The grounds are beautiful at the facilities I visit at the State Prison, Department Of Correction. I walk past careful beds of flowers, not a weed in sight. There are no trees or shrubs, though, nothing to interfere with the line of sight. We, the visiting group, go through the main door and into a small reception area with armed officers, two women, one man. Others come and go. They check my name and take my driver’s license, which they say they will return when we leave. They pat us down. No homemade treats are allowed. The other members of the party are checked out and we are sent through a door that clangs behind us. There is another steel door ahead of us, not yet open, so we stand between the doors, crowded into the space, maybe ten feet square, holding what we have brought. This is the moment when the unique experience of prison is made plain to me. The officers are unsmiling and show no emotion – their faces are blank and there is none of the anxiety-easing small talk of normal interchange. As visitors, we are potential sources of trouble. The door ahead of us is opened and clangs shut behind us. Ahead is a corridor whose walls have lists of rules and announcements: There will be a class beginning in Bible study on Thursday in room etc. GED classes will begin again next week. The prison newsletter is open for submissions.
We walk to a room led by a guard who opens the doors for us. The prisoners, in green scrubs are already there. The halls have a smell of disinfectant. This room is slightly better.
We are here to conduct Jewish services in the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the two stellar holidays of the Jewish year. We are bringing sealed supermarket items for a holiday meal. There can be nothing special, nothing handmade. We sit with the prisoners, one and one at the table, chatting for a few minutes. The prayer service begins. We take turns reading.
The room is square and large enough for the 12 of us to sit comfortably on the not very comfortable chairs. It is lit with florescent tubes and faint light from barred windows so dirty that the light comes through them filtered and muzzy.
In the middle of the service, two guards come in. Immediately, the prisoners stand and go to one end of the room, facing the center. A list is read. Each man responds to the number with his own number. The prisoners show no expressions of annoyance or impatience that this rare time with us has been interrupted. The speed with which they respond lets us know that no expressions of irritation or words of impatience are tolerated, even though the guards knew we were here and could have put off the count until we left.
The count completed, the guards leave and we go back to our service and then give out the paper plates and plastic spoons, which will later be collected. We unwrap the less than appetizing food and begin to eat. We have been chatting all the while. Have they been able to light candles for Sabbath prayers? No. What have they watched or read that they have liked lately? Sometimes we laugh together. Newspapers and entertainment programs are scanned here, and edited to weed out acts of violence. We answer questions if we can. Partisan political news is expunged. What is or is not allowed the prisoners changes from day to day and no complaints about this are tolerated. Little planning can be counted on, few plans made. This keeps the escape rate low, but it also infantilizes the inmates.
There is, at all times, a low-key but constant tension in the prison. No one is at ease. Our meal over, we embrace the prisoners and knock on the door – we have been locked in – and the guard opens it an escorts us back the way we have come and to the office. We get our driver’s licenses back and anything that was taken from us as being potentially dangerous or forbidden. Three hours have passed. It feels like all day.
As I think of what a deaf prisoner might experience, especially if no other Deaf are in the facility, I realize how easily misinterpretations can occur. Deaf people use lots of physical actions, signs and expressions. Even when they are not using Sign for speaking, they tend to gesture, to give and reflect facial and body movements, their only ways of understanding emotion and motivation. No one lip-reads that well. The deadpan prison expression in guards and inmates gives them no clues as to what is being requested or implied. There is every kind of room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. The physicality – gestures, facial expressiveness and simple inability to hear are all, contrary to prison culture. Deaf people depend on cues not given in the prison subculture. No wonder their behavior write-ups and bad reports are double those of ordinary inmates. No wonder their sentences are ramped up due to bad behavior.