THIS IS A TRUE STORY BUT I HAVE CHANGED A FEW DETAILS SO THAT THE PEOPLE ABOUT WHOM I AM WRITING WILL HAVE THEIR PRIVACY PROTECTED.
We wait in the prison visitors parking lot after checking in at the main gate. We have to show ID which is examined carefully and explain tediously who we are picking up and our relationship to the person.
I am a mentor to the young man I am picking up. I will take him to a re-entry program after checking him in with the county parole and probation office. He, of course, will enjoy his first lunch as a free man and a phone call to his mother who is several hundred miles away in another state before I drop him at the program’s residence.
A mother and her two nephews sit in a battered old Chevy while I pace the lot. A father is in a nearby older SUV, dozing while his mixed-breed dog (appears mostly collie) stares at my nervous walking back-and-forth across the lot.
A third car, a modest sedan, is quite a distance away and I can’t see who is in the car at first.
I was told to arrive at 9.30 am sharp. The mother with the nephews was told 8.30 am. I learn later that all four of the groups there were given different times to arrive: 8 am, 8.30 am, 9 am, 9:30 am. I guess it depends on whom we talked to.
Eventually, a man and woman get out of the distant car and begin their own pacing in the lot, but at a distance from us.
Each has different concerns and worries. Eventually we coalesce into an awaiting group as the clock ticks and it is now close to 12:00 pm. We are becoming impatient and the two young boys are hungry.
I walk up to the guard gate with one of the mothers, Beverly, to ask what the delay is. We learn that the prison is doing a second count since they thought someone had escaped when their count indicated they were one person short. He was in the library but after they found him there they have to count again.
I hope my face doesn’t show how ridiculous that sounds to me. Can’t they just add one to the previous count and see that all inmates are present and accounted for?
There is a tiny public bathroom in the front of the guard building. I use it first while Beverly waits. As I exit the bathroom I hear my phone ringing in my blue jeans pocket. I must have “pocket-dialed” so I pull out my phone to quickly hang it up before whomever I dialed answers.
A guard comes out of the building, approaching me. “Ma’am. No phone calls allowed except in the parking lot.” I respond, “I’m sorry. I pocket-dialed my phone so I was just hanging up the phone. I wasn’t making a call.” The phone is already back in my pocket. “Ma’am. No phone calls allowed here.”
Again – I put on my poker face. Arbitrary and unfair decisions of correctional officers and administrators abound. I do not want to be the cause of this young man losing his early release because I want to point out another absurdity.
I head slowly back to the parking lot so that Beverly doesn’t think I abandoned her when I told her I’d wait for her outside the bathroom. The guard, arms crossed, continues to stare at me for my ignorance of a rule, telling me, “Move, on, ma’am.”
When we get back to the visitors lot, I tell the mother/aunt that we have probably another hour to wait so she takes her nephews to the McDonalds that is about a 15-minute drive from the prison. They get back a bit before 1 pm.
She, the walking couple, even the dad with the dog and I are all now talking together since we have been relegated to waiting close to 4 hours (close to 5 hours for two of the families). I learn their stories.
The son of the mother with the nephews has been in for a decade for drug crimes. He was to get out six months ago after he completed a drug program but was told to go back to his old housing unit for a few weeks. He refused since he believed his successful rehabilitation would now make him a target; authorities told him he disobeyed an order and had to be punished another half year. Meanwhile, though, he didn’t know he had six months added on to his sentence so six months ago his mom was there waiting for his release for a few hours before she was told, “Not today, ma’am.” Her drive is several hours each direction.
The pacing couple’s son has a complex background of psychological issues and despair and addiction and they are unsure he will have success on the outside. They are unwilling to take him in to their home so will drive him to the other side of the state where a sister is tentatively agreeing to give him a chance.
The elderly dad (with his dog) has a look of trepidation and doesn’t share much information. He seems beaten down, as if perhaps he has followed the same trail as his son. He does say that his son has served day-for-day so has no parole and can leave the state. They are heading to Georgia.
A guard drives out to the visitor’s lot. “The second count is over. Maybe another half hour.” It is 1.30 pm.
Finally, nearing 2.30 pm, four smiling men come out of the front gates, each carrying a satchel, all wearing flip flops. I see that the young man whom I am picking up has lost a lot of weight but otherwise looks fairly well. Each of us in this briefly bonded group introduces our freed men to the others and wishes good luck to all. Then, we all head out on our separate ways.