A Prison Visit

Naked, vulnerable and scared was how I felt. The detour taking me around the massive prison walls, made it even worse. Inmates were freely walking near my car along the narrow worn asphalt roadway. They mingled freely with some of the guards, distinguished only by uniforms with DOC (Department of Corrections) written in large letters. Barbed wires, and dogs on patrol made me feel very unsafe. I had not yet entered the gates.

One guard held up his hand; “Stop here” he said. “We need to search your car.”

I slowed to a stop, and put the car in park. “Why do you search?” It seemed an innocent question to me.

He chuckled; “For drugs.”

“Who brings drugs to prison?” I felt stupid as the words left my mouth.

He pretended I was dumb. “You’d be surprised. Let me see your driver’s license please?”
He wrote down the identifying information and then had me sign permission to allow the search.
I thought, what good is it to refuse the search? I would not be allowed inside the prison for my visit. On top of that, my momma taught me years ago, never argue with a man who has a gun, a Taser, a heavy wooden club, pepper spray, handcuffs, a radio to call for backup, a partner at hand and a big dog. Mom would be proud. I learned that much.

“You can go now.”
I parked my car and walked to the front gates of the prison. It was a two minute walk.

Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania is undergoing massive renovation, hence the detours. Currently it houses 4000 inmates, including capital offenders. Also being constructed is a yet-to-be-named smaller transitional facility (with a capacity of 200 inmates) for female inmates who are serving out the tail end of their sentences. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania deems the prison expansion ideal because of the costs incurred by transporting inmates from smaller facilities for court cases. That cost is over $100 million. Imagine the schools you could build with that!

That is enough talk about logistics. I am very late for my visit. I justified my delay in visiting my friend for several, seemingly sensible reasons. I have a limited time off from work. I don’t get much family time. It is an hour and half drive from home and…, if I keep at it, I can come up with several more good reasons.

Most importantly…, there is a lack of a sense of urgency. My friend has languished in prison for 28 years with very few visitors. A few days, weeks, or even months go between visits, so what’s the difference? Where’s the urgency? Besides, I just sent him some money, so that should do.

The urgency was confirmed the night before. Though I had already planned this overdue visit, his letter to my wife made it clear. I dare not back out now. I had cleared the first search. I now sat in the waiting area with dozens of men, women (mostly women) and children all waiting to be called. From here we would go through steel doors, metal detectors, drug sensors, screening for drug residue on our skin, removing shoes, belts and if need be, a thorough pat down. We all want to see friends, and family. I got tired of sitting and waiting to be called. I am concerned about how am I going to spend the rest of my day? Yes indeed, even in the midst of all of the sorrow that confronts me on the other side of the bullet proof glass, cage doors, overhead cameras, I find a way to think about myself.

I put my shoes back on and make my way down the stairs and look into the smiling face of a friend. I feel at home in an otherwise very unwelcoming environment. We sit and talk in a room filled with private families which is really a public forum.

‘My brother died. He was repeatedly kicked and beaten in the head until he was unconscious. They took him to the prison infirmary and a few hours later decided to take him to the hospital. I guess they waited a little too late.’ He smirks.

‘My other brother heard the news and suffered a seizure. He is already prone to seizures from the metal plate in his head, but is usually under control. He fell this time and cut his head very badly. They had to put a lot of stitches in his head.’ He talks as though telling me the time of day.

I am overwhelmed. This visit is tough for me. It has taken so long. He is thinking, it is too short and much too fast.

Naked, vulnerable and scared is a life style for him. It is a morning excursion for me. I pray for those behind bars. Please do likewise…, and then, go visit.

Matthew 25:36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.