I Go To Jail

visiting_web_pic.JPGThis morning I visited my friend in jail.

The rules about visiting hours are strict. If you’re not there 15 minutes before your appointed time, you forfeit the opportunity to go in. You can only bring your keys and ID. And before you can get permission, they put you on hold on the phone and do some kind of background check.

They wouldn’t let me bring the baby so I nursed her right before I left and drove to Medford alone.

I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find it.

I was afraid I would forget my ID.

I was afraid I’d cry the moment I saw my friend.

“What if I cry?” I asked my aunt Judy on the phone at 7:00 o’clock this morning.

“I think that would be okay,” Judy said softly. “At least he’ll know somebody’s feeling compassionate towards him.”

The waiting area at the Jackson County Jail looks like a doctor’s office. A distracted receptionist sits behind two layers of bulletproof glass, and doesn’t look up when you come in. But when she does and sees the frown lines on your forehead, she speaks in a kind voice and explains things patiently. Behind her are shelves with rows and rows of files color-tagged like medical charts. I dont know what’s in them but it’s probably not the history of last month’s appendectomy.

The waiting room has the usual look of American Purgatories–hospital waiting rooms, high school cafeterias, doctors offices: white concrete-block walls, florescent lighting, vending machines, rest rooms, and an ATM. It was clean and quiet, a subdued place where nothing good happens.

When I arrived at 9:20 a.m. for my 10:00 a.m. visit there was only one other person there. A friendly heavy set man who was visiting his brother.

“What’s it like in the jail?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never been inside.”

When the 9:00 a.m. visitors finished, the door opened with a loud buzzing noise that startled me.

Half an hour later it was my turn, along with two others, both men. One stared at the floor while he waited. The other, legs sprawled, talked on his cell phone in monosyllables. They both looked down-and-out, people who were no strangers to trouble.

I thought we would be meeting in a room where we could sit facing each other, as S.’s wife described in the state maximum-security prison. Instead it was like a scene from Dead Man Walking. The three prisoners in green jump suits waited in a row, each at his own cubicle, separated from us by several layers of glass.

S. looked so much better than I expected, and I was so glad to see him, that I didn’t cry.

To communicate I had to talk into an old-fashioned phone receiver. He picked one up on the other side. At first the line was dead and I could only hear the muffled sound of his voice through the glass. Then an unpleasant female recording announced loudly in my ear that our conversation was being taped. After that I could hear S.’s voice.

I question the prison system in America. There are many people behind bars who shouldn’t be. Are we trying to rehabilitate people, or just punish them for what they’ve done? Is it really right to perpetuate suffering? Is that some kind of justice? If people are a threat to others, maybe they do belong behind bars. But so many people in jail are innocent, and so many others may have made mistakes but are not harmful in any way. My mom’s cousin spent most of his life in prison after helping a friend plot a murder when he was a teenager. He did not kill anyone. He did not have a prior record. He was not angry or violent. He made a juvenile mistake–lured in by his friend’s pain–and it cost him the best years of his life.

S. told me that since the county jail is just a holding place, they don’t treat people with much humanity. The inmates there are just passing through. He is spending his days in a windowless cell with no cellmate, a golf pencil but no paper to write on. He says it feels like solitary confinement. The food is barely edible. Since a book cart only comes through once a week and he arrived the day after, he’s had to scrounge to find something to read. Even if he could write, he wouldn’t be allowed to take it with him when he leaves. At the end of March the rules at the Jackson County Jail will change and inmates will no longer be allowed to receive letters, only postcards.

Ironically, S. told me that the maximum-security prison–since prisoners are there for the long haul–is actually a more comfortable place to be than the Jackson County Jail.

He wasn’t complaining. He explained all of this with his usual good humor and an upbeat smile. But the three days he’s been there feels like three months.

Our 30 minutes went by so fast that I was surprised when the inmates on either side of us hung up their phones. I watched them get up and shuffle towards the guard at the door. Suddenly S. looked very thin and tired and alone. The smile fell from his face as he turned his attention away from me. Back to jail.

I walked to the car very slowly. I was eager to get home but reluctant to leave. I didn’t cry until I buckled my seatbelt. I was glad S. couldn’t see the tears in my eyes.

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15 thoughts on “I Go To Jail”

  1. Great description of our inhumane prison system. I knew a man who spent 12 years behind bars in a maximum security California state prison for a murder he did not commit. When a prison Padre checked into his records, he discovered that his rights were denied because he was a juvenile at the time and they charged him as an adult. He was cohersed into a plea bargain even though there was proof that he was not at the crime scene at the time the murder was committed. He would tell me stories about his life within. How he would have to pass through 3 check points to see a visitor and the guards would harrass him and eat up his time so that often he would only have 5 minutes instead of 30. A volunteer lawyer reviewed the case and his charge was dismissed immediately. 12 years in prison from age 16 to 28. You are arrested and the lawyer offers you a plea bargan for a lighter sentence. Most inmates of Death Row will not get DNA testing. “Innocent until proven guilty” should be, “Innocent UNLESS proven guilty.

  2. That’s so heartbreaking Peter. Thank you for sharing his story here. I think a lot more people are behind bars who should not be than we are aware. A lot of people have written to me privately since I posted about S. to share inhumane stories such as this one. Even for people who HAVE committed crimes, is it right to keep them someplace where they are exposed to prison gangs, more violence, sadistic guards and unhealthy practically inedible food? Does it help anyone to spend our federal and state money on keeping human beings in cages indoors? I wish we could be more serious about rehabilitating broken people instead of just abusing them.
    .-= Jennifer Margulis´s last blog ..Nominated for a Maggie Award =-.

  3. Sorry to hear about your friend! Everything I have heard about our prison system is negative. I hope some inspired person will find a way to change this at some point.

    In the next town, we had a high-profile murder-rape of a writer. Two locals were traced to the scene. The black trashman was arrested and convicted. The other man came up with an alibi. He is known to be a bad egg, and so much more clever. People, who know both, cannot believe the one convicted actually stabbed the woman. They say the wrong man was incarcerated for murder …
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..P-town Invites President Obama to Celebratation =-.

  4. Oh, Jennifer, this is so sad. Prisons can be cruel and really break a person. I think some people do have to be punished for performing heinous crimes, yet others deserve a chance at rehabilitation, but unfortunately many times they are all clumped together.

  5. I agree that the jail in Medford is not a nice place. I have seen instances where they have taken non-violent, harmless, individuals whose “crime” was being so hopeless they got themselves hooked on drugs. Now keep in mind, I’m not talking about those who sell them or distribute them in any way, only those who have a substance abuse problem and are only hurting themselves. They take these people and the power tripping, sadistic guards abuse them and treat them like scum. They will take away privileges for their own amusement and not for some real offense that occurred. The food is horrible, the cells are dreary, and it is a cold, dark, evil place. Yes, there may be some hard core individuals who deserve to be locked away and never again see the light of day, but those are much fewer and far between than most. This jail is not interested in helping or treating anyone humanely. The guards are there because they are on a power trip, plain and simple. Something does need to be done and these people need to be treated with dignity and respect.

  6. Oh don’t get me started on prison life and what we should do. If we took all of the money we spent on appeals and prison in general and used it to rehabilitate minor criminals (drug addicts, thieves, etc) by giving them real career skills and paying their rent for a year (so they could get out of bad neighborhoods and not have to steal), we could save so much money. Punishment doesn’t work. It’s not a deterrent. Researchers have proven that over and over again. We should reserve hard time for people who have done hard things and who have no hope of ever being “cured”: serial killers, pedophiles, serial rapists, etc. We already have two different prison systems for white collar criminals vs everyone else. Why not really have two different ones: people who can be rehabilitated and people who can’t. And REALLY try to rehabilitate people.
    .-= Alisa Bowman´s last blog ..What

  7. This is one of the devastations of our society, prisons as they are, as far as I’m concerned: regardless of guilt but obviously because “justice” is so unfairly delivered in this country (read any statistics you want to prove this). And reading this I just couldn’t breathe. I hope miraculously things turn around for your friend. And he is set free.

  8. Jennifer thanks for the posting about S. When I spoke to him he was so happy that you visited him. It made his day. Since your visit with him he still waits for paper (he still has that pencil to write with), and also for the book cart to roll around again. I’ve never heard him sound so sad. And I agree with all the postings about our justice – or rather injustice – system. I am living the proof every single day in my life right now, and very seriously considering how I can become a Prisoner’s Advocate.

  9. S. Is my dad and reading about what he goes through each day breaks my heart. It’s been nearly ten months since I have seen him which hurts a little more each day. I try to stay strong for my family, for my dad, and for myself but some days its impossible to be strong. I pray all the time; I talk to God and plead with him to keep a close eye on my dad while he is away, I pray every day for a miracle to bring my daddy back home. Jennifer, I do not know you personally but you are a blessing to my family and I. I appreciate your blog, your visit to my dad, and your support for our family so very much and I’m extremely grateful for kind people like you. As my dad and I say every day “may the Lord watch between me and thee while we are apart one from another”

  10. My heart aches for my daughter as she steadfastly stands by, and is helpless in watching her soulmate, her husband get thrown into a VERY unjustice situation. What happen to “Innocent until proven Guilty”, it simply does not exist.S has always been the strong one for Lori, but I have seen her stand up and fight this situation head on. I have seen s and Lori become so much stronger through this unjust mess.

    I am so proud to be mother-in-law to S.


  11. The judicial and prison systems are unjust and barbaric, in my opinion. No matter the conditions, I cannot imagine living in a cell with the loss of my freedom. I am sorry for anyone who ends up that way. Even the people who “deserve” it should be evaluated in some way for the mental illnesses they obviously have. Locking them up and throwing away the key just costs us all money.

    Ever since O.J. Simpson killed my friend, Nicole and got way with murder, I have not trusted the courts. A cold blooded murderer walking around while the victim of a business deal gone bad is behind bars. Hmm.

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