November 18, 2009
I took a friend with me to visit a prisoner in a federal correctional institute last week. My friend is a former Ohio State prof, a published author, and a member of my Mens Bible Study. Weve been praying for several years for P, who is serving eight years for attempted murder.
The three-hour drive was a pleasant one, despite the lousy weather. The prof and I got to swap stories, talk about our families, how we met our wives, all kinds of interestingat least to usstuff.
When we arrived at last at the prison, we were confronted by a mocking prison guard. He very quickly told the prof he could not enter the prison. His paperworkdutifully filled outhad not yet been processed. Even though P had written me saying hed very much like to have the prof visit, that did not matter.
The guard looked me over suspiciously. He took an inordinate period of time to study my ID card. He quickly banned my cell phone and car keys. OK, I can understand why theyre not allowed. The prof would take them back to my car and wait there for me while I went in to see P.
Not so fast. I first had to take off my shoes, put my wallet and fountain pen in the basket to go through the metal detector. OK. Thats no different from getting on a commercial airliner these days. Stand here, the guard barked. NO, not there, here, he ordered pointing to a line on the floor.
Then, I had to have my hand stamped with an ultra-violet stamp. I coughed, but covered my mouth with the back of my hand. Thats not the way you do it, the guard lectured me, demonstrating coughing into his sleeve. His manner was patronizing. How could I be so dense?
If you give them any back talk, they can bar you from visiting. I finally got through this gantlet of humiliation and arrived in the prisons visiting room. The process had taken twenty minutes.
P greeted me joyfully. He eyes were moist. I realized that it was worth it to go through that degrading experience just to see the little happiness my visit could bring.
Although we write letters weekly, this was the first time Id seen P in a year. My May attempt to visit him had been barred by the guards. Even though Id submitted my paperwork weeks before, they hadnt gotten around to processing it.
The first thing I noticed was that P had lost three front teeth in that period. It was difficult initially to understand him. P fears he will lose all his teeth before he gets out. He is guilty. He acknowledges his guilt. But should his prison sentence mean no proper dental care? What if he were a detainee in Guantanamo Bay? Then, surely, hed get dental care.
We had a good two hours in that visiting room. P told me that many of his fellow prisoners were jihadists. They have been seething in their hatreds for years. P does not deny his own guilt, but he told me a disturbing story of one fellow prisoner.
This prisoner would normally have gotten 8-10 years for dealing drugs. But, because he refused to testify against some of the bigger drug kingpins in his inner city neighborhood, he was slammed with a 20-year sentence. This convicted drug dealer knew that to rat out the others would have meant a death sentence for him, and maybe as well for members of his family. Colombian drug dealers in Brooklyn made a practice of neck tying the family members of rival dealers. Thats where they slit the throats of wives or children and pull their tongues out.
As I prepared to go, P and I embraced. He was nearly in tears. So was I. I stood on the yellow line at the exit door and waited. And waited. Some 25 minutes passed until I was allowed to leave. A guard snapped her fingers and told me to stand on the second yellow line between the two prison buildings. She walked on ahead and told me to advance toward a third yellow line.
I have no idea why we have to toe the mark on any yellow lines except perhaps to make us feel that we, too, are prisoners. When we entered the last building, I was ordered to put my stamped hand under the ultra-violet scanner. Three bright letter Ms showed up on my hand. But no response came from the guards reading my hand. I stood. Not like that, like this, my escort instructed me, rotating her hand flat against the window, as if going in and out of prisons was something everyone should know how to do.
Back at the entry point, the original smart aleck guard ordered me back to the mark. You havent signed out yet. He pointed to the log book. I struggled to find my own name. There were thirty sign-ins after mine.
Noticing my college ring as I signed out, he sneered: Where did you get that? I told him it was from my school, and unable to resist firing back, I asked him if he had gone there, too. No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.
Back at the car, my friend the prof said he had tried to meet me at the appointed hour. When he asked the guard if Mr. Morrison had come out yet, the wise guy had made a joke of looking up at the ceiling, under the desk, in the corners. Nope, I dont see any Morrisons around here, he cracked. The prof told him he didnt appreciate the mockery.
Maybe thats why I was jerked around leaving the visiting room. Or maybe it was just freshman hazing.
I havent punched anybody since 1966, but I sure felt like it that day. Its not hard to see how our federal prisons can become incubators for terrorists. Jihadist clerics gain easy entry. They are chaplains who are allowed to meet regularly with enraged men behind bars. If I felt like committing violence in just a three-hour period, imagine what it must be like to go through that degradation day in and day out?
What is being corrected at these correctional institutions? And why would you want to bring detainees from Gitmo into this system? It seems like madness. Sen. Leahy thinks we have the finest judicial system in the world. Maybe Pat Leahy should try visiting one of our prisons before making such pronouncements.