The prisoner 's story

The prisoner 's story

    I was moving too slowly, trying to wedge myself between the wall and the guard without touching the guard. I looked at him, thought about saying something. Didn’t.

    I was shoeless, beltless, and jewelry-free. My pockets were empty. I didn’t know why I had set off the alarm. And so I stood to the side, silent, awaiting further instructions, looking over my shoulder at a scene that was becoming familiar to me: the Greyhound bus–style visitors’ waiting room with its linoleum floors and its plastic chairs; the dozens of weary young women crowding in, jostling for position, carrying their fitfully sleeping babies, holding tight to their squirming toddlers.

    Like me, they were waiting to be “processed.” Like me, they were waiting to begin the trek—simultaneously tedious and frightening— through the metal detector, down a long, blank corridor, through heavy metal gates that clanged behind you, stopping at a checkpoint where you traded your driver’s license for a clip-on prison ID card and placed your hand through a slot to be stamped with UV-visible ink, then through another set of clanging gates, down an even longer corridor, past a second checkpoint (state your name, show your ID), through a third gate, and on to the heavily guarded control floor that sat at the heart of this maximum-security prison. Somewhere along the line, the women and children peeled off to the big, featureless visitors’ room where they could sit and talk with their inmate husbands, baby daddies, brothers, fathers. I would continue, accompanied by an officer, thirty feet across the control floor to another gate and up a flight of concrete stairs to the activities floor to meet with my inmate writers. This afternoon would be the fourth meeting of the writers’ group I was working hard to get established at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).

    The state’s oldest prison, its only maximum-security facility, and the site of the state’s death row, OSP is home to more than two thousand men, although “home” is not the word that comes to mind to anyone who lives—or visits—here. The prison sits, invisible behind a twentyfive-foot-high concrete perimeter wall, less than a mile and a half from the pretty, golden-domed Oregon State Capitol building in the heart of sleepy Salem. Inside the walls is a twenty-two-acre self-contained city with the state’s second-largest commercial laundry, a furniture factory, a metal fabrication shop, a call center, vocational and hobby shops, an infirmary, two recreation yards—and four cell blocks, three of them massive Sing Sing–style cages within cages that look like the setting of every grim prison movie ever made: parallel rows of barred cells, forty cells long, five tiers high, narrow metal walkways, nothing but concrete and steel.

    The drive into the prison grounds is as lovely as the prison is not. This is fertile Willamette Valley river bottom land. The penitentiary entrance is landscaped and manicured. There are brilliant-green lawns and towering conifers, graceful weeping willows and stately oaks. There are rosebushes and hydrangeas. There are birds. And then there aren’t. Up the set of concrete steps and into the main building, a late-nineteenth-century edifice that looks like a cross between an asylum and an aged urban high school in a not-great neighborhood, there is the tired waiting room with vending machines and an old ATM and a long counter for processing visitors and a TSA-style conveyor belt and metal detector overseen by guards like the one who had just pulled me aside.

    I stood, still waiting. I was not a veteran visitor like most of the worried and weary women queuing up at the counter, but I knew the drill: show picture ID at the counter, sign in, check pockets, stash purse in one of the twenty-five-cent lockers, stand in line, take off shoes, wait your turn to go through. I knew how to dress: Show as little skin as possible. Wear clothing that was loose enough not to be formfitting but not so loose as to look as if you were maybe trying to conceal something. Don’t look too feminine. But don’t look butch either. No jeans. The inmates wore jeans. Nothing blue. The inmates all dressed in blue. I had learned the rules, and I followed the rules. Months later, when I was steeping myself in research about prisons, I came across this chilling sentence by sociologist Megan Comfort: “Correctional officers … attempt to transform prison visitors into an obedient corps of unindividuated, nonthreatening entities that can be organized according to prison rules.” That pretty much summed up the experience.

    The guard ordered me to check my pockets (nothing), remove any jewelry (already done), and go through again. Again, the alarm sounded. I assumed that his next step was to call over a female guard to pat me down. Or he could take me aside and wand me, like the TSA guys do. A hassle, but either way I’d be good to go.

    I was getting antsy. My writers’ group was waiting for me upstairs on the activities floor: six guys, all members of the Lifers’ Club, all convicted murderers. They were decades into their grip of time, serving either life with (the “with” being a possibility of parole) or life without (meaning they would die in prison). I had started working with them almost six months ago, coming in to run this writers’ workshop I created. It was more of a struggle to make it happen than I had bargained for, and it was happening in fits and starts. One month I had permission to come in, the next, nothing. I was a volunteer-without-portfolio, so to speak. Unlike most of the nonfamily civilians who gained entrance to the prison, I was not part of a faith group or ministry, a veterans’ organization, or a twelve-step recovery program. I was not sanctioned by the community college that had a contract to teach GED classes and run a small associate arts degree program or the university that taught a smattering of classes through a national program called Inside Out. I was just a writer looking to work with people who wanted to write. I saw writing as a way to give voice to the voiceless, which those behind bars certainly were. I saw writing as not merely self-expression but as deep, self-administered therapy, a way to process and learn from experience, a way to understand and make sense of a life that needed making sense of. That would be everyone’s life, of course, but I was thinking about the kind of lives that got people into prison and the lives, the very long lives, those people lived once they got there.

    And I was thinking about not only the people who lived those lives but also the rest of us, the ones who made the laws and paid the taxes to support the criminal justice and corrections systems, the ones who sat on juries that sentenced people to places like the one I was waiting to be processed into. I was thinking about how ignorant I, all of us, were about what happened inside these places. We thought we knew much more than we did. We had maybe read puff pieces about Martha Stewart’s cushy five months at a facility that looked more like a private college than a prison. We had maybe read snarky features about Bernie Madoff strutting through the yard surrounded by groupies at Butner, the “crown jewel” of the federal prison system. And occasionally we heard news about a riot. Then, every few years, an exposé would surface about sweltering cells in southern prisons or cruel and ill-trained prison guards. Meanwhile we remembered scenes from Shawshank Redemption or binge-watched Orange Is the New Black and we figured we knew what was what. But of course we didn’t.

    Our ignorance, I was coming to think, was actually purposeful and, in odd ways, strategic. On the one hand, the prison system itself had a vested interest in keeping the world behind bars hidden from us. Our ignorance meant we were less likely to interfere with operations, to suggest new policies, to scrutinize budgets, to make a fuss. It made running the system easier and more efficient for those who ran the system. Of course, it also served to hide everything from outright abuses to casual cruelties to daily boredom. And it was so easy to do. All it took was tight control of the flow of information by communications and public relations staff and creating barriers to media access. On the other hand, the prison-as-hidden-world worked for those of us on the outside too. The murkier and more unknowable that world was, the easier it was for us not to care, the easier it was for us to feel no connection to the people inside. What did this alien netherworld have to do with us anyway? Maybe a lot. Maybe more than we wanted to consider.

    And so the other reason I was here at OSP, why I wanted to help and encourage these men to write about their lives, was so that I could learn about this hidden world. So that we all could. I could teach these men how to craft stories. They could educate me about prison life. I needed to know—I thought we all needed to know—who these people were that we put away, far away from us, for life, in a country that puts more people in prison than any other country on earth. We needed to know what “life” meant when that life was spent almost entirely behind bars.

    I stood there, waiting, eager to get upstairs and start the afternoon workshop. But today the guard wasn’t going to let it happen. Maybe he didn’t like the way I looked. Maybe he was having a bad day. I don’t know. What I know is he made a spur-of-the-moment choice not to call a female officer to pat me down and not to wand me. He wasn’t going to make it possible for me to get through the control point. I was frustrated, I was furious—and I was powerless. And I couldn’t let it show. This same guard might be manning the metal detector on my next visit. I didn’t want to make an enemy.

    And then, all of a sudden, I got it. I got a whiff of what it was like to live inside these walls. Walking back to the locker to retrieve my stuff, I felt almost queasy with impotence. And I felt a little crazy, that kind of crazy you feel when things that made sense all of a sudden don’t. I was in a place that was all about rules, that was dictated and constrained by rules. If you knew the rules and played by them, everything was predictable, and you were okay, right?

    Wrong. Because prison was also a place of random acts. Knowing and obeying the rules didn’t spare you from the random acts. The rules created the expectation of predictability. On the other hand, anything could happen. You were buffeted coming and going. And you never knew when it was going to happen. And you couldn’t do a thing about it.

    It would be more than a month before I could meet with the guys again.

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