This 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.