Today I Went To Prison

I went to a prison for the first time today. I accompanied one of the attorneys for the law project at which I intern on a legal visit to one of our clients. It was horrifying. I am more convinced than ever that something needs to change: the prison industrial complex is just wrong, on so many levels. 

As I walked into the building, I almost had to remind myself to keep breathing. Keeping the attorney with me in eyesight helped; he makes things less terrifying. When that wasn’t possible, though, I ended up mentally running through a chant from high school theatre — we used it in a tradition prior to shows in order to center ourselves, and I have a strong emotional connection to it, so it helped me to calm down. It might be a little ridiculous, but frankly, since it worked, I don’t care.

Even as just a visitor, it was a nerve-wracking and intensely regulated experience. They wanted to know everything about me — name, age, sex, address, phone number, weight, height, race (incidentally, they apparently don’t get many Asian visitors at the prison we visited), hair color, eye color, driver’s license/state ID number, car license plate number, place of work, who I was visiting, and why I was visiting them. I could only wear one ring (temporary goodbye to the Claddagh ring my freshman year roommate gave me for my 21nd birthday). We couldn’t take anything other than our papers and pens (and I think we were only allowed those because it was a legal visit). We were individually patted down by a correctional officer inside a tiny room literally titled the shakedown room.

There were so many layers of barred doors and gates, several of them controlled by a correctional officer at a distance. Even though I was there freely, with someone I trust completely, and basically certain that they would let us leave when we were through, it was intensely unsettling. I cannot fathom how exponentially worse it would be to actually be incarcerated, and I pray to Athena — and anyone else who may be listening — that I will never have cause to find out.

On the outside of the prison, the grass was a bright, bright green. It just struck me as ridiculous — the juxtaposition of the verdant grass, full of life, with the prison, a site of so much violence  and such denial of life.

The whole experience, especially the actual visit with the client, was a lot to process. When things get a bit much, I tend to compartmentalize a little — mentally shove away whatever is overwhelming me in order to deal with it later and let anything else come forth in my mind. I think I ended up alternating between being silent (singing “For Good” in my head because I am also dealing — perhaps not so successfully — with the fact that I am leaving Chicago this week) and rambling on about whatever popped into my head.

Despite the way my coping strategies may have made it appear, I will never forget my experience today. I know that I can never go back to accepting the prison industrial complex as a fact of life, as I have in previous years. I do not know what my future in Minnesota will bring, but I will remain committed to prison abolition.

8 responses to “Today I Went To Prison

  1. Great post about your experience with the prison. I would love to do that as an intern. I admire that you did this. I love law.

  2. I’m interested to know what you propose instead of prisons. I, too, think there are some egregious human rights violations happening in prisons, but I’d like to know what your ideas for alternatives are, if you want to completely do away with prisons. I actually just visited a prison on Friday, so this has been on my mind, too.

    • Amanda, I don’t know where ;you are at but In Illinois they are “outsourcing” the prisons. Prisons are over crowded too. I have a paralegal degree and we covered this topic a lot.

    • Amanda! Sorry it’s taken me a minute to respond; moving has made life pretty hectic. If you don’t mind me asking, why were you visiting a prison? (Feel free, by the way, to respond via email if you’d prefer.)

      Alternatives to prisons. I’ve been meaning to write about prison abolition for ages, but I haven’t because I’m just not sure if I can describe what it means well enough. However, I’m planning on interviewing a friend who is far more knowledgeable and articulate than I am, so hopefully, that will be posted sometime in the future.

      That said, I think for me, at least, it’s not really about alternatives to prisons so much as a transformation of society as a whole. To me, prison abolition is about dealing with the root reasons why people are incarcerated. It’s about changing the economic and educational systems in (as well as a number of things cultural aspects of) our society so that people don’t have to resort to survival crimes. It’s about creating a society in which the response to people breaking societal agreements is not locking them in cages. It’s about completely eradicating racism from our society (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow if you don’t see the connection). It is so much bigger than just replacing prisons with something else.

      Also, if you’d ever be interested in emailing/Skyping/Facebooking about prisons, let me know!

  3. Keep in mind that although many people are wrongly imprisoned, which needs to change, many people deserve to be there. Repeat offenders, like rapists and career criminals need to be put where they belong and stop burdening society. For these people, I would hope that prison is a horrible experience for them, as I certainly don’t want my tax dollars wasted on trying to make prison “more pleasant.”
    And I too have been to a prison. And was not bothered by what I saw. I was able to go into the court room and experience the sentancing of a young man who burned his infant to death by setting his SUV on fire. And he deserved to go to prison. Although there are many problems with the legal system, at the end of the day, I hope the truly guilty are rotting in their cells, rather than posing among civilians in our neighborhoods.

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