Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Getting Into Prison

I'm talking about getting in by choice here, the kind where you can get out the same way.

Mostly for me that means a job connection, and that's usually medical. I have delivered meds for some inmate to most of the prisons, even some jails, in the area. Sometimes this means via the front door. It may mean a stop at the first guard desk, passing meds and paperwork via a drawer which was the only access past bullet-proof (I assume: very thick) glass.

Occasionally it has meant delivering boxes of something other than meds, and this has meant clearing the security to get into the dock area. At the Oak Park Heights maximum security prison, there's an intercom outside a tall gate topped with razor wire. But that's only a single gate. Others have double gates, where you drive past one, wait for it to close, and then the other one opens. Shakopee has no fences, just a guard shack and a lift bar across your lane. Perhaps women are considered less dangerous?

Whichever prison, and however I access it, they all have one thing in common: intimidation. I find myself hyper-aware of my need to "seem" innocent, to subvert my personality to erase any hint of humor during my "on campus" time. Nearly always the prison staff is polite, even friendly. I still have absolutely no wish to offend any one of them in any manner whatsoever. My only feeling of protection is my uniform. Its anonymity is my friend. After all these years, I am growing more comfortable with the situation, but it has never felt normal. Even in a facility housing the most dangerous of inmates, I have never encountered one, and they have never been what I've found intimidating. Even if I had, the simple and ubiquitous rule of keeping cars locked seemed adequate protection.

There is another way to get into prison, and that is as a visitor. I have two kinds of experiences with that. Let me tell you right out that I will in no way identify the person I was visiting, nor the facilities.

The first was a county facility. This one was fairly easy to get into, but the visit was limited to phones on either side of a glass wall. Security consisted of filling out information in a log book, about one  line worth, and showing ID. Somebody checked the ID and returned it later. I'm sure some people were weeded out during the process, were they foolish enough to show up with the wrong kind of criminal history.

This would have been an evening visit on a week day. Every so often a few of us were allowed past a locked door, told which place to sit to wait for "our" inmate to be called up to the visitors area. I don't recall a time limit, but the situation itself worked to limit the visit. There's only so much visiting that can be done under those circumstances. Access in and out seemed to depend on staff availability, requiring two to be available at the same time. Out was a bit easier, if memory serves: always reassuring.

The second was a state facility. Access had to be planned for well in advance. First was filling out a form and mailing it in. It included my identification, as well as my reason for wanting to visit. Apparently not just anybody was allowed in. After all that was checked out, I received a letter letting me know that I was added to the inmates list of approved visitors. I was also told how I could and could not behave during the visit, what I could or couldn't bring ( always dropped off at the front desk, never handed directly to the inmate), and was even given a dress code I needed to follow. Some parts of that were logical: dressing modestly, for example, in a facility where no sexual activity was allowed, at lest officially. Why flaunt what they couldn't have? Other things were head-scratchers: why no flip flops? It's not like they could be used as weapons.

This was never an impulse visit, stopping by after work. It had to be planned for, at least partly because these visits were in-person, sitting around a table. No glass walls. Touching was allowed, although always under the watchful eyes of two security guards. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Entry was into a large comfortable lobby. Restrooms were available, and it was wise to use them before the visit, for there was no further access while the visit lasted. After signing in at the guard station and turning over your driver's license, you were to remove outerwear, cell phones, purses or wallets, and pocket contents and lock them away. Your key was kept with your license by the guard until your exit. Any gifts for the inmate were left with the guard for inspection and, if you followed their rules, later sent on. If you brought, say, a CD of DVD, it would be watched in its entirety first.

Once all that was taken care of, and your ID and signature matched to the approved list, you passed through a metal detector. Glasses, belt buckles, and other small items might trip it, but generally returned to the visitor. Your hand was then stamped just  like in a nightclub, not for reentry, but to prove you were the individual allowed out. To be sure, after stamping you put you hand under the UV light to make sure it stuck. This might be another reason for no inside access to restrooms.

Finally all clear, you were allowed, with a guard, to pass through the first locked door, down a small hallway until it closed, then through a second door. You were led to the visitors room, also locked. Your inmate was allowed in via a locked door on a different side of the room. Usually it was a 2-3 minute wait for them to arrive.

Waiting gives you time to observe the room. Scattered round tables with chairs fill the inside. Usually a few are occupied. A bookshelf containing board games sits along one wall. Tiny pencils are allowed for keeping score where appropriate. A guard desk holding two guards at all times sits along one wall, slightly elevated for visibility. Artwork and signs with facility rules line the walls. At the facility I visited, we were informed that some indefinite time in the future, a pop machine had been approved for use, though I wondered how visitors could use it if money had to stay outside.

Visits could be lengthy, usually by families rather than individual visitors, and were in person. Touching was allowed. One could hug or hand-hold if appropriate. If you ran out of conversation, there were always the games. You couldn't bring in pictures with you to show how much somebody had grown or a latest hairstyle, but they could have been dropped off earlier for the inmate to see after your visit.

There happened to be a lockdown for an inmate count while I was there. Announcements were made that it would happen in x minutes, so people could relocate as necessary. The head count matched, so after 5-10 minutes the announcement came through that it was over and movement allowed again. The inmate had to leave the visitor area for meals, giving a natural end to the visit. I'm not sure what adjustments would be made if visits overlapped mealtimes.

Leaving had to be announced to the guards ahead of time, so that your escort had time to arrive. Three locked doors, a hand scan, and you were out in public space again, ready to clear out your locker, get back your ID and anything your inmate wanted to send home with you, visit the restroom, and best of all, go home. No matter how awful the weather may have turned, fresh air never felt so good.

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