All we hear are the bad, the ugly and depressing times in prison, and true, it is so. But there are happy times, that even the guards will sometimes put on a smile. I have been a visitor to prisons in Florida, North Carolina and California. Visiting days are essentially all the same – full of laughter, hugs, tears and voices. It is the only opportunity friends and family of the incarcerated see each other. A parent bringing children to visit the other parent or grandparent. Lots of catching up to do. I’ve written a lot about deaf inmate Felix Garcia, but for a change, I will describe a visiting day with a prisoner in California.
John is a California inmate who transferred to Florida on a family hardship Interstate Compact Agreement sometime in mid 1990’s. His mother was beginning her illness (which later took her life) and he needed to be close by for her as the man in the family. She needed his support with daily phone calls and weekend visits with her son. I came to know John via Felix. They were cell mates. In 1999/2000 he was back in California.
In 2004 I flew out to California to see a very dear friend in San Diego. I made prior plans to go see John at the California Mens Colony in San Luis Obispo (for short SLO). My drive from San Diego to San Luis Obispo in my rental car took about 6 hours. SLO is tucked among a few mountains, the Pacific ocean is only 11 miles west and is situated half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is your medium size community, quite immaculate for the most part, from what I can remember. It is also a university town and home to one of the largest prisons in California.
I drove into town on a Friday, checked into a motel downtown, and drove out to where the prison was so I could determine how long it would take me to get there the next morning and to find out their particular visiting procedures. I was told I need to come early in the morning to receive a number – the earlier you arrived, the lower your number and the quicker you will get inside when the gate opens at 9 a.m.
On Saturday morning I arrived at 7 a.m. at the gate, the correctional officer gave me a paper ticket – it had #10 on it. He told me to go have breakfast, be back about 8:45 a.m. and be in line according to my number. I was excited at this opportunity to see John as I had not seen him since he left Florida. We kept in touch my mail, though, fairly often mainly due to the fact I was doing his legal briefs on parole issues which have continued until recently.
I met some interesting people while standing in line, some were happy to be having this visit, some were sad it had to be in prison, and children looking around wondering what it was all about. My number came up, the correctional officers did their routine of checking my pocket contents, running the scanner wand over my body (could have been where I walked through the scanning machine, have forgotten), frisking if needed. Don’t remember taking my shoes off but that is done in some prisons. An officer directed me to the visiting area.
I took a seat at a table, looked around, saw people hugging (permitted one hug when you meet and one hug when you leave), saw where the canteen was, checked out the restroom area and settled in until John arrived. It generally takes a little while for the inmates to come as they need to be called to the visiting area from their dorms, they need to walk to the visiting building, get in line, patted down, sometimes stripped searched (mostly though when leaving due to the potential of a visitor bringing in some contraband) and wait to be allowed to go into the visiting room.
In walks John and he gives me a big hug. We are smiling and happy to see each other again. First on the agenda is to get some food, that takes awhile too, as there is always a line up to the canteen. With our coffees etc. at hand, the talking begins – catching up on family, any Florida news, his case, and whatever comes to mind. We told funny stories, we talked with people around us. John showed me some high profile people serving time with him. We talked non stop. So was everyone else and the acoustics are not good in prison visiting rooms – never! But the gaiety is very evident because visiting is not taken for granted. Visitations are a privilege, not a “right.” The correctional officers even smile at times and are in no way being “correctional”at this time, unless something provokes it like shouting, arguing, couples too close to each other. Some become fairly friendly with the visitors who come in on a regular basis and they say hello and how are you but in no way get into personal conversations with the inmates and families. They still have a job to do.
Our visit seemed to go so quickly but we had another day that made the departure this day easier, especially on John. He gets a visit maybe once a year or every two years now that he is back in California. The second day went just as well and fast. It is time to say good bye, I get a really big farewell hug. He tells me to have a safe trip back to Florida, to say hello to his family and to Felix, and waves goodbye. I walk out outside grateful for freedom, and so happy to have been a part of making someone’s day a little brighter.
These are the good times in prison, prisoners live for the weekends for a visit, it is what keeps them looking forward when all else around them looks hopeless. They go back to their cells with a smile on their face, a ray of sunshine in their heart – yes, it was a good day!
- New report examines how prison spending impacts higher ed in California (sentencing.typepad.com)
- Our View: Allow inmates to talk (appeal-democrat.com)
- 42 correctional officers transferred temporarily from California Men’s Colony (sanluisobispo.com)
- Behind jail’s bars, time gets harder (sanluisobispo.com)