The number of incarcerated in our country points to a problem on a grand scale. What’s harder to grasp than the numbers, is the reality that every single one of them is a person, a human being with a heart and soul. The tough on crime, tough on drugs policies, have led to nonviolent people living and dying behind bars. They are housed by the Department of Corrections within the states, or on a federal level. The name implies that something is being corrected, or fixed. It would make sense that encouraging inmates to maintain relationships with people who care about them on the outside would go hand in hand with that correction. It would make sense to help offenders remember what they have to look forward to on the outside. It would make sense to try and keep them from tumbling down the well of depression that so many fall into.
Inmates need visits from people who care about them. It’s often not a year behind bars. Or two. Or even five. Think about living five years without looking into the eyes of a loved one. Or simply the eyes of someone you trust. Five years looking over your shoulder. Five years without holding a hand. If it is the intent to ‘correct’ behavior, stable, supportive relationships should be encouraged. Keeping a foot in the world that an inmate is going back to one day, just makes sense. It’s shortsighted and ignorant to think otherwise. There is no argument to be made that someone feeling alone, uncared for, and forgotten will lead to improved behavior. Love heals. Compassion and touch trump disrespect and solitude.
Whether it be a son or sister, father or friend, inmates need the touch of a hand and words of encouragement. This is not about the crime, because often times they aren’t violent. Often times the punishment is overzealous. What I normally write about are the sentences that make no sense. That’s not what this is about. This is about compassion. Having a heart for the suffering, depression, and loneliness of people that are often forgotten behind walls, hidden from our view, so we don’t have to acknowledge they exist.
I visit prison. I have been doing it for a while. I only recently realized just how I have come to feel about the experience though. I was walking up the steps to the door, when it occurred to me just how tense I was. I felt my defenses going up and mentally preparing myself for whatever employee I might face on the other side. Would it be one that was going to ‘find’ something to send me away for, because that appeared to be the usual game they played? Or maybe it would be the pleasant one, who I rarely saw, that followed the rules, but would say, “Have a nice visit.” Or, more likely than not, it would be the one that looked at you with contempt and seemed to thrive on making other people feel small. It also occurred to me that, if this was how these tax paid employees behaved in front of the public, could they possibly be even more disrespectful when there were no eyes watching them? Of course they are. An individual that has no respect for someone who is smiling at them, not a criminal and trying desperately to get their approval for a visit with their loved one, is not going to respect people who are at their mercy behind solid brick walls. Logic tells us that.
I can’t count the number of times I have visited prison. I have come to expect disrespect. I have come to expect ugly. There isn’t a pretty word for it. The reality is, a smile is rare. I have been smiled at by a couple employees behind the desk. I remember their faces, and I miss them terribly, because I rarely see them. I’m not sure why the people who are responsible for checking us in don’t feel anything for the family members coming to see their loved ones. I have seen people travel to the prison from other countries. I have seen people who have driven for over ten hours, who can’t afford a hotel and have to get in their car and drive home when the visit is over. I have seen elderly parents, mothers with infants, and young children at an age when they find the entire process overwhelming. Nobody is expecting therapy or emotional support, but would it be so hard to dig deep and simply be kind. A little kindness could go so very far. Kindness travels so much further than ugly.
The disrespect and ugly attitudes aren’t all that you might run into when trying to visit a loved one in prison though. There are rules when you visit, and there should be. The rules are meant to protect the prisoners and the employees. The rules aren’t always used that way though. Often times, heading into a visit, the rules are used to toy with the inmates and their visitor. I won’t even argue some points. I have seen babies – younger than one year old – sent away with the wrong color clothing, or no sleeves. Maybe there is a logic to that. I suppose that having a set of rules that can’t be adjusted is okay in some situations. I suppose that it is fair to say that if we can’t train and educate employees well enough to know when their judgment can come into play, then it is okay to have rules that can’t be bent. I am not sure how a three month old wearing a solid khaki onesie or a sleeveless tee could threaten anything, but, for the sake of argument, let’s accept that rules can’t be bent.
Bending the rules is one thing, but using the rules to torment people is another. I was sitting on a visit once, when I noticed ants crawling all over the person I had come to visit. Ants in the visiting room are common, and apparently we had gotten in their path. After knocking off as many as we could, we asked if we could move seats. The answer was no. In a room with less than half of the seats filled, we could not change seats. That has happened to me on more than one visit. It would be too kind to allow us to move a couple empty seats over.
There are windows in the visiting room where I go. I have seen elderly visitors in seats with the sun blinding them, when they could easily move over a couple chairs and not have that problem, but they are not allowed to.
Where I visit, you are made to wait in a brick building with no air conditioning and call on a telephone to the lobby. You are not allowed to proceed to the lobby until they give you permission over the phone. That is the system they have set up, and I am happy to follow those rules. More than once though, I have been told over the phone to proceed up to the building, and when I have arrived I have been scolded and treated as if I had broken the rules, and was not sent up. There is one individual officer that seems very good at treating you as if you don’t deserve to be in the same room as her, and she has scolded me for showing up a few times. It is very odd, because in the year I was visiting prior to her sitting at the desk, I was never told to come up and then scolded when I did. But, apparently, this is the way that this officer likes to do things.
On another visit, I had been called up to the lobby, and on my way there, I passed a woman coming out. I had seen this woman on previous visits, and I knew she was familiar with the rules. She was covered from her ankles to her neck. Not a bit of cleavage and her dress hit her ankles. I would actually say she was dressed very conservatively. As she headed away, she told me they were going to turn me away. She said that they had turned her away. She was told the shape of her neckline was not allowed. It was a scoop neck. I was wearing a dress that also had the same neckline. Both of our necklines fell at least one and a half inches above cleavage, and our shoulders were not exposed in any way. I thought that she was surely wrong. I didn’t bring a change of clothes that day, because I was certain that what I was wearing followed all the rules. I had been visiting for over a year. I walked into the lobby and saw the officer that liked to scold me. She looked at me and said, ‘That is see through’. I knew I was dressed just fine, and had left home with my mother and children telling me I looked pretty. This officer wasn’t able to determine there was something wrong with my dress just by looking at me though. She told me to stand up against the glass door, with the sun blazing through the glass behind me, and said, ‘Yep, it’s see through. You can’t come in’. I went to the mall and bought another outfit. Not because I could afford it, because I couldn’t. But I couldn’t let my friend sit in that place, surrounded by people who don’t care about him and treat him like that woman treated me, without telling him hello and sharing a laugh before I made the hour long drive home.
My stories aren’t unusual. I have learned to not react to officers staring at you. I have learned that I need to always bring back up clothing in my car. I have learned that you don’t complain, because it will come back to haunt you on the next visit, or the person you came to visit. I have learned to expect disrespect and appreciate the rare glimpses of humanity. I have learned to bite my tongue. I have learned that right or wrong, what happens behind those walls is completely out of our hands. I have learned that wearing a badge in that environment gives you the right to treat people any way you want, because there isn’t anything anybody is going to do about it.
I reached out to hear other peoples’ stories. I hear them every time I am in the visiting room where I visit, but I wanted to hear from people further away. I heard of an eighty year old man that was turned away after driving six hours because he forgot to leave his wallet in the car. I heard of a woman who was singled out and made to rewrite her paperwork, because they didn’t like the way she checked the boxes. It reminded me of the time that I saw the woman in front of me make lines on her form, instead of checks. I decided to do it that way, and I was singled out, called up, scolded and told to fill out the paper again with checks. I heard over and over again not to complain, because it will only hurt your loved one. I had already been told that on my very first visit when I had other visitors coaching me in the waiting area. I heard of parents unable to get their inmate’s children in to see them. I heard one person sum up visiting in a way that struck me as right on target. He said, “the norm is to make the experience so bad that the visitor won’t come back.” The worst I heard was a woman’s experience when she had to ‘prove’ that she was menstruating by showing an officer her genitals, so she could be issued an approved sanitary napkin. Sadder than that, was hearing that it wasn’t an isolated incident.
I have also heard from some people about the stress of the job on officers and how it affects them. What I have to say to that is, I am stressed also. I am stressed for my nonviolent friends serving fifteen, and thirty and forty year sentences behind bars. I am stressed trying to make ends meet for my family. I am stressed at the overwhelming amount of dishonesty and lack of compassion in the world. But, I wake up every day, and I easily treat people with respect. I have never disrespected an officer, and I have been disrespected more times than I can count. I think it’s time to get a new job if you can’t handle the stress, or it’s time for the Department of Corrections to start enforcing standards of behavior in their employees. But, don’t tell me that stress is an excuse to treat people like garbage.