Along came the sunlight. Two days had passed since Christmas, since all the merriment. Two days since millions of people around the world had all insisted that they’d celebrated their deity by stringing up brightly colored lights to a tree and singing songs about a green monster who’d ransacked the houses of a small town and run away with everyone’s holiday goodies.
In the middle of a field sat a concrete monster of a building, rounded in barbed wire and bathed. That sun, that bright, godforsaken center of Sol, had the back of my next sweating – not that the perspiration was its fault. I was inside the concrete monster in front of large bay window hoping that I’d be able to make it in to see an uncle of mine. He’d been remanded to the building for more than decade and we’d recently struck up a correspondence.
One of us had written to each other once a week since my aunt passed away from cancer. Years before there’d been a blowout. Of course, he was in prison then too, so it wasn’t a blow out in the usual fashion. I’d stopped driving up to see him because I didn’t have a reliable car and my worst fear in the world was being stuck on the side of some road. Yeah, too many episodes of Unsolved Mysteries will do that to you too.
I received a letter one day blasting me for not being supportive, for not having more compassion for what he was going through inside. Nineteen year old me thought that the letter was ridiculous. Twenty-six year old me thought that letter was bogus too, but understood the situation more. Age was kind to me. It’d pushed my hairline up a few inches and given me new tools to understand what was going on in someone else’s head. I’d could always understand the world, but grew up not-fully grasping interactions with people around me. When you’re stuck in a place against your will and it seems like there’s no one willing to back you up, you think things. I understand the nature of captivity and being a human lot more than I did then.
I stood in that prison welcome lobby with all that glass a different person. I was ready to have a real conversation with him about what he planned to do when his stint was over. I was anxious to hear his attack plan. I don’t get eager often, but I was today, burning sunshine and all.
Which was why I found it ridiculous that after standing there for twenty minutes they wouldn’t let me see him.
Two guards sat at a computer station talking back and forth about my visiting history. They wondered why they couldn’t find me in their “system.” They had me sit down in front of that window with its unfiltered light and wait while they researched this particular hiccup.
“When was the last time you were here,” a lump of woman asked me. “In September,” I said. “Was it a special visit,” she wondered. “I was hear telling him his sister had died.”
She made busy work on the computer in front of her, presumably looking for something that said who I was officially. You know, as if the Virginia State driver’s license that was good enough to let me through a TSA checkpoint, buy alcohol, and vote for the governor whose picture sat smiling to the left of her wasn’t official enough.
Her working diligently allowed me to take the whole situation in. There were people, like me, waiting around behind the desk. They’d been cleared to see their loved ones. A set of lockers and vending machine sat to the far left, people were stuffing anything and everything in those. Another guard was taking coats and running them through the metal detector. I heard another guard from behind a partition instruct a visitor to throw away a tissue that sat in his pocked used. You know, because the used tissue was a threat to prison security.
I don’t have a problem with authority figures. There are laws that need to be enforced, and punishments that need to be administered. Right then, I stood staring at the guard behind the desk’s ridiculous looking black framed glasses, two-toned hair and smug face it occurred to me that I’m not exactly a fan of those who profit off those punishments. Unfairly, I stood there quietly focusing my disgust with society on her.
I’ve always noticed an air of content whenever I’ve come to this prison. How much do these guys make? Is it enough to explain why they always seemed so relaxed and comfortable? They seem to have a regular appointment with a hair stylist, each appointment resulting in a hair design more audacious than the last. Their demeanor wreaks of job security. “It’s a tough job,” I thought to myself. “Cut these guys a break.”
I took back my license after the guard with the two-tone hair and her boss had passed their judgment. According to them, I’d only been allowed to see my uncle months prior because their “system” was down. Basically, she threw them, that other visitor’s center crew, overboard. They hadn’t known who I was then which meant that they shouldn’t have let me in. They couldn’t let me in now because I hadn’t registered in advance on their website – even though I’d already filled out a form the last time.
When the mind works properly it thrives on analyzing information. As I walked to my gray Fiesta I wondered about the families of the people who’d committed crimes in the State of Virginia. I thought about the price they pay for knowing and caring about someone in a prison complex in the middle of nowhere surrounded by cheap motels and a McDonalds with poor customer service.
The people inside a prison have been found guilty of crime by a jury of their peers. We all sit idly by and let the prison system punish them with no problem. What about their family members, their wives, husbands and children? These innocents didn’t stand in front of a jury, but they’re paying like those inside.
Statistically, families of inmates are more likely to be poor, which in turn means they’re less likely to have internet access. They’re less likely to have a reliable car that’ll make it out to the middle of nowhere. Even if they have reliable transportation, they’re less likely to have what it takes to drop a full tank of gas to get them there.
Families of prisoners are less likely to have that extra money lying around, but services like JPay take a cut of every transaction – there’s no way there isn’t a comfortable profit margin in their rates. Supporting an inmate is ridiculously complicated. There are monthly phone services that you need to pay for. Stamps that you need to pay for – god forbid some kind of email service was implemented at no cost (JPay offers paid service of their own). The vending machines in the prison visitor center charge amusement park rates for a Pepsi like staring at the drab walls, guards’ well-kept hair and audacious finger nails is a sick tourist attraction.
I know that they’re guilty of a crime, but it’s hard to understand why anyone is comfortable with the roadblocks and profiteering going on here. Some of our most vulnerable children turn into criminals. We lock them away, give them nothing in terms of trying to better their lives when they get out. We make money off their dreams; we charge them for jail-house certificates that might not earn them enough to stop for a cheeseburger on the route leading back to society. It’s profiteering, plain and simple and we’re all comfortable with it. At the very least, we’re all willing to look the other way and justify it to our friends with, “Well, they shouldn’t have did what they did to get in there.”
How comfortable are we with mugging their families though. Are ok with setting up arbitrary roadblocks to visits in the name of security; are we pleased by every time we manage to sell their families sugar water at absorbent prices because it has been miles since it felt safe for them to stop and buy something at a more reasonable price? How about selling them cheap clear wallets for their coins for which the prison profits. Taking almost half of the $100 their families couldn’t spare already in the name of “punishment?” What about telling people who are statistically less likely to have access to the internet to go online and register for their visit 90 days in advance.
We’re all comfortable with punishing law breakers. At what point did we all become ok with letting the state use some of our guilty, but vulnerable citizens as bait for a cheap shake down?
Turns out, arm chair philosophers were right. Crime does pay. We were just looking in the wrong direction expecting the hand off.