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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

A visitor's guide

From waiting room to visiting room, navigating behind prison walls

Issue: "Orphaned no more," July 30, 2011

The thing you need to know about visiting an inmate is that you probably will not be successful the first time around. But since there must always be a first time in order for a second time, you must sweat that out. On your initial visit you will have violated some rule, even if you did the homework. You will have on the wrong shoes, or the wrong shirt, or an underwire bra that sets off the metal detector. You may hope that there is a Job Lot nearby where you can purchase acceptable replacements cheaply.

The prison waiting room, earthly analog of Purgatory, is a showcase of the mean and kind extremes of human nature. Mean is the delight taken by the desk guard watching the nervous first-timer feel like a fool trying to figure out the locker. Kind is the visitor who discretely approaches and says, "Push up on the lever a little."

I have also met two nice correction officers too, one man and one woman-I later found out the man was a Christian-who must be very strong indeed, because there is a tremendous pull, in any subculture, to adopt the attitude of that subculture. To not resist it strenuously is to become part of it automatically. It's that "inner ring" thing C.S. Lewis talks about in The Weight of Glory when describing the official rules versus the unstated rules of any ingrown organization:

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"The second lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two different systems or hierarchies. The one is printed in some little red book and anyone can easily read up. . . . The other is not printed anywhere. . . . You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it, and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it. There are what correspond to passwords, but they too are spontaneous and informal."

My last time I waited so long to be called up that I finally put on my most docile demeanor and asked the desk officer if he had paged my inmate yet. "I don't page anyone." He lingered triumphantly over the word page to emphasize my ignorance, and let me twist in the wind till I came up with the right vocabulary: "I mean, did you call him?" I wanted to mention that I was not the criminal, but I didn't say it because I wanted my visit more.

You are allowed to take with you into the visiting room the following items: driver's license, locker key, coins for the food dispenser machines. They all must be in one clear plastic bag. The first-timer will not have plastic baggies in her purse (unless she's some kind of weirdo). She will ask the desk if he has a baggie she can borrow for her $20 worth of coins, and he will say no, as if she should know better. I usually come with two baggies, one to give. Once I brought in a box of Ziploc sandwich bags to donate (unopened box, because I am catching on to prison-think) and the desk guy refused it.

Some prisons are fancier than others. A friend who was recently bused from his facility at Somerset, Pa., to Graterford to await a court date in nearby Philadelphia told me, "When I got to Graterford, I remembered I did something wrong." That was funny, but of course, whatever the relative liberties, the main thing about prison is that you can't walk out the door.

The actual visiting room generally consists of rows of chairs punctuated by end tables, and little black globes on the ceiling watching you at all times-something like the millions of government surveillance cameras nationwide that keep an eternal eye on our sidewalks, schools, parks, bridges, and other locations, and are capable of networking to share information about our citizenry. But I digress.

I have to admit that I always enjoy my time at prison. The interesting thing is that I feel everyone does. One would expect a glumness, but one would be wrong. People sit for six-hour stretches and look into each other's faces rather than at televisions. Some women get what they have always wanted from their man: undivided attention.


Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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