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My First Visit to Prison

By on May 20, 2011 | 0 comments

Author’s note: Sorry for the lack of updates recently. I just got out of an intense trial, the experience of which I’ll share soon. In the meantime, please see an old essay I wrote in law school, about my first trip to one of Washington’s State Prisons.

-Noah

Monroe State Prison is located in Monroe, Washington. Monroe is about 40 miles Northeast of Seattle, in an extremely scenic area of the state. The actual facility is on 365 acres, and is broken up into Minimum Security, Medium Security, and Mental Health areas. There are also visiting areas, administrative areas, and a solitary confinement/high security zone.

The purpose of the trip generally was to learn about the prison experience, and more specifically to meet with the Black Persons Caucus (“BPC”). The BPC is a self-run group consisting of offenders wanting to make the community prison experience more positive. Although originally started by and for black persons 30 years ago, these days the BPC is open to anyone. The purpose of the trip was to being a program of regular correspondence.

Community organizers, people very used to the system, set up the trip. Even then though, the process was involved. A detailed application was needed, including the race and social security number of the potential visitor. The applications needed to be submitted a month before the visitation date, and even then there was no guarantees. For example, on our first attempt the prison lost the entire packet of applications, forcing us to reschedule for four weeks later. Whether this was corruption or incompetence we couldn’t decide, but regardless we didn’t have trouble after applying again.

Besides outright loss of application materials, there were other ways we could be turned away. The rules on what you could bring into the facility were extremely strict. People could be prevented entrance for “immodest dress,” especially the women, a classification wholly left to the guards at the front gate. The impression I received (secondhand) was that they looked for reasons to turn people away. As such, we were all careful with our dress and personal effects. Perhaps if you were a regular they’d ease the restrictions slightly, but for us first-timers, prudence was best.

Six of us left from Seattle University to make the trip, meeting at the prison with two of the outside organizers. All of us were third-year students, meaning we were graduating shortly. On the one hand that was nice if we wanted to take on a legal challenge; we were all very close to being fully-licensed attorneys. On the other hand, with a party consisting of near-grads, the chances of setting up perpetual student visits gets harder.

We arrived at 5:30 PM, and spent a good 30 minutes waiting in the “lobby” for our turn to enter the complex. There were a fair amount if children in the area, which retrospectively makes sense, but at the time caught me by surprise. You just don’t expect to see children and prisons together. We were eventually called up to exchange our IDs for visitor badges, get UV stamps, and soon after, were led through security.

The initial steps were contraband detectors: take off your shoes, and empty and turn out your pockets. Then we went into what I call an “air lock,” a chamber that has automatic sealing doors on both ends. We could only go through one door when the one behind us had shut. We went through a few of these air locks into the family visiting area.

The family area was a large cafeteria-looking room, with vending machines and a play area for children. As you’d expect, admonishments were printed everywhere.

“Visitors and offenders MAY NOT attend a vending machine at the same time.”

“HANDS MUST BE VISIBLE AT ALL TIMES.”

“Visitors are allowed a BRIEF hug and kiss from an offender. The Department of Corrections has defined “brief” as 3-5 seconds.” (really)

“Any attempt to introduce contraband into a state prison is a FELONY.”

“This room is a FAMILY AREA. Any DISRUPTIVE OR INAPPROPRIATE CONDUCT is grounds for expulsion and possible revocation of visiting privileges.”

And so on. The odd part was that these notices were staggered with images of waterfalls and rainbows and carousel horses and other idyllic scenes. They were presumably there for the kids but, not for the last time, the contrast in the prison was stark. In any event it wasn’t where we were landing. Another air lock, a showing off of our UV stamps, and we were led into a corridor, then The Yard.

Everyone has seen the prison yard in movies. How does the real thing compare? Well, the movies don’t do a good job of reenacting the jolt of cool air that hits as you go outside. And the movies rarely give you a scene of verdant Washington on your first step out. But that was the first thing we saw: An achingly beautiful scene of the Cascade mountains, with the sun just starting to set over a lush horizon. And then you look down and see infinite razor wire. And then look down a little more and see bales of barbed wire over ten foot high fences, then exercise equipment and grassy yards, then people milling around their expansive net. The juxtaposition was so sharp I literally froze as I took it in. But we had to move on.

Going down stairs, our guide pointed out the high security area, where those deemed most dangerous are held in solitary 23 hours a day. We were (obviously) not cleared for visiting that zone. Instead we went maybe 40 yards to a regular-seeming building, and were taken to where our hosts were waiting for us.

I had no idea what kind of meeting area, or even the amount of offenders that would be meeting us. It was not like what you think of for “prison visit,” where you speak to one person through Plexiglas, talking through a phone (a system that itself is a pain in the ass). Instead we entered a large, open room. Inside were simply 50 people sitting in chairs, in a circle.

Initial impression: their prison garb was surprisingly “normal.” Khaki button up shirts, khaki pants. Long-sleeve or short-sleeve undershirts, large variety of brand-name shoes. They were mostly black men, but there were some white faces mingled in the group. Size-wise, there were large men and smaller men. Almost everyone seemed fit, but not necessarily “buff.” They stood up when we arrived.

Prison rules permit offenders a brief handshake with guests, and no one wanted to be left out. So each of us introduced ourselves and shook the hands of our hosts. Not for the last time, everyone seemed very grateful for our visit.

Safety was a non-issue. Imposing as some of the offenders were, teardrop tattoos and all that, the BPC members were consistently reserved and articulate. They presented their concerns and we had a discussed it. We took a break an hour in for coffee, which one of hosts graciously served. To my eyes, everyone seemed engaged. The issues we talked about were eminently valid.

The first issue the BPC raised was the 35% rule. Here’s how it works: When the offender earns income or receives a gift, 35% of that sum is taken by the prison. 10% goes to a non-interest bearing account for the offender’s use when they get out, 5% goes to general victim’s compensation funds, and 20% goes to the administration of being incarcerated (known in some circles as “pay-to-stay”). The relevant statutes are here and here.

This law understandably bothered the inmates. One of the people there, the quintessential jailhouse lawyer (he had been doing it for 25 years), had written a solid foundation on the issue, complete with case law, if/when someone took legal action.

Which led to one of our issues: At the time no one was a lawyer. While we were there nominally at the behest of the ACLU, that only meant particular members of our group could petition attorneys for taking on an issue.

We said this, with the corollary that we would be graduating soon, and thus we would be (God willing) lawyers somewhat soon after. The room politely applauded the last comment, which was a nice gesture. But the point remained: on the legal plane our powers were going to be limited— for the near future. The (unsaid) corollary to that was, it’s not like our hosts were going anywhere. Our point in raising the issue was for them not to expect instant results. I think they appreciated our candor.

Which all leads to the fundamental question: why should we, as law-abiders, care about the circumstances of law-breakers? I can only speak for myself but my interest is twofold: (1) humane treatment for human beings, and (2) reducing recidivism. On the first point, I acknowledge very few people believe in inhumane treatment, but the definition of what that is varies wildly. I’ll act in a way that corresponds to my belief, but I understand if that means different things to different people. But it’s the second point that has tangible benefits to our community.

During one of our breaks, I struck up a conversation with a fellow who had some insight into why some people ended up in prison. His thought was how people who were “injured” in some way don’t understand the appropriate (legal) response to those injuries. He gave the example, let’s say someone loans $500 to another person, and that person doesn’t pay it back. The sophisticated response is to sue, or forgive the debt, or whatever. Coming from a different background, the intuitive response is violence. Self-defense, and even domestic violence, partially stem from inappropriate responses to negative stimuli. Teaching appropriate anger management and legal rights workshops would make progress into these issues.

But there’s another problem. Many people leave prison with substantial debt. I heard stories of people losing their homes while away, and even owing tens of thousands of dollars from debt that’s been steadily compounding. If someone is only eligible for the jobs available to ex-cons, and down 25% of their wages and gifts off the top, how are they going to be able to pay back their debts? Of course they can’t, and they’ll turn to crime, and the cycle begins again.

But it’s complicated, because without some of those defraying costs for the Department of Corrections, basic services get reduced, or cut entirely. Another of the subjects we discussed was the severe lack of mental health treatment for offenders. Mental health treatment is arguably a topic that covers both of the interests above. People with diseases shouldn’t have them untreated, and without that treatment, recidivism rates go up. The major complaints on this issue were (1) the mental health technicians were not qualified, (2) the prison put a strong reliance on drugs over therapy, and (3) treatment was only available for the seriously ill, rather than the merely suffering. For example, severe schizophrenia would permit medication, but PTSD, a far more likely ailment in the population, doesn’t justify anything. Addictions also fell under the latter umbrella, and again we’re back to why people end up in prison in the first place. If it’s not clear by now, “bad soul” is not the go-to impetus for striped pajamas.

Our conversation lasted over two hours. We hit the topics above plus plenty more, including reinstatement of voting rights, educational opportunities, and even just access to word processors. Each topic was engaging, and spiraled into new areas of discussion. When our time was finally up, we set some projects for everyone to work on, and promised to meet again.

As we were walking out I was struck with how impressive our hosts were. A lack of freedom, a lack of autonomy, is a terrible existence. (Defendants need strong activists because the consequences are so severe.) Yet despite the very real pressures of the prisoner’s lives inside, they were forward-looking, organizing and working together to create as better a life as possible. I didn’t feel guilty as I left to enjoy the freedoms of society, but I certainly felt sympathy for the people I met who couldn’t leave through the front door. I hoped our visit was a positive one, and I hope we’ll have the opportunity to do something substantial for them soon.

After the visit I felt compelled to thank our hosts. I mailed two copies of three books: one on dealing with PTSD, one on dealing with depression, and one on reintegrating into society after a long prison stretch. All came highly recommended on Amazon.

And…I was told the books were turned away. Or they were destroyed. It was hard to get a straight answer. But a few weeks later I was at a Town Hall event, and who was speaking but one of the directors of the Department of Corrections? I got on the mic and made a public inquiry about the missing books, and he came up afterwards. We discussed it and all the books ended up in the prison library. It’s possible to do good there, but it really shouldn’t be that hard.
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
– Dostoyevsky

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