My friend Jackie drove me the 50 miles or so from the larger city where she lived down to the state capital, the location of the state’s main medium-security prison. I’d talked on the phone the day before with my friend, going over the final details of my visit and the endless rules to follow.
Don’t wear blue.
Don’t wear jeans.
No high heels.
No open-toed shoes.
No electronic devices.
No metal of any kind.
No tight or sexually-provocative clothing.
Skirts must fall at, or below, the knee.
Shirts must cover the chest, shoulders, back, and stomach.
No more than five sheets of photographs.
All photographs must be cleared beforehand by guards.
No writing instruments.
No blank paper.
No touching, except for at the beginning and end of the visit.
Visits may be denied or terminated at any point.
No one is permitted on prison property before 8 a.m., but if you arrive any later than 8:15 a.m., you can be stuck waiting for hours for a visiting spot to open up. A large group of cars accumulates up near the gates as their occupants wait for 8 a.m. Everyone is anxious to be the first in the door. It reminds me of boarding an aircraft, with all the passengers loitering near the gate waiting for their row number to be called, so that they can be the first in line. I’ve never understood why people do this. Do they think they are somehow going to get to their destination faster? At the guard booth, by the entrance, you have to identify yourself, identify the inmate you are visiting by name and number, and wait while the guard checks your name against the inmate’s file. You are then issued a number and told to wait in a specific spot in the parking lot for your number to be called. By the time I get to the waiting area, there is already a cluster of chattering women passing around pictures and sharing stories. They clearly already know each other, and as a newcomer I am eyed with suspicion. As more people arrive, I am reminded of something I once read about people sentenced to time in prison: the women will wait for their men, but men rarely wait for their women.
Going through security upon entering the prison proper is like going through security at an airport. After surrendering my phone, I have to go through a metal detector, which promptly goes off. The guard asks if I have any jewelry or piercings, and I say no, but I do have shrapnel in my jaw and leg (from two separate but equally painful incidents). The guard thinks I’m joking, and suggests that it might be the metal clasps at the back of my bra. This strikes me as being largely academic. Since the vast majority of men are unable to figure out how to use a bra clasp at all, it seems unlikely they’d be able to fashion it into any kind of weapon. I keep this particular insight to myself.
Once you clear security, you have to show your I.D., give your authorization number, and identify the inmate you are visiting by name and number. As soon as I say my friend’s name, I feel the atmosphere in the room change. The other women no longer eye me with suspicion and suddenly want to chat. Apparently, suspicion is trumped by notoriety, even if the notoriety is not my own. Notoriety is almost as desirable as fame, because if no one is paying attention to you, you might as well not exist. Some of the most terrible acts in history have been carried out in the pursuit of notoriety and a desire to be remembered, even for something negative. After all, if you don’t make a mark on the world, were you ever really here?
My friend achieved notoriety at the age of fifteen. He is the reason many schools in his state now have metal detectors and random bag searches. He prompted one of the standard backlashes that demonstrate society’s willingness to sacrifice the vast majority of its culture in order to ensure that what remains is “safe.” His mugshot was in every newspaper in the country. Two decades later, almost everyone on the west coast still knows his name. While the rest of the world tries to grab its chance at the immortality offered by fame and its darker cousin infamy, he does not want it. The notoriety that the other visiting women want to share in has made him a target. The otherwise liberal state he lived in used his notoriety to send a message to others, sentencing him not as an individual, but as a symbol of a new phenomenon that frightened America. Teenagers and loners write to him expressing their desire to emulate him. He was mentioned repeatedly in the infamous Columbine “basement tapes” by two then-unknown Colorado teenagers, who would go on to eclipse him in terms of both carnage and infamy. New inmates try to establish their status by picking on him, unaware that he is a quiet person, who prefers to spend most of his time alone, reading aloud to himself and writing in his journals, rather than the violent psycho they have been sold by the media. When I finally walk into the visiting room, I am the first visitor he has had in years.
Above all, he is lonely. He eats standing up by the wall in the cafeteria, rather than at a table because he doesn’t understand the clique system in prison any more than he did in high school. He misses his mother, but if he shows it, both the guards and the inmates will taunt him mercilessly. He sees a therapist twice a week for the kind of therapy that could have prevented his life from going the way it did. He told me once that the only thing that keeps him going is the thought that he might one day be released, but that with every passing year it becomes harder and harder to believe. Three and a half hours later, he hugged me and thanked me for being the first person to ever show him “pure, honest compassion.”
That night, I cried myself to sleep.