when pictures fail me…
A long, U-shaped table fills a room that is not too unlike my junior high school cafeteria in atmosphere, with one end connecting to where the prisoners will enter and funnel into the interior stems of the U; the exterior is for visitors.
The matron (do they still call them that?) hands back my pass with a cryptic: “B as in Baker, twelve.” She also tells me that the count is not finished, so I assume that D., the inmate I am visiting, will be later than 11:30. I don’t ask any questions. I see a B and start down the table’s length, not seeing any numbers at all. I backtrack and start to physically count the seats, already becoming accustomed to a world where seemingly simple things are difficult. I notice Scrabble and Checkers boxes stacked on the table, lose track, and start to count again. It brings me around to the inner U-stem, and I finally notice a number in masking tape: B-12. Good. I settle in and look around, as people more acclimated are already enjoying their visits. I flash on old Warner Brothers prison films. I’m not sure that this setting evokes Jimmy Cagney in White Heat until a toddler starts to crawl down the long table, knocking vendor snacks to the floor. Her family laughs; she may have this memory of visiting her uncle for the rest of her life.
Before long, two Caribbean women cheerfully bustle in and settle next to me. The shorter one is accessorized with a bright smile and lots of gold: rings, bangle bracelets, hoop earrings. She wears fancy sandals (flip flops are forbidden, so I’ve worn sensible, closed Skechers) and a sleeveless top. Filled with curiosity, I can’t help myself.
“How did you manage to get in with all your jewelry?”
She tells me that this is her second visit, and when she first saw other women flaunting their bling and even some shoulder skin, she decided to go for it. Huh. I don’t own any gold jewelry, but my Timex and my canvas shoes were returned to me after going through the metal detector. I love that this woman is determined to be herself in this den of rules, and I already feel more comfortable. But we don’t ask each other personal questions, like who we are visiting.
I admit that this is my first time, and all I have in my pocket is my locker key and photo I.D.
She means for the vending machines, whose hulking presence I’ve felt since I sat down. What if D. wants something? I feel that I have already made a huge error of protocol by coming in without money. Anxiously checking my watch, I wonder when the count will be completed. What D. will be like. Will he even accept my visit? I only know him from his letters, his art, and his journals. I have an idea, but . . . never assume.
She continues, “They might not have eaten, and it’s a real treat compared to what they usually get.” A treat? Nuked hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken wings, washed down with bottles of Coca-Cola and Fanta? I chide myself silently for my mostly vegan diet, which reeks of elitism in this setting, and for not realizing any of this in advance. It certainly wasn’t mentioned on the official prison website. I plead my case in my head: Your Honor, I didn’t know that I could (or might be expected to) treat the inmate I am visiting to something that might be the highlight of his week. I myself am looking forward to my brown bag sandwich of homegrown arugula and organic tomato on peasant bread, which is warming up nicely in my car. I plan to enjoy it by a nearby lake. Guilty as charged!
No, I imagined this visit to be a twenty-minute meet-up where the seconds would tick by interminably, surreal and cruel as an unjust prison sentence. Meanwhile, the other Caribbean sister makes her way back after some serious shopping at the vending machines.
“Here.” My new acquaintance offers me a twenty dollar bill. Overwhelmed by her kindness, it occurs to me that she probably thinks I am visiting a loved one. That D. and I will soon be catching up, laughing over bags of chips and soda and microwaved pizza. Not making awkward introductions. “It doesn’t go far,” she adds.
That part I know. Prisons are big business for the private sector, and price gouging is rampant. But not, apparently, a crime. I am reluctant. How will I pay her back if I leave first? Retrieve $20 from my wallet and ask the tight-haired woman at the front desk to pass it along to the cheerful, generous “gangster moll” decked in gold bangles who sat next to me?
I accept the bill, thanking her. This might be a “pay it forward” situation, and I am grateful for her showing me the ropes.
Glancing up, I see at the far end of the room a compactly built white man in his mid-thirties with closely-shorn brown hair. I know this is D. He slowly and evenly starts toward me and I give a tentative wave. And smile.
copyright sharon watts 2018
video: James Cagney in White Heat courtesy youtube