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Incarcerated for the Holidays

* Note: in order to protect confidentiality, I'm purposefully vague regarding the family member about whom this post is written

My husband and I and our nearly four-month-old son spent the better part of Thursday and Friday before Christmas visiting a relative who is incarcerated. It’s a trip we try to make once a month or once every other month, though this time it had been nearly four months because we hadn’t been since about three weeks before my due date in late July.

I’ve been mulling over the idea of writing about our experiences visiting him for a while, but this visit struck me in particular as we approach the holidays. I imagine very few people who have not been incarcerated themselves or know someone who has spent time during this holiday season thinking about what it must be like to be incarcerated. In fact, many people I know don’t give much thought to those who are incarcerated or their families at any time of the year. I think as a society we take an approach that those who are incarcerated have done something to deserve being in prison and so we write off any empathy we may have for the pain of the experience and rarely do we think about the impact of this incarceration on those closest to individuals serving sentences.

I want to spend some time on this blog post to give those of you who have been lucky enough to never have had the experience of visiting prison some insight into what it’s like, both for us as a family and what I’ve observed and learned from those incarcerated during visits.

Visiting our relative is no easy feat. This particular trip we spent over eight hours in the car round-trip in less than 48 hours. In addition to the time, we spent about $70 on gas and $70 on a hotel room, plus the added cost of food.

After driving four plus hours we stay in a tiny 10 room motel in a very small town owned by a very nice couple and we usually eat breakfast at the diner across the street before making the five-minute drive over to the prison. For this visit, we had to make an extra stop to pick up formula because you are extraordinarily limited on what you can bring into the visitation room. If you come with a baby who is still on formula you can only bring in an unopened container. For those of you who buy formula, you know how expensive it is and how buying a brand-new container when you don’t really need one yet might pose a financial burden in addition to all the other costs associated with traveling for the visit.

When we arrive at the prison we park in the visitor designated lot. We must leave our cell phones in the car as they are not allowed on the prison premises at all. We first enter a tiny vestibule where we are required to fill out forms indicating who we are visiting and his prisoner registration number, we must certify that we are carrying no prohibited items, and we must list our vehicle information as well as sign our names. Each adult must fill out one of these forms and then we must fill out an additional form with all visitor names and ages listed as well as our relation to our relative.

When the paperwork is complete a guard who has been watching us through a barred, plate glass window buzzes us into the registration area, where we pass our paperwork and IDs through a small metal slot. They review the forms to make sure they are correct and that we are listed as approved visitors for our relative. Prior to ever visiting we had to fill out a completely different form with all our personal information on it including address, driver license number, passport number, citizenship status, and social security number and include a copy of our ID. We even had to submit this for our children.

Once they certify that we are approved to visit we then must deposit all remaining prohibited items into lockers. This would include our car keys, Chapstick, jackets, and even tissues (once they were confiscated from me because I had them in my back pocket because I was sick. I was told I could use paper towels from the bathroom). Once everything goes into the lockers then we take off our shoes, jewelry, belts, etc. and go through a metal detector. If you can’t get through the metal detector without it going off they make you stand to the side and they use a wand to identify the metal on your body. The first time I visited I was wearing a bra with an underwire and the underwire set off the metal detector. I was scolded and told that my name would be put on a list and if I ever couldn’t pass the metal detector the first time around on a subsequent visit I would be barred from visiting that day. Imagine driving four plus hours to visit someone and being told you can come in because the underwire in your bra or a rivet in your jeans makes the metal detector go off. So, since then, I wear sports bras to all my visits.

This visit we were traveling with an infant, so they went through his entire diaper bag, which I had sparsely packed to begin with knowing how limited we are in the items they allow through. The correctional officer went through each diaper individually, checked the seal on the formula and made me take the wipes out of the package and put them into a separate Ziploc bag. She then put the bag aside that I had packed everything in and put all the items into a HUGE plastic garbage bag and handed that to me like Santa’s sack.

There was a family there visiting for the first time and they didn’t know anything about the paperwork or dress code or anything. The guard wouldn’t even let them through the metal detector because they were wearing leggings, which are another banned clothing item. In addition to the obvious items like bathing suit tops, see through outfits, and clothing with inappropriate language you cannot wear leggings, sweatpants, jeans with holes or tears, bras with underwire, or sleeveless shirts. These women, after having driven five hours from New York with a two-year-old, were turned away and told to purchase scrub pants at the local dollar store if they wanted to be allowed in. They were also denied bringing in drinks and snacks for their child and instead told to purchase food from the prison vending machines, more on those later.

After all of this we’re finally given our red visitor badges and black light sensitive hand stamps and escorted from the registration building outside through several locked doors between high fences wrapped with barbed wire and given entrance to the visitation area.

The space itself is pretty stark. The walls are cinder block and painted a light brown. The floors are white tile. There’s a small TV in the corner that’s always playing kids movies so that kids have something to do when they inevitably get bored since you can’t bring in anything to occupy them. There are dark blue plastic chairs, those are for the inmates, and there are light blue plastic chairs for visitors. We see our relative, who smiles and waves us over, while setting up our chairs and the small white plastic table that will sit in between us. At no point in time are we allowed to sit next to our relative during the visit. At all times, we must be sitting across from one another.

During our last visit I was sitting watching a movie with our older son while my husband visited with our family member and another one of the inmates sat down next to me with his daughter on his lap. There was plenty of space between us, at least several feet, but a correctional officer came over and told us we couldn’t sit next to one another. I explained that I wasn’t there visiting with him and the officer said it didn’t matter and made the inmate get up before I could move. I felt guilty that I didn't move fast enough and he and his daughter missed the opportunity to sit with one another and watch a movie together because I happened to already be sitting there with my son, who I get to watch movies with at home whenever I want.

Another odd part of the visitation room is the red tape on the floors. All around the room there are borders cut out in red tape. These lines indicate where inmates are not allowed to go. For example, they must stand two feet away from all the vending machines and point out what they’d like for visitors to pay for and get for them. The vending machines are outrageously overpriced, and the selection is mediocre at best, though from what we understand, it’s much better that what the cafeteria offers and cheaper than what’s available to them through the commissary. Families also tend to splurge on the vending machines because it's the only meal they get to share with their loved ones for the duration they remain incarcerated.

There’s a mural of a beautiful garden painted on one of the walls. It’s the only wall with anything on it at all. This is where inmates can pose for photos that they’ve paid for in advance with family and friends. The photos are later printed out for them, at their expense.

I’ll be honest, there have been visits where I’ve had a very hard time holding it together. Particularly when I see the men with their children. On our last visit one of the inmates was holding his son, who is probably about the same age as my older son, cradling him as he slept and I thought how incredibly sad it was for both him and his son that this might be the only time this month or over the next several months where he would have the chance to hold his sleeping son.

Without a doubt, most people who are incarcerated have done something to break the law, but I have serious questions about what good we’re doing for ourselves as a society by punishing people in prisons. We know that it doesn’t deter crime and we know that people who have been incarcerated are more likely to re-offend. Beyond that, the emotional and financial toll on families is tremendous. We are lucky that we’re in a place where we can make the trip once every other month without it being a stretch, but many families are not so lucky. The cost of being incarcerated is immense. In addition to travel expenses, inmates must pay for emails, phone calls, and letters. And they pay WAY more than what it actually costs, lining the pockets of the corporations that run the prison, much like our quarters in the vending machines and the credits they pay for photos to be taken and printed.

Our relative pays $1 to mail a regular first-class letter to me, even though a stamp costs less than that. He pays thirty cents a minute to call us, when we’re in the same state! It costs him $5 a minute to call his mom internationally, which means he only gets to speak to her for at most five minutes once a month. If we wanted to email, which we don’t because it’s too expensive, he would have to pay $20 for ten messages incoming or outgoing. And moreover, he’s paid less than $1 per hour to work in the prison. When he first arrived, he worked in the kitchen because that’s the worst job and no one wants it. Now he helps with laundry or general cleaning of common areas. So in additional to all that money the prison makes, it saves additionally by using prisoners to do basically everything in the building except security.

We stayed until the officers told us that we had to leave this week. It was the first time our relative got to meet the baby and we wanted him to get as much time as he could. We gave our final hugs behind the red tape line before exiting the visitation area. The officer asked to see our black light stamped hands and asked for our red visitation badges. We were then escorted back through the locked gates, lined with chain-link fence and barbed wire, to the registration building. There they checked our stamped hands again and gave us our IDs back.

As we drove away from the prison in the drizzling rain to start our four and a half hour trek back home I thought about all the kids that would be visiting their parents that weekend and how those men will be absent for their kids on Christmas morning, instead spending the holiday incarcerated, paying a debt to society that I am certain in many cases is creating more harm than healing.

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