My first prison visit was more than two decades ago. I found myself in an extremely long line that slowly inched its way up to enter through the prison gate.
I still remember how the people in that line evoked a sense of numbness in me. The same emotional reaction I’d felt when I saw my granddaddy’s body in the funeral parlor before his funeral service. So much sadness and unspoken hurt but a strong sense of anticipation and joy to see someone I loved dearly.
One by one, each of us entered a large room and stood at the one table manned by one person in a guard’s uniform. Cheerily, I said, “Hi, my name is...” but I was cut short by a “who cares” look and met with harsh directions to sign the book, stand over here, go through that and who are you here to visit? I quickly obeyed and followed the orders given. Without any further instruction, I followed people entering another huge room jam-packed with tables and chairs. I found a spot and sat down.
Slowly and one by one, white-clad men began entering the room and searching for their visitor. The atmosphere in that room was transformed, filling with laughter, talking and teasing ― and smile after smile on the faces of both visitor and prisoner alike.
Finally, the person I was there to visit came and found me. We greeted one another, and he asked, “Did you have any problems coming in?” I answered, “No, but everyone looked so unhappy as I was in line and signing in. Why is that?” Smiling, he said, “This is prison.”
How naive I was.
I thought I knew what all institutions were like and what to expect from them. After all, I had worked in schools, mental health facilities, juvenile correction facilities and held numerous positions in my work with the physically and developmentally disabled. However, that day I was on the other side of the fence ― a “position” I’d never held before.
I was now associated with a prisoner. That alone permitted others to treat me as “less than.” I wasn’t abused, but I wasn’t treated particularly well, either.
Before I first visited a loved one in prison, I volunteered my time and energy to work for positive change in the criminal justice system. Work in this area is best described as constantly pushing an enormous boulder up a mountain. I think, Hey! We are making progress! Then, that boulder begins to fall back. We push up. It falls back. A true advocate continues on.
Many talks and meetings have occurred these last few years in Arkansas. Talks and meetings about prison reform, re-entry, summits, the need for prison volunteers, monies dedicated to funding more prison beds, criminal justice task forces, and on and on.
Yet while listening to these conversations, family and “family-like” friends are rarely ― if ever ― mentioned as being the possible “silver bullet” for success... be it while imprisoned or in readying for the return of a loved one from incarceration.
The word “family” has been mentioned every now and then, not in a positive light but as a negative or inconsequential group that needs to be dealt with or “put-up with.” Much like the imprisoned citizens themselves.
Perhaps too much is made of the value of strong family ties. Then why is it the vast majority of those returning from prison move in with family? Why is it those who remain connected to family or family-like individuals during incarceration use their time in prison more positively?
Why is it those who remain connected to family or family-like individuals during incarceration use their time in prison more positively?
Countless studies have concluded there are basically three factors that reduce recidivism, resulting in positive change during incarceration and promoting public safety: family ties, skills training proficiency and employability.
The family is the oldest institution of humanity in the world. It’s time to encourage, not ignore, the relationships inmates have with family and friends during incarceration.
By the way, I married one of those white-clad prisoners. Do you see me as “less than”?