A Prison Story: Profit by Any Other Name

“When was the last time you were here,” the lump of a woman asked me. The guard turned to a work friend to show off the expensive manicure she’d gotten the day before. She did this just as I told her I last visited in September to tell my uncle his sister was gone. She flashed the new nails at me. “So crime does pay well,” I asked. The conversation went downhill after that.

It was December 27th. Two days ago millions of people around the world had celebrated their deity of choice by stringing up brightly colored lights to a tree and singing songs about a Grinch that ransacked the houses of a small town and ran away with everyone’s holiday goodies.

Out in the middle of a lush green field, I sat inside a concrete monster of a building with barbed wire at its borders. That sun, that bright, godforsaken center of Sol, made my back sweat as I waited for a verdict on my admission.

I was here hoping to see an uncle of mine. He’d been remanded to the building for more than a decade. We’d recently began sending letters back and forth. One of us had written to each other once a week since my aunt passed away from cancer. Each letter we sent to each other had pictures of cool things or updates on how the rest of the family was doing.

The relationship wasn’t always this cordial. There was a huge blowup 5 years before. He was in prison then too, so it wasn’t a blowup in the usual fashion. I got an angry letter claiming I’d been selfish in not sending him money or doing tasks that he wanted to be done. I’d stopped driving up to see him because I didn’t have a reliable car. My worst fear in the world is being stuck on the side of some road. Too many episodes of Unsolved Mysteries will do that to you too. I stopped writing to him because he was acting an idiot.

On this day in December, I was ready to have a real conversation with him despite all this. Age had pushed my hairline up a few inches and given me new tools to understand what was going on in someone else’s head. When you’re forced to confront the mistakes you make ever and over again, you write dumb things to family members in your frustration. If he could move on, I could too.

After twenty minutes of standing in front of that window, I was told there wouldn’t be any discussion of his future plans because I wasn’t allowed to see him at all.

Two guards sat at a computer station talking back and forth about my visiting history. The one with the exotic nail job wondered why they couldn’t find me in their “system.” She had me sit down in front of that window and wait while they researched this particular hiccup. Presumably, she was looking for proof that I was who I said I was. My Virginia State driver’s license was good enough to let me through a TSA checkpoint and buy alcohol. Voting for the guy running against the person whose portrait said “Governor,” involved even less identification.

Her diligent typing allowed me to take the whole situation in. A set of lockers and vending machine sat to the far left. People stood there stuffing anything and everything inside them. Another guard was taking coats and running them through the metal detector. Yet another state employee instructed a visitor sitting behind a partition to throw away a used tissue in his pocket used. You know, because the used tissue was a threat to prison security. Someone may have covered it with a secret formula to melt through concrete, metal and give the carrier the power of invisibility.

It was at this point that I started to think about the real costs of incarceration. We all want laws and punishment. If we didn’t, TNT would be airing less Law and Order.

Prisons have turned into fine examples of capitalism. A woman putting her stuff inside one of the lockers did so because she didn’t want to spend $10 on a coin purse the prison had for sell. She couldn’t bring in change for the vending machine without the purse. Inside, you could have a picture with the inmate you were there to meet. That picture — a Polaroid if you remember what those are — was $10. You only got one. The vending machines in the prison charged amusement park rates for a Pepsi. It was as if staring at the drab walls, the entry guard’s well-kept hair, and audacious fingernails were a tourist attraction that demands the highest caliber Sour Patch candies. When you can’t visit, you’re encouraged to use a JPay account to send an email. As you might have guessed, JPay emails require “stamps.”

I haven’t stopped thinking about the scams we pull on the families of prisoners since I was turned away from that prison. The people inside have been found guilty of a crime by a jury of their peers. We’re happy that there’s a system for dealing with crime.

Their families take on major headaches when for them doing something stupid. Black communities have invented a shorthand for giving a family member money for jailhouse materials. “Putting money on their books,” is universal slang for heading to a corrections facility to gift an inmate some of your hard earned cash so that they stop calling you and asking for it.

This money goes to jail-house certificates that promise inmates a better life when they make it out. Think of it as for-profit college, but without the freedom to get away from the ads. Each twenty-minute phone call home has a price tag. The inmates that work in these prisons don’t pay for all this themselves. They call home and we pay for it again and again. It only stops when they get out and attempt to put the certificate they overpaid for to good use. With felonies on their record, some of them offend again. We start the cycle all over again.

I like asking questions, and here are a few I’ve come up with since that day I was turned away from seeing my uncle. How are we comfortable with mugging families of inmates? Are we pleased 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 do we sleep at night knowing that companies like JPay are snatching up funds from the most vulnerable members of our communities so that their loved ones can send an email with a photo attached? Is incarceration their punishment or is watching their family members struggle to deal with the laundry list of costs to see and communicate with them the real penalty?

I’ve searched my conscious and only know two things for sure. First, crime pays. We were just looking in the wrong direction expecting the handoff. Second, somehow, nails can be expensive-looking and ugly at the same time.