The first thing you need is a friend or family member who gets sentenced to prison.
Then decide if you are willing to visit this person, who now lives in the same state but over a hundred miles away, outside of a town that doesn’t have much to offer, if anything. His prison is maybe a couple hours’ drive but probably more like a half-day, so it might include an overnight stay at a local hotel. The mere thought of prison conjures a fear of being in that environment, of being surrounded by criminals, of seeing your friend or loved one in prison clothes, hardened as an act of survival.
The application, more of a background check, asks about convictions, reasons for visiting, relationship to the inmate. The long wait for a response indicates that you are on someone else’s schedule, that you don’t control anything here. You are not a customer with rights. You are asking for the privilege to visit. You will be ignored or rejected for the slightest reason, such as forgetting to include your friend’s or loved one’s state prisoner number.
Your friend’s California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation number is V32043. You won’t ever forget it.
You look up the prison website and want to punch the warden, who smiles in his photograph as if he’s a school principal. You will read that your friend’s prison was designed to hold 2,610 prisoners but currently holds 6,047.
Long after you’ve stopped trying to stop thinking about it, you are approved. You call the robot-voiced recording for the rules. No belts. No logos. No red. No blue. No sandals. No underwire bras. No touching except for a brief hug to greet and say goodbye. No more than one key on your person. Keep your money, no bigger than a five dollar bill, in a plastic re-sealable baggy.
You plan your outfit, looking back at your scribbled notes. You get a roll of quarters from the bank.
Nervous and sweating, you drive to a town you’ve never even passed through before.
You see miles of chain-link fence, which starts about a quarter mile off of Peabody Road at the visitors’ intake building. You then realize it doesn’t begin anywhere since it never ends. It just connects to more fences in an acres-wide square. The barbed wire is quadruple-wrapped in wide circles like several twisted and bent Slinkies in a long nest of jagged edges, a sign that the fun and games have stopped here. You feel the warning: try to climb this and you will bleed buckets before we shoot you down from the watchtowers. You see that twenty yards inside the perimeter fence, there is another that looks the same, more opportunities for the cameras and snipers to see and shoot. You think, maybe if I were to throw a blanket over the barbed wire, it wouldn’t catch on my clothes. Or maybe I could tunnel under. But the fence is buried in the ground five feet below the earth. You’ve watched too many prison movies.
You see a soda machine outside the building where you check in. You wonder at first, but it starts to make sense after waiting for your group number to be called or for the shuttle bus to come and pick you up for your tour of the perimeter on your way to Building C. Anything to break the monotony, the nerves, the I-need-something-to-do-with-my-hands feeling that comes with visiting a prison.
You check in and receive a number. Then you wait, sometimes hours, sitting outside in the sun, the wind, the rain, the heat, the cold, looking at the girlfriends, the wives, the families, most dressed up like they are going to church. You imagine what their sons or boyfriends or husbands did, what hell the family lived through with the arrest, the trial, the sentencing, and now the absence.
Your friend got eighteen years to life.
You hear an officer calling your group number, “810 to 815.” You walk in, present your ID, sign in, and make a nervous joke that will be ignored by the person behind the desk, who doesn’t even look up at you. Your ID is returned, along with a small piece of paper with your name and the inmate’s name and CDCR number. You side-step to the next “Do Not Cross” line, take off your shoes and turn your pockets inside-out. When summoned, you walk through the metal detector. You get wanded after you beep. You put your shoes back on as if in a race, worried that if you do it too slowly they are going to kick you out after all this time, all this effort.
“Thank you, sir,” you say, wanting to salute as if you are in the military. You get a stamp on the inside of your right wrist with invisible ink.
This is not like the county jail you have visited every other week for the last six years. Where, with heavy metal blaring in the background, the guards buzz you in before you even hit the intercom to identify yourself and request admittance. Where they call you by your nickname, ask you about your triathlon training, shoot the shit about whatever sport is in season at the time, inquire about your superstar nephew, ignore your flip-flops, don’t wand you or look inside your bag of books, then leave you alone with the inmates behind a closed door in a room without a camera. You’ve been scared there, yes, but it’s where prisoners are awaiting trial or transport or release, still clinging to some bit of hope or possibility of change. You share your experience with abusing drugs and alcohol. You share how you have recovered from alcoholism and drug addiction. You can relate to the crime, the drinking, the using, but you can’t relate to being locked up. It’s not like that at all.
A metal door buzzes and you are back outside, now in a cage. You walk ten feet to a gate in a chain-linked fence that reaches 20 feet high, decorated with twisting, nested barbed-wire. You see the gun tower. The gate buzzes and you walk to the next building. You notice that landscaping is not a high priority here, the desert flora almost barren except for the random jackrabbit.
You squeeze your hall pass and your ID through a small, round hole in the Plexiglas and wait for the person to say something, which she does with her eyes, something like “Go and sit the fuck down until you’re called so I can help the person in line behind you.” You wait again, sometimes for more hours, while watching the silent news on the 20-inch television mounted on the wall. You try not to stare to your left, neck cranked away from the waiting room seats, through the bars at the prisoners and visitors already together.
At last, there is your friend.
My friend’s name is Peter. I embrace him as if I had just finished my first marathon, but not too long, eyes darting to the guards, hoping they don’t see us, or if they do, that I didn’t go too far.
I don’t know what to do or say next, so Peter says, “Hey, let’s find some seats.”
We circle the loud, crowded room, and I’m afraid to ask, “Is this chair being used?” just in case I might say it wrong and get beat down or shanked.
We find a spot, two orange classroom-plastic chairs, and face the shin-high table in front of us, as instructed, fearing the termination of our visitation — a privilege, not a right.
I ask the most awkward, fucked-up question one could possibly ask someone who was divorced by his wife and will not see his three- and five-year-old girls grow into womanhood while he sits in prison — “How’s it going?”
I buy Fritos corn chips, Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels, Lay’s potato chips, trail mix, peanut M&M’s, Pepsi, Sunkist orange soda, and Gatorade from the vending machine. Neither of us wants the junk, but it’s the only tangible thing I can offer, wanting to show my love more than give it, afraid to expose myself in this place, afraid to be vulnerable. I will want the popcorn, but the line for the microwave is already too long, whole families clustered and talking in that nervous, time-killing way. I eat the pretzels and drink the Sunkist. Then the peanuts from the trail mix. Then the Fritos. All stuff I would never consider eating otherwise, but it helps to quell my nerves.
I know this time is precious, and I will both value it and want to get out of there as soon as possible.
I see fewer prison bars than I expected, not much like anything I’ve seen on television. I want to ask questions about what I’ve seen in movies. I don’t ask.
I listen to Peter’s hope that the Feds will take over his prison and, like so many others, release the nonviolent offenders who have done clean time. I wonder what it is like to have that conversation with fellow inmates every single day, that one ray of sunshine to hold onto for years.
He asks about Kim, just like in his letters, and I don’t want to tell him again that she is nowhere to be found. That I’ve tried to find her. That I’m sorry she stopped visiting, stopped writing. That her “I’ll wait for you” scene in the courtroom when they handcuffed him and took him away was just a role in a film.
I hear how he has found God.
I sometimes see or hear a peace and serenity in Peter that I cannot imagine even having in the free world, and I wonder if it’s just a front, if he cries every single day and night, dying faster than the rest of us.
I steal glances at the other inmates, fearful that they might catch me and kill me dead on the spot. I am surprised by the kindness and gentleness I see in some of them, nonplussed by the weight of their guilt.
This is not like Kerobokan Prison in Bali, Indonesia, where I had to wear pants and shoes but where no background check was required, just a passport, to visit. Or in my case, lead a recovery meeting. Where I saw one of the members of the Bali Nine returning from yoga. Where they execute by firing squad. Where the facilities are co-ed and where inmates can have visitors every day. Where prisoners make their own food and smoke without sanction. Where it appeared to be an ancient ruin of Club Med but where guards rape the female inmates. It’s not like that at all. Or I don’t know. Again, I am afraid to ask.
I try to stay positive without painting too good of a picture of life outside, no matter how well my life is going, no matter how many countries I have visited, no matter how much or how little I sometimes take my freedom for granted.
For $2, we take a Polaroid picture together with a fake, ornamental background, as if Peter’s prison blues don’t give away the fact that we aren’t wine tasting in Napa Valley when we pose for the shot. We will take a new one every year, my clothes changing but not his.
I wonder when it is appropriate to say, “Well, I’d better get going,” knowing that there is no rush and that Peter is just going to go back to his cell while I am going to the nearest restaurant.
I hug him again and say something else that can’t apply to someone spending decades locked up — “Take it easy” — then walk away, asking myself if I should look back even if I don’t want to. I know that as soon as Peter disappears behind that door, he will have to drop his pants to his ankles, bend over, and pull his ass cheeks apart so that guards can make sure he didn’t keister something passed to him from me, another visitor, or an inmate.
I get my ID card and hall pass through the small hole in the Plexiglas and rush into the bathroom, exhaling while I piss. I buzz back through the gate and the metal door, where I stick my right wrist under a black light to show that I didn’t somehow trade places with an inmate.
I walk out into the free air to my car, and I thank whatever it is that kept me from getting caught.
I never got caught for the vandalism, the embezzlement, the hit and run, the pot farm, the drinking and driving with an open container damn near every day for a decade, dozens of times in a blackout, the buying and selling of narcotics.
I did get caught for petty theft, the charges dropped after my father came and got me.
I also got caught for breaking and entering, but the owner let me go after he lectured me.
I got caught wandering an orchard with a BB gun in one hand and an almost-empty fifth of Jim Beam in the other. I should have been in school. The cop dropped me off at my friend’s grandparents’.
I got caught for trespassing. Another lecture from the cops.
I got caught for plowing through a fence and getting stuck in a ditch two weeks after receiving my driver’s license, two weeks after my sixteenth birthday, high and on a joy ride with friends, one now overdose-dead. But the cop didn’t give me a field sobriety test, and I just had to pay for the fence.
I paid no real consequences for my wannabe outlaw life.
Peter also got caught — four DUIs before this last one, when he ran over a homeless man walking a bicycle down the side of the highway. Peter remembers ordering a couple Bloody Mary’s that morning at the golf course, then getting pulled over.
I read the police report as I sat in my living room. Peter was awaiting his sentencing while staying in my spare room. An eye-witness testified, “He was driving about 40 miles per hour in the fast lane and then accelerated across all four lanes before he struck the man and dragged him for hundreds of feet. It appeared as if he was aiming for him.”
The cop who pulled Peter over asked, “Do you know what you just did?”
Peter doesn’t remember replying, “I think I hit that guy back there. Is he okay?”
I will know that no matter how many recovery classes he attends or how many high schools he visits to warn students about the dangers of drinking and driving, his sentence will not be light.
The years pass, coming up on a decade now, and just like the statistics say, you visit less and less. You feel guilt, telling yourself you need to go. But you don’t.