Outside Looking In: Just Visiting

15 05 2011

A lot has changed outside. People need guidance when they are paroled. I face many detriments: financially; I am female; I am Hispanic; I’m a felon. Being in prison is a disability, a handicap. Many organizations that help people transition are motivated by religion. I don’t want that. – “Maria”, as related by the CCWP quarterly newsletter (Cite)

Earlier today I visited a female inmate housed in the Kenosha County Detention Center (KCDC). As promised to the inmate I will keep her identity secret to protect her privacy.

I am not a lawyer and have no connection to law enforcement. My purpose in participating in this no-contact visit was first to listen, and second to deliver a message.

The inmate was made aware of my existence a few days ago when I stopped by the facility to make a small deposit to her commissary account. I am aware of the risks and dangers of giving money to inmates, especially people you don’t know, but it was an untraceable cash deposit and could have ended there without any further interaction. I made the deposit after my ongoing research into prison issues and didn’t see much in the public record to suggest that someone on the outside was looking after this inmate.

After much internal debate, I made the decision to engage this inmate in a conversation partly in hopes of getting some information from her to aid my research for an upcoming article, and to put a face with the name of her otherwise unknown donor.

The Kenosha County Department of Corrections provided precious little information about the inmate online, such as no photo was made public unlike other inmates. I only had height/weight/race to go on. I sat in the waiting area and asked the desk clerk some questions about the facility and some of the undefined jargon on the KCDC site. Such as: What does it mean when an inmate is listed as “classification 8”? That means he or she is a “model inmate” and would enjoy the most privileges. Levels 1 and 2 are defined as the truly dangerous inmates that cannot be housed in the general inmate population. I took this to mean that they were kept in solitary confinement but did not press for that detail. I was told that such inmates have their own section in the facility.

For the record the inmate I visited was a “4” on the 1-8 scale. The clerk explained that while this may seem negative as it is closer to 2 than 8, the inmate may not pose a safety or security risk now but may have in the past, such as engaging in bail jumping.

(As an aside, in reviewing the active inmate roster an example of a “2” inmate is someone who is being held on charges of sexually assaulting a minor.)

KCDC inmates are only allowed one visit per week. Approved visitors are allowed up to 30 minutes with an inmate and are not allowed to carry any personal effects outside of the waiting area, and those must be stowed in an assigned storage locker before approval is granted. The clerk runs a cursory background check (probably checking for open warrants) and if approved the inmate is put on a list to be called to the visitation area.

Lawyers, counselors and the like are given more visiting time and they have “contact” visits ostensibly so the inmate can receive and sign paperwork and so on. The general public is herded into a room filled with built-in metal stools and phones. There was at least one other first-time visitor who struck me as anxious about the experience. I was very anxious prior to the visit but as I sat and waited it wore off and I instead focused on the meeting itself.

Before recounting a few details about the face to face visit, I want to note here that I did spend a fair amount of time questioning my motives in arranging this inmate visit and determining what, if anything, was the expected net result. As noted earlier I decided that I would make myself available simply to listen. The rest would follow, if at all.

The inmates filed in to a phone bank and my chosen inmate was left marooned for a moment as I had never seen her and she had never seen me. It took a moment to establish my identity and she recognized my name as the cash donor from earlier in the week. I asked if she had family or friends looking out for her, and she said she didn’t have much local family but did have a friend that comes to visit. It was a silly question under the circumstances but I asked her if she was doing well, and she shrugged and affirmed that it’s prison and there’s not much to say about it.

The conversation got a bit choppy after that so I found the words to deliver my message: I know you’re here.

Tears began to well up and she said simply, “you’re making me cry.”

I had that message on a loop for the duration of our brief visit. I didn’t and couldn’t make any campaign promises about how I could make everything all better for her, but wanted to know how she was being treated and whether she was taking advantage of the various programs that the KCDC offers, such as drug rehab or vocational training. (Note: I am tossing these out as examples and should not be inferred as pertaining to this inmate.) She said no, it’s prison and she didn’t want to participate in any programs it had to offer.

She asked about why I was visiting her, of all people. Was I a lawyer? A journalist? Did I have a bad experience in jail? Had I ever visited anyone else, and do I plan to visit other inmates in a similar fashion?

My replies: No, no, no, yes, and yes. I told her about my experience visiting an ex co-worker in jail and how it opened my eyes to the importance of not simply throwing people away because they made a mistake. I went to the jail not as her manager but as a friend. I had never visited a jail before in that capacity – I had taken a tour of the local police station as a child and saw the modest lockup there – and saw the value in such activity immediately. I had hoped to engage in such visits again but lacked the impetus. This ongoing series has provided it.

She advised me to focus more attention on the parole system and not prisons per se. She told me that she has yet to meet with her parole officer despite being locked up for nearly a month, with roughly one more month to go. “They can do anything to you if you violate parole,” she said.

She provided some details about a prior case that she was involved in not as perpetrator but the victim. I will not discuss this case publicly (though the details are available online) other than to say that she bears the scars from that incident to this day, both emotionally and physically. Knowing what I knew about the incident fueled the bulk of my anxiety pre-visit because I didn’t know what sort of emotional and mental state she might be in as a result. Under the circumstances I think she did well with talking to a complete stranger.

I asked what she plans to do after she is released. Was she going to move away? My impression of her situation on paper was that she may benefit from a change in scenery, and not simply another jail cell.

“I’ll be back on parole again so I can’t leave the state. Unless I somehow find a home to go to somewhere else.”

But after parole ends? What then?

“I don’t want to stay local, or even move one state over like Illinois. I want something far away… like Madagascar! (laugh)”

We wrapped up our conversation shortly thereafter, and I again affirmed that I knew that she was in the detention center and would be keeping an eye on her case.

I left the facility buzzing with the details as I was unable to take any notes. I went to my favorite Italian market and in the process was engaged in a conversation with a woman who later identified herself and her group as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Despite the reputation that group has (probably lingering from the 1970s), I approached that conversation as any other: First and foremost, we are people.

The conversation turned to my prison visit and she said that her group does that too, and was pleased to hear that someone took the initiative to engage the inmate community. Heads nodded as I explained that if we as members of civil society simply discard people because they are in jail we may not like who comes along to scoop them up.

I am not coming off of this experience feeling like I can save everyone or that somehow I am going to change lives simply by making occasional jail visits to random inmates. But rather than put myself on a pedestal for my empathy and courage to face the unknown in the guise of a prisoner, I am taking away from this experience the importance of making ourselves available simply to listen. The rest will follow.

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