Monday, November 29, 2004

My Prison Chronicles

I won’t soon forget Saturday’s prison visit. My friend Claudina and I left Charlotte at 9:15 in the morning and journeyed into the mountains of North Carolina. Although the highways all the way there were wide and well-paved, my soul felt like it was being dragged over cobblestones under protest. We stopped at tag sales and flea markets where shotguns lay on tables next to bags of roasted peanuts, watches that had stopped running years ago were under display glass cases held open by long butcher knives. Honey packed into jars with pieces of the comb sat on tables next to collard greens that had obviously been picked days before. One man explained how he had taken calendar photos and mounted them in wooden frames as tobacco juice ran down his unshaved chin. Another directed me to the nearest store that sold watch batteries gesturing with a hand covered with walnut sized blisters. Neither of his eyes seemed to be focused on me; each one seemed to seek its own focal point. Trailer homes with thin and patched walls were topped with thickly rusted tin roofs; winter’s winds and blowing snows must make them almost uninhabitable. Up we climbed. Finally we arrived. Two prisons at the end of the same narrow road. Razor wire in triple coils wound its way from the ground up to the top of the fence and formed an ominous awning 15 feet overhead. I left all my personal belongings, except for my driver’s license in the trunk of the car. I wondered at the need for such a defensive action; who would be bold enough to break into cars in the parking lot of a prison? Three security checks later, we were in what looked a lot like a school cafeteria sitting at a round table awaiting the arrival of my friend’s son, Daniel. While we waited, I looked around at the other guests. There were women there with young children in tow, ostensibly to see husbands and fathers. There were women dressed up in suits and high heeled shoes awaiting their two hour time allotment with their boyfriends and husbands. There were parents who’d come to see their frighteningly young looking sons. Within a few minutes the inmates began to file in one at a time. There were old men whose legs were weak but whose arms held their loved ones hard and fast. One inmate was so clean shaven and well groomed that he could easily have passed for a wealthy businessman from any upscale suburban development. One young man sat entranced for two hours, staring at his girlfriend in an obvious attempt to memorize her face and her hands and her hair. Not knowing when he’d see her again, he was determined not to let a single detail go unnoticed. At the end of the visiting hours, they were the last ones to release each other’s hands. As sweet and romantic and tender has these reunions appeared, I couldn’t help but wonder what acts of violence, depravity, or foolishness had been the cause of their incarceration. As I reflected on the saga of the young man I now faced, I wondered what act of judicial injustice, unfairness, or prejudice had doubled or tripled their sentences. I wondered if any of these men had had two hour, forehead-to-forehead gabfests with their loved ones at any point before coming to prison. Perhaps if they had been so thoughtful, attentive, and loving years ago, they wouldn’t be thus caged today. Perhaps naively, I thought that the love they displayed there in the visitors' room could have saved them if they'd expressed it instead of the rage drove them to pick up the gun, the knife, or whatever other weapon they'd wielded in their various criminal outbursts. Finally, Daniel came in. He looked so young, not even 25. He said he was one of the last to arrive because after showering and shaving, he had lay down for a nap. When he heard his name called for visiting hours, he’d had to jump up and come running. After months of writing letters on his behalf, of sending letters and postcards to him, and praying for his safety there in prison, I was delighted, honored, humbled, and overwhelmingly saddened to finally meet him. More than once in the two hours that followed I had to fight back tears. I wanted to hug him, to hold his hands, to assure him that somehow he would be released before his 28 years had elapsed. I wanted to tell him how sorry I felt for him, how much I wished he weren’t there, and fill the air around us with words that would miraculously make everything better. But I said very little. In fact, most of the time I was silent, listening to him ask his mother about his siblings, and their children. He asked about what we had eaten for lunch on our way to visit him. He asked where I'd learned to speak Spanish sow well. He asked about my recent trip to Spain. He told us about his recent request for a prison transfer; the dormitory style arrangement in which he is now being held is far less appealing to him than the privacy of a one-man cell. His request has been approved, and he is awaiting relocation to a facility seven hours away from his family. Brushing off the very real possibility that many months would likely pass between visits in the future, he talked excitedly about his GED studies, and his hopes of completing courses in carpentry, electrical studies, and a host of other things that are available there. I thought, “Once he learns these skills, he’ll be able to get a good job.” But then I remembered: he’s going to be in jail for more than two decades, and the longer he’s in here, the less likely it is that he will ever be able to make good use of these skills. That’s when the tears would well up again. Remarkably, Daniel’s spirits are high. Mine haven’t quite recovered. Along with the other somber visitors, my friend and I left when the two hours were over, holding each other close as we made our way back to the car, rode in silence for the first half hour, and then spoke only intermittently for the two remaining hours of our return trip. The pouring rain matched the tears that streamed down the insides of my heart and mind. It wasn’t until early Sunday morning that the emotions overflowed and I soaked my pillow with the flood of despair and outrage and anguish and sorrow that had been threatening to wash me away for over 12 hours. Even now as I pen these prison chronicles, I realize that I have not completely recovered my emotional equilibrium. I have often tried to end these wandering thoughts of mine with some cleverly worded witticism or pithy, thought-provoking phrase. Nothing comes to mind today. My heart is heavy with thoughts and prayers for my new friend.

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