“The Visit – A Visitors Perspective”

     Tony’s article “Faces in the Visiting Room” touches on a subject that happens in prison and detention facilities throughout this great land and around the world on a daily and weekly basis.  In many cases, lives of families are put on hold as they find the means and ways to drive hundreds of miles to visit family and friends on the inside.  The immediate impressions the 1st time a person arrives at the facility – miles of shiny razor wire and chain link fence glistening in the early morning dew, with the sun peering over the tree tops – will either scare the heck out of you, or once the dry heaves stop, provide a sense of calm that everything is not as bad as once envisioned.

     Much like the inmates, each and every visitor had their own story to tell:  while queuing in the 1st line in the parking lot some are willing to talk about how far they traveled, comments on the weather; some relying on their ‘visiting day savvy’ to remind the newbie you can’t wear khaki shorts inside (guilty. . .);  someone else offering to loan you a pair of jeans to avoid the long trip back to the hotel to change;  some opening up a little more about themselves, telling their story before moving to the next  line;  more people joining the conversation while more people arrive and filling the small space beneath the tree, telling you how this facility was better than others; all waiting for the hand from behind the slightly opened door across the lot to wave 10 people into the visitor processing center.  All everyday people, all with a different story that once told begins to sound just like the story a fellow visitor told only moments ago.

    In Tony’s most recent post he mentioned Aaron’s mom and stepdad.  We had the pleasure of meeting them, first through TOC, then email, phone calls and finally in person, when by God’s immense grace He arranged for them to visit the same weekend we did in early April.  Their timely presence was a true blessing as it helped provide a peaceful calm during a very difficult time – truly genuine people with huge hearts who took their time to help us, providing guidance and friendship that made the drive and arrival so much easier.  And they happened to have an extra pair of jeans that were just my size.  Go figure.

    Not knowing what to expect once inside visitor control, it was much like having to process thru an airport before queuing (again) to make the short walk to the actual visitor center (note: the people at the processing center are nicer than those at the airport). A clean, sparse, well kept facility with rows of chairs facing each other – nothing like the vision one carries from the boob tube that depicts a bunch of picnic tables, and no glass wall with telephone handsets to talk (although there was one glass wall/handset thingy off to the side, next to one video station used for, what I assume, more violent inmates, and a separate ‘interview’ rooms, the closest image commonly seen on TV).  A friendly visitor telling us the inmates had to sit on certain sides of the row so the COs could monitor their behavior via the cameras in the ceiling.

    A row of vending machines lined the far wall, awaiting the newly arrived people who again queue up to load their quarters into the machine (only quarters, no bills, all in a Ziploc bag, the more seasoned visitor using a fancy zippered bag – have to remember next visit), purchasing frozen double cheeseburgers, bbq wings, steak sandwiches, mini-pizza – reportedly something really good – and then queuing again around lunch time, warming them in a single tiny microwave, perched on a low shelf near the bathroom doors.  You might recognize the pattern – kind of gives you a sense of life as an inmate – queuing up, waiting for everything.

    I must say I did not recognize Tony when he walked thru the door.  It might have been the fact he was actually wearing something other than a t-shirt and shorts (his usual attire ‘at home’), instead wearing the same khaki shirt and pants and black boots as everyone else who walked thru the door; it might have been the graying goatee, or the baggy uniform.  Looking different than he did since he self-surrendered a year ago April – an expectation one would believe true given a year ‘away’.   Then he smiled when he saw us – “there he is!” – can’t forget that smile.  Many hugs, so good to hold him again. . . . As always he was full of energy, with stories that were many and full of cheerful and somber anecdotes of his life in the unit. It was so good to see him, hearing first hand he has adapted to life on the inside and was doing well – all things considered.       

    Tony’s astute observation about the young families visiting, the tears, the lap-crawling, is telling of the lives led by many people impacted by the debts paid for the crimes people are convicted.  He said it well – the smiles and laughter of some, the grief of so many others;  as noted in many cases, the blank stares and muted small talk only a few minutes after the visit begins – especially for those whose visits are frequent (something one learns while queuing to enter the visitor center).  This scenario existed both days we visited and one would have to assume this occurs every day across the country.  As much as I love Tony and enjoyed the visit, and as everyone who knows me, I am not much of conversationalist. Sure I can talk about most anything, but – not that I didn’t enjoy 5-1/2 hours of sitting in a hard plastic chair, no book to read, no BB to check, listening to the many stories – I am someone who multi-tasks, never idle, sitting restlessly, watching people interact with others and with themselves.  I did notice the goings-on Tony described during both days we visited.  Real people, real emotions, lives affected.

         As the day progressed and the visits of some concluded, the khaki dressed inmates lined up for ‘inspection’ prior to their return to general population, with a white jumpsuit attired inmate waited for his return to the SHU.  Families queued up one last time for the walk back to the visitor center.  The end of trying day for some; sore backs, long drives home,   extra quarters jingling in the Ziploc bag, ready for the next visit. And I almost forgot the picture – the ‘residents’ at Oakdale can pay for a picture of family taken during visitation.

    Admittedly it was a visit I did not look forward to other than to accompany Kathy, and help her cope with the arrival and deal with many and varied impressions she has carried this past year.  In the end, though, I realize it was something I needed and am so grateful to have made the trip, to have hugged my brother and able to tell him I loved him – in person instead of the limited phone calls now and again. In hindsight, the hugging part is something I know I didn’t do enough of under different and better circumstances. I know and can vouch that Tony’s ok, and certainly in a better place than he was a year ago, even under these extreme conditions.

     The visit – to place the Faces of Felons on real people, in real situations, their families, in a world that does exist.