I was telling a friend about visiting a prisoner, describing the process to him. In the midst of my explanation, he interrupted, “No. I mean, why do you do this? What do you get out of it?”
To be honest, I’m not sure. This all started some years ago with a Good Friday prayer card. The words on which invited me to write to a prisoner in Alabama serving life without parole. That prisoner shared with me that his incarceration was due to a drug deal gone wrong. After a few letters, I went to visit him in a prison outside Birmingham. George, then 39, was a short, skinny, white guy with a lopsided grin. He’s now in the infirmary. We continue to write back and forth.
Some years later an essay in The Sun magazine called, “You’re In Prison” made me weep. Its words compelled me to first write and then visit another prisoner. This one, in California, was also serving life without parole for, yes, a drug deal gone wrong. John is 50 who has spent about 25 years inside so far. He is a fit, basketball playing Irish-Polynesian with high cheekbones, long, dark hair and an infectious laugh.
Visiting someone in prison is an unnatural act. The process involves surrendering control and identity. It consists of wait ing, filling out forms, taking off shoes and turning out pockets. Visitation requires waiting in line holding a clear plastic baggie containing vending machine dollars and your driver’s license. After surrendering one’s license, one holds only the cash in the baggie. Then one waits. Once inside every piece of modern identity — paper and plastic — has been surrendered; locked within a prison.
The door to the visiting room has a large keyhole that can be opened only by the large old fashioned key kept on a guard’s belt. When the lock turns, the “clank” tells the listener, “This is a serious lock!”
The guard sitting behind the desk in the visiting with a bank of video monitors room assigns a place to sit among the 40 tables. I sit on my assigned chair and I wait.
On the other side of the door, I’ve been told, every prisoner is searched by having to lift their shirt and unbutton their pants. After the visit, each will be stripped and cavity searched. When they enter, in groups of 5 to 10, they are in a line. They report to the guard. Then they are allowed to walk to their visitors and sit at the assigned table.
The visitor now is across the table from a person for whom one is light and air, a messenger from the free world, part of an outside world that for a prisoner increasingly exists only as a shadow on the wall of a cave.
To make most of a five or six hour visit one engages, shares, or tries to, for all the time there. What is there to talk about for six hours? Families with small children don’t have to search for conversation: the children take up space and time and a half.
Inside the prison, children are precious treasure, just as they are anywhere else. Remember when someone brought a baby or a small child into the office? Everything softens. Even the toughest, hardest CEO will allow him/herself to be touched by the wondrous spectacle of a small child playing. Men in prison are the same, only more so. A baby brings joy, promise and a kind of strength. The quiet screams and yells of children at play permeate the atmosphere, making it softer, more forgiving among the cinder-blocks, vending machines and particle-board tables.
But, there are others. Some couples study the Bible. Oth ers are focused on themselves, hands under the table grazing fingers, touching knees, scraping by so the guard watching the TV cameras focused on everyone will miss the significance. And others only need proximity. They play dominoes or cards and turn their visit into a Game Day marathon.
I have found a good prisoner holds no briefs, takes no inventories, and makes no comparisons. I try to do the same. For me and John, our visit is all about movies, art, family, and books. Sometimes, it is about standing by the vending ma chines: finding the final avocado and then scrounging enough mayonnaise packets to make a mock guacamole.
Throughout the day there are announcements: Calls for bathroom breaks for prisoners, for this or that couple or family to stand against the painted mural and have a picture taken. There are warnings to stand well away from the vending machines while they are being re-stocked. And, there is the noise of conversation sometimes punctuated by those children laughing or crying.
Suddenly, there is only one hour left. And then, minutes. Finally, the visit is over. There are quick handshakes, hugs, and an allowable kiss for some couples. Then the inmates are lined up. As they stand in line some wave as the forms and IDs are passed back to the visitors. The morning process of surrender — check the wrist stamp, wait for the bus, wait in the sally port, check the wrist stamp, check the ID, and check the form — is now reversed until finally one is at the prison gate, in the car, handing over an ID, opening the trunk for inspection: Then waved on, allowed to drive away from the prison.
As I reflect on my visits a question emerges: When was the last time I was truly present for anyone? Does my life have so much busyness that being present doesn’t happen? Do I say in the midst of a visit with a friend, “Just, a sec. I have to take this call.” Or in the midst of my work day, do I announce, “If this meeting goes on for more than an hour, we’re gonna lose productivity here.” How about Thanksgiving? “The game on yet?” Christmas? “Great to see you; lemme see what’s going on in the kitchen”
Visiting in prison requires the gift of paying attention, of being present. The visitor is the outside air, the denizen and representative of the free world. A visit is a gift of time, of physical presence, of outside-ness and of listening.
I’ve noticed even those who visit frequently and may not have much to say — even these, while playing cards or dominoes or doing Bible study, will stay focused. “Your time,” their voices and bodies seem to say, “whatever you want to do, whatever I can do, whatever we do, I’m treasuring these moments, as I know you are. This is ‘Visiting Time’, separate from ‘Doing Time.’ This time is special.”
So, what do I get out of this? A visit means my gratitude gets sharpened, sanded down to a fine edge. Each visit constantly reminds me of the humanity each of us carries. I’ve learned how to listen. I’ve learned to take nothing for granted, especially those things that still constitute my freedom, like eating a salad for dinner instead of chipped beef. I can choose from among 15 styles of yogurt, or none. I can decide to go on a road trip without asking anyone’s permission.
To tell the truth, along with the sadness of incarceration my thoughts inevitably lead to, “Why?” and “Why not?” There is the ineffable sense that I surely must stay in the present moment and be consciously grateful that when I choose, I can rise, go to my kitchen sink, get a drink of water; and then, if I choose, leave my home and go for a walk.
Why do I visit these men? There is a feeling that being present for others, regardless of where they are, is what I hope someone would do for me were the situation reversed: had I, for instance drifted farther over the white line after that all night party in graduate school, or had the kitchen knife been closer when the booze and rage took me places I don’t like to think about now.
Isn’t sharing of one’s self the thing that, in the end, proves who we are? Of course there are priorities. But, if I’m present for my family, for friends, and then there is something left over; then why not be present for at least two people who, but for the grace of the circumstance, could be me?
Robert Moulthrop, a member of Marble Collegiate Church, has been attracted to the Quakers for a number of years and has attended several Meetings in New York City. He is an award-winning playwright and author whose short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and journals.