Have you ever visited someone in jail? This past Sunday I went over to the Essex County Jail to visit a friend’s son. The jail holds up to 120 inmates, many boarded from other districts, which helps cover the County’s overhead costs. It is located on Stowersville Road in Lewis, which connects Route 9 with the Northway, on the right just before Betty Beaver’s truck stop where the Rolling Stone’s once dined en route to or from a Montreal gig.
Inmates are allowed just two visitors, arriving together, for one of four time slots on Saturday and Sunday, a maximum of four people over two days on a first-come, first-served basis. When you arrive, you turn over your driver’s license or other appropriate I.D., are given a key to a locker attached to a visitor’s badge, place your wallet, pens cell phone, camera, cigarettes, chewing gum, candy and any other items in a locker and wait sitting in thick plastic chairs that have been bolted to the floor. The walls are cinderblock painted in a light neutral color.
Taped to the desk of the attendant is the mailing address of the facility for those wishing to send a letter to an inmate, what is not written is that the full name and return address of the sender must be printed on the outside of any letter or it will not be delivered — it will be returned to the sender. There is another card that provides the account and phone number for calling inmates, one can put money into the account against which the length of the call is docked, something like 50 cents for the first minutes and 20 cents a minute thereafter.
A few minutes before the visiting time, the attendant calls out to confirm the inmates being visited, then automatically locks the outside door, and unlocks an inside door which we enter after passing through a metal detector. Once we are all in the door to the waiting room is locked, the door into the visitation room then unlocked and we file in and around a large U-shaped table that can seat approximately 24 visitors in total. The prisoners arrived in two batches. The men’s uniforms consisted of wide gray and white horizontal stripes and the women red and white.
On the prisoner’s side are stools, much like those found in a dinner, and on our side short wooden benches which two people can squeeze on. The prisoners and the visitors both face a sloped partition which either can lean on and, at the beginning, lean over to shake the other’s hand or give a hug. No one is allowed to stand. Along a far wall are a series of rooms, perhaps four, where prisoners and their visitors can sit separated by glass using a phone to communicate.
The setting and actions of the people are watched over by guards, who throughout seemed very professional, respectful and, dare I say it, friendly – supportive of the process. We are all fairly closely arrayed side by side so one has to focus on the person across as there is quite a hubbub in the room. The visitors, as was apparent by their license plates, came from New York and Vermont, and some as far away as Texas. A few I recognized, most I did not.
I learned that some prisoners barter amongst each other for favors, be it creating a drawing or changing the channel to see a particular TV show, and that the longer a prisoner has served time the more authority they have over selecting the TV channels to watch. They are, of course divided up into pods be it for their own protection or other factors and all have single rooms.
The prisoner I met spent a lot of free time reading, which I encouraged be used in a constructive manner – to enhance one’s knowledge or skills rather than just reading just for entertainment, in other words to consider how to make the best of a bad situation, advice that others have also given. I also talked about my trip to Germany, some funny experiences from my youth, and asked questions about life as a prisoner.
The time went all too quickly and soon it was time to leave, for us to get up and depart following the same process of doors being locked and opened and locked again so we went from one contained space to another.
For many, that brief visit, or if they are lucky, one on Saturday and Sunday, is the highlight of the prisoner’s week, other than perhaps a meeting with a counselor, lawyer or, for a local, with the physician’s aide for their health checkup – a person they may know. Any books and approved arts supplies they receive must come packaged directly from a bookseller, like Amazon, and not from home or friends, with only paperback books allowed.
I didn’t think about what the prisoners might have done, nothing along those lines. I was more aware of being in a room full of people who mostly looked like any other just taking a moment in time to connect. The prisoners were mostly men, and the visitors reflecting a greater diversity of sex and age. One could not help but think of the many prisoners who didn’t get any visitors because the jail was too far from their home. It was clear that the human connection with people that they knew mattered a great deal.
No one wants to see a friend in such circumstances, yet I was glad to be invited. We all need support in the tough times as well as the good times. The thing that I have learned growing up in Lake Placid during the hard economics of the 1950a, and having lived many other places, is that one benefit of being so interconnected, as we are in small towns, is that people will be there for you when you need them because, in part, they know one day they too may need you.