Visiting a Maximum Security Prison

June 23, 2018

I visited a prison today.

 

After hearing about a catholic church in my town visiting prisons, I decided to join them.

 

I really had no idea what to expect.

 

As much as I was hoping to bring a bit of comfort to these prisoners, I was equally filled with nerves and anxiety on meeting these men face to face.

 

These inmates were sentenced to a minimum of 20 years and were all incarcerated for serious criminal charges. 

 

After a rigorous screening process, we were allowed into the prison.

 

The visiting center looked like a large high school cafeteria, filled with lines of vending machines.  We sat down to wait for specifically two inmates.

The visiting center looked like a large high school cafeteria, filled with lines of vending machines. 

I looked around the room and saw visitors, men and women of all ages.

 

The toughest to see were the children that were waiting for their fathers to come out.  I had to look away and kept my gaze towards the closed doors.

 

After what felt like an eon, the first gentleman appeared wearing a baggy jumpsuit pants and polo t-shirt. 

 

He looked like an ordinary man, sturdy and clean shaved.

He looked like an ordinary man, built and clean shaved.

Shortly after, the next gentleman followed, and he looked even more clean and well put together. 

 

I saw my ignorance surface as the "stereotypical image" I had of prisoners left me feeling embarrassed. 

 

Both men came and hugged the visitors in our group.

 

After calming the nervous storm inside, I extended my hand and gave both a warm hug.

 

They were both extremely happy to see us.

 

We immediately took them to the vending machines and bought them as much snacks and drinks they wanted.

We immediately took them to the vending machines and bought them as much snacks and drinks they wanted.

Like a kid in a candy store, both men's eyes lit up as the snacks dropped from each vending machine.

 

They even told us which machines were the best bang for our buck.

 

We all sat down and the group began to carry on where they last left off.

 

All of a sudden, the speakers turned on and asked for all visitors to sit down.

All of a sudden, the speakers turned on and asked for all visitors to sit down. 

It was time to count the inmates.

 

For an hour, the inmates had to remain standing while the prison guards were tallying up the +2,000 inmates all over the facility.

 

We continued to offer encouragement and prayer, and shared the current events from the outside world (Uber, iPhones, etc).  He was captivated by our every word.

 

After awhile, I felt comfortable with these strangers that I had just met a few moments ago.

 

 

I began to ask more personal questions:

 

How did you end up in prison?

 

The first gentleman was 52 years old, had a 28 year sentence with 5 years left.  He was initially involved in a gang and was incarcerated for murdering the opposing gang member in a street fight.

 

The second gentleman was 43 years old, had a 25 year sentence with 9 years left.  He was incarcerated for murdering his father after a big argument while drinking.

 

What do you want to do when you get out? 

 

The first gentleman was currently taking construction classes offered at the facility and wanted to work for a construction company.

 

The second gentleman was taking computer graphics classes and was hoping to help small businesses build websites.  

 

What do you miss most? 

 

Food (from home), Freedom, and Family.

With my juvenile understanding of prison, I took away a few things:

 

1. Prison culture is intensely magnified

Prison culture is intensely controlled and monitored.  From the food to the water and clothing, its conditions are intentionally created to be hostile and discomforting.  However, the only way to "survive" is to obey and follow abrasive commands.

 

2. We are more similar than different

Human dignity is providing the same base that we are all the same. When we separate me and you, there’s this magical window that separates all of us. And I realized that my situation could have easily turned south during my hardship and trials but I was privileged enough to have the right surrounding and faith to keep me on the right path. I’m not trying to justify anyone’s actions, but reminded that we all need empathy for humans.  After all, we are more similar than different.

 

3. There is still hope behind bars

Inmates are offered a chance to earn an adult basic education (GED) and can even earn an associate's and bachelor's degree.  However, it's often difficult to achieve this.  If they don’t have a family pushing them, a dream to become a good citizen, or a community encouraging them to become a better person, it’s a cyclical downward spiral that keeps them behind bars. This transformation can only happen from the inside-out. 

 

The four hours I spent was humbling and challenged many aspects of my life.  I'm not sure when but I plan to return again; to have the opportunity to get to know more of these men.

 

-Pai

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