It was my ticket to prison. Following the guard’s direction from the loudspeaker, I pushed the ticket machine button. “128” was printed on what looked like a raffle ticket for a drawing.
“Drive to the top of the parking lot, park and then wait with the others until your number is called,” the faceless stern voice commanded.
I soon found myself with the other visitors. We huddled together in the early morning icy wind. After the two-hour drive, it felt good to stand up, but the wind made me yearn for the shelter of the gatehouse down the hill. It was surrounded by coils of ribbon wire, overshadowed by the guard tower with the black, one way glass.
One lady kindly asked me if this was my first time here.
She told me the routine, what to expect, adding that it was a cold, heartless place to visit.
She and her mother had been coming to see her son for several years now, and it was always a hard thing to do.
“We’re his only connection to the world, to family,” she said.
“It’s the only thing we can do for him, coming here every week,” she said.
Her voice dropped and she looked away. I could see a tear in her eye.
“Numbers 120 to 130,” the voice crackled over the loudspeaker.
We moved hurriedly down the hill into the gatehouse. Paper money was changed into dollar coins for the vending machines, and people took off their jewelry, shoes and belts, and handed their driver’s licenses to the guards.
When my turn came, I identified who I was seeing and then set off the metal detector.
As directed, I moved, blindly, sideways through the metal detector, satisfying the stern faced guard glaring at me.
We all had the back of our right hand stamped, with invisible ink. When we left, a guard shined an ultraviolet light on our hands, making sure we weren’t inmates, that we hadn’t switched places and were organizing a great escape.
I reassembled myself and sat on a wooden bench with some of my cohorts, waiting for our turn to walk in small groups through another steel door and across the yard to the visitors’ building.
Once inside, I was directed to several rows of plastic chairs and low tables, more appropriate for a fourth grade classroom than a prison visiting room. There were a few vending machines on one wall, offering chips, sodas, and coffee.
The room was dimly lit with a few florescent bulbs and small barred windows near the ceiling. The dark cement floor sucked up what little light came through the windows.
A large modern painting of a tree leaned against a gray wall, near a large chair on a platform, where a guard sat, staring out over the assemblage of visitors.
There was nothing else in the room that resembled life on the outside, and I wondered if the painting hadn’t been hung yet, simply because it was so out of place here.
We were grandmothers and aunts, a few girlfriends, two guys who might be brothers of inmates, and a lawyer. He looked out of place, in his three piece suit and large three ring binder. He paced and looked at his watch, anxious to get on with the rest of his day and finish up his business with his client.
The rest of us had our prison visit clothes on. The rules said no blue jeans, no blue shirts or jackets. Blue is the color of inmates here, and the prison wanted a clear distinction.
We waited, and waited some more.
A few inmates came in, embracing their loved ones and then sitting on the opposite side of the small tables.
We waited some more, and I saw the kindly mother and grandmother look at their watches and the big clock on the wall.
I caught their eye and shrugged. They nodded and shrugged back.
Finally, my young friend came out of the side door. He and all the other inmates were clad in blue jeans and blue shirts, with blue lanyards and their prison ID cards around their necks.
We hugged and took our seats.
I hadn’t seen my buddy for four months, since he got sent upstate to adult prison, after serving all the time he could at the youth prison where I go every week. He’s got seven more years to go, and had to move to adult prison when he turned twenty four.
What got him here was something that happened when he was thirteen, when life was crazy, chaotic, without guidance and direction. He was arrested at seventeen, and treated like an adult in court.
The system pounded on him, maxing him out, making sure he got the presumptive sentences reserved for the worst of people.
But he’s not. He was a kid himself when he came to prison, never been in school, never really parented and raised to be a healthy young man.
The youth prison was good for him. He finished school, and let his curiosity lead him to becoming an expert gardener, craftsman, and artist. He taught others, taking on leadership, gaining the skills and confidence of a healthy, productive young man. He’s everything you’d want a young man to be in this world.
We talked for the next hour and a half, two friends catching up on our lives, and the news from the youth prison.
His dad died last month, a heart attack ending a troubled life, leaving the relationship with the son in prison still unresolved, still unhealed. The anger and bitterness now mixed up with grief, with the emptiness of not being able to go to his father’s funeral, to take care of his widowed mother, and the rage and violent life of the younger brother.
We tested out the vending machines’ offerings of soda and coffee. Starbucks has no worries about the competition here.
My friend has a good job, managing the kitchen garden. He’s ramped up the composting, and is planning new crops for the summer. His eyes twinkle as he tells me of his plans and the new watering system he’s designing.
He’s saving his money for a guitar. Prison rules wouldn’t let him bring his old guitar with him, but he’s scribbled out some new songs, and another guy has let him borrow his guitar once in a while.
I can’t send him a guitar. He has to buy it from the prison canteen.
“They worry that you’d send in drugs with the guitar, you know.”
We laughed. He’s too serious of a musician to think about smuggling in drugs or being a criminal.
“There’s ‘yard night’ in the summer,” he tells me. “I’ll have my new guitar by then.”
You can bring your guitar with you, and guys play and sing, and tell stories. They even barbeque and turn the prison yard into a house party, at least for two hours on a hot summer night.
I don’t ask him much about life here. I can tell he’s not wanting to share, not wanting to explain the emptiness, the boredom.
He grins when he talks about the botany book I sent him. College level stuff, and good for his mind. He reads it every night, soaking up the science, the methodology. He redraws the illustrations, creating new works of art in his cell.
Last year, he petitioned the Governor for clemency. About twenty people added letters of endorsement, from the youth prison’s school principal to most of the volunteers. The prison staff weren’t allowed to endorse the petition, but loaded up their letters with assessments and evaluations of what he’d accomplished.
We attached his portfolio of botany illustrations, and photos of his wood carvings and wood burnings, and the multi-layered wooden bowl that won a special blue ribbon at the county fair. We sent copies to legislators, and we wrote to the Governor.
Nothing has happened with that, and now he’s in this prison of 800 men, medium security for the next seven years. Or, until the Governor might decide that he needs to be out, needs to be working on his bachelor’s degree in botany at Oregon State University, and creating fine works of art for the world to enjoy.
We didn’t talk about all that. The silence from the Governor’s office lies like a stone in my heart. It’s too painful for him, too. Seven years more is a long, long time.
The guard in the chair boomed out, “Visiting is over. Inmates to the rear. Visitors to the front.”
We stood, and I picked up our empty coffee cups. Awkwardly, we moved to the end of the table, and hugged one last time.
“I’ll come again soon,” I said.
“Oh, you’re busy. I’m doing fine,” he said.
He doesn’t lie well, and looked down at his shoes.
“I’m not too busy for you, son,” I said.
“I’ll be back,” I said. “You’re an important guy to me, you know.”
For the second time that day, I saw a tear form in someone’s eye.
And when I got back to my pickup, there was more than just a tear.
—Neal Lemery 2/5/2017