Fortunately, the prison does provide a microwave oven (also behind the yellow line), so food can be re-heated.  Plastic forks and spoons were also available, but no paper plates.

When we entered the visiting room (yes, the doors really do clang shut), we were directed to a numbered table where we were told to wait for our friend.  There were three red chairs and one gray chair at each table; we were instructed to sit in the red chairs and our friend would have to sit in the gray chair.  I was tempted to make a snarky reference to kindergarten, but thought it might not be a good idea.

When my friend arrived, he was permitted to give my companion and me a quick hug before sitting down in his gray chair.

And here’s where my heart broke.

I was in the rest room when my friend arrived (only visitors are permitted to use the rest room; the guard unlocks the door when you need it and you are locked in while you’re using it).  When I returned to the table (number 24), my friend rose, gave me the permitted hug, and then…he pulled out my red chair for me so I could sit down.  I’m not sure where he learned manners like this, but I doubt that it was in prison.

My heart broke a second time just a few seconds later, when my friend asked us if he could hold our hands.  He sat between us at table number 24 and held our hands for the longest time…at least 45 minutes…before the lure of chicken, mangoes and watermelon became too strong.  It dawned on me that among the things prisoners probably miss most, some kind of human touch, warm physical contact,  must be near the top of the list.  I’m not talking about sex, although I am sure they miss that acutely.  I’m talking about a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on, a pat on the back.  Few prisoners receive this on any regular basis.  For most, family visits are limited, as most facilities are located in small towns in rural areas and visiting opportunities are restricted to three days per week.

My companion and I spent more than three hours at the prison, talking and holding hands with my friend.  At one point there was roll call.  All the prisoners had to stand in a row in front of the yellow line and a guard came through with a checklist to make sure they were all there.

And then, it was time to go.  My companion and I gathered up the uneaten food and said our goodbyes.  When we left, my friend, and all the other prisoners, were sitting in their specified gray chairs.  They all looked hunched over, beaten down, and lonely.

The drive back seemed long.  My companion and I talked about our feelings of extreme sadness.  We commented that the guards had been friendly and accommodating to two old ladies who were paying their first visit to prison.  We remarked that the visiting room had a nice play area for children.  We talked about the necessity for some of the rules.  Why can’t prisoners sit in a red chair?  Why can’t they put a quarter in the soda machine?  Why did I have to blow my nose on a paper towel?

There must be some reasons for these rules that we are not aware of, since we have no experience in the criminal justice system.  And we know that people are in prison for a reason:  they have committed a crime.  We don’t expect, and would not tolerate, a prison that resembled a country club.  But still, we wonder:  can’t we figure out a way to punish and rehabilitate people without treating them like misbehaving youngsters?  Wouldn’t they have more dignity if they were treated in a dignified manner?

My friend has been in prison more than half his life.  He has more dignity, self-respect and manners than most people I run into on the “outside.”  Maybe this is proof that prison works, at least in his case.  But I have a hard time believing that he, or anyone else, will be rehabilitated by sitting in a gray chair.