Monday, September 29, 2008

A friend in his need

kw: musings, prisoners

I had occasion recently to visit a state prison for the first time. I won't write much about the acquaintance whom I visited, so as not to expose him unnecessarily. Rather, I was struck by the process and the environment.

One must first make an appointment a week in advance, and leave contact numbers in case the prisoner denies the visit. The day of the visit, I figured I'd need a half day for this 45-minute visit, and that was about right.

One must arrive at least half an hour early. I almost didn't get in; I was just "under the wire," and the fellow right behind me was denied entry. Had he got in, there would have been three men visiting that day and time. As it was, there was only one other man and the rest of the visitors were women. The other man was with a woman his age, and I surmised that this was a couple visiting their son. What a sad duty! The rest of the visitors were mothers, wives, girlfriends, and just a few little children with their mothers, visiting a father.

One is allowed at most three things upon one's person: one key to the car, a picture ID (but not the wallet you usually keep it in), and a money order if you are making a gift. No material gifts (no cake with a file in it, for example) are allowed. I found out later from my acquaintance that, just to send him a pair of reading glasses, one must mail them to the prison hospital, and they will deliver them, and a book must be sent postmarked from the bookstore from where it was bought; no personal return addresses.

After being checked in and getting a visitor's badge, one endures a half hour of waiting to be let in. The group had to pass through several electric gates. There is a two-gate "airlock" just to get out of the building, then two more gates, each of which passes through a high fence topped with razor wire, and a final "airlock" into the building where the meetings occur.

There are two meeting rooms. One for "white badges" and one for "red badges". I had a red badge, because I was visiting a medium-security inmate. There is no visitation for those under higher security. Eight people in five groups went in and sat on the outside of a thick, cinder block half-wall. A few minutes later five inmates entered, and each found his visitor(s) and sat across from them. A handshake or hug over the wall is permitted, but then everyone must sit.

I found out the inmates have quite a process to pass through also. No matter when their appointment will be, all are gathered at Noon. I had waited half an hour; he had waited more than two hours in a room without chairs for this visit. He suggested next time I try to get a 12:30 appointment! Fortunately, he was in only for a short stay (this time) and was returned to his "on parole" status a week later...but I'll remember, 12:30 if I visit anyone else there.

I have called him "an acquaintance" because I'd only met him twice before I learned that he'd committed a minor parole violation and been re-incarcerated. He'd already served 16 years, and been out about a year. He's really happy someone visited him, so I suppose we'll become friends.

I suppose I've led a sheltered life. This is the first person I've known who has done hard time in a state prison. Should I be concerned? My father thinks so. In an uncertain world, all I know is that it is best to trust in God. I cannot live in paranoia, though a prudent caution is warranted.

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