This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade's photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.
Little has been written about policies affecting the public who visit jails. As the number of jail inmates increases, many offenders’ families are affected. For the majority, their first contact with the criminal justice system might be by visiting an inmate in jail. This study measured the levels of visitors’ understanding and satisfaction with visitation policies at two county jails in a northeastern state. A total of 281 visitors from two county jails completed the surveys. Data from this study revealed that—to meet the needs of the visitors—attention should be given to methods of visiting, jail staff training, dissemination of visitation policies, and conditions of inmate incarceration. By addressing these issues, problems that visitors encounter while visiting inmates may be lessened, and their concerns about inmates may be decreased. These changes may lead to more amenable interactions between visitors and jail staff during visitation.¹
When visiting prison, things are taken.
The restroom in the trailer where you sign in with your government ID has a small window, cracked, and in sight beyond it, loops of barbed wire holding the man you know in.
View from a Visitors' Restroom, Upstate NY Prison
The prison does not allow things inside like a cell phone. This was a stolen shot, a desperate act for control through mini-blinds. There are no other photos, no methods of capture. Once inside with your man, if an officer is generous, you might get a business-card sized paper and a golf pencil. The pencil must be returned before leaving.
The restroom is single stall, handicap-sized, with tags on the floor: women change here, to look nice for their men inside. An all-male medium security prison, hours away from most prisoners' towns, along the border of New York State and Canada. A six-hour drive from the bottom of the state.
The body of the trailer has square lockers and plastic chairs unevenly scattered against the walls. Everything must go into the lockers before leaving the trailer: car keys, purses, pens, coins. The locker costs two quarters. You must remember the two quarters. It's not fifty cents; it's two quarters.
Someone tells a woman that she won't be allowed in, citing her v-neck t-shirt. The prison does not allow v-neck shirts, even those ending at the collarbone. Nothing sleeveless, nothing that could be seen in reaching imaginations to be provocative. It is easy to turn someone away: simply, no.
A man behind the sign-in desk calls numbers, and people leave the trailer to go to the building next door, to wait and sign in again.
Here, you sign in one by one and wait to pass through the metal detector to move further into the prison. Those waiting crunch into an airless vestibule where bulletin boards pin pork sandwich and box lunch advertisements that corrections officers can have delivered.
After 30 minutes, signed in, a woman removes her shoes and, in socked feet, tries to pass through the metal scanner, what looks to be a low-tech version of something from an airport. The scanner buzzes. She tries again, meets another buzz. She self-pats her body lightly as a check -- no jewelry, coins, belt, the list of things she knows to avoid.
A clean-cut male officer standing near the scanner asks if she is wearing a bra. He hands her a brown paper bag, asks her to step into a bathroom. It is marked with a hand-scrawled sign made of printer paper, "Take Off :)".
Inside, she removes her bra and places it into a brown paper bag, puts her shirt back on. This is how it has to be to visit her friend. This is the way of visitation. Refusing to comply is to not visit, to come back on his next allotted visitation day, a day next weekend. Three times of driving six hours (one trip home today, a round-trip back), double that collective time in bus journey.
She re-enters the room of corrections officers, hands her paper bag to a woman. The female officer feels inside the bag, hands running over the fabric of the bra for anything that shouldn't be present.
The woman braless and in socks stands on masking tape on the floor until an officer gestures for her to pass through the metal detector. She must walk to the middle of the room and back again, watched by three male corrections officers. A catwalk, though it does not matter whether she wants the attention. Nine steps forward, nine steps back. She wears a thin t-shirt.
She is aware of the cold of the room, the eyes of the men, their conceit and boredom. She wonders if this is the way at every prison or if this is an injustice. The answer doesn't matter, though; they have her friend. This prison's realities are her realities.
She reaches into the paper bag to retrieve her pink bra, worn from years of use, lint adorning the straps. She carries it, attempts to ball it, to hide it, to crush it into her palms, while being steered to the neighboring bathroom, this one marked "Put On :(". While she's inside, a male corrections officer recounts his memory of a woman who left a changing room topless, confused as to the bra procedure, to a man waiting his turn by the metal detector. It's so funny what people will do when told.
The woman, bra on, exits the restroom, steps back through the metal detector, replaces her shoes. She thinks of the smiley faces on the signs, the hand-drawn happiness in taking off a bra, the sadness in putting it back on. It's so funny.
She planned slip-on shoes. She planned no jewelry, no coins, no belt. She did not plan this, the paper bag, the eyes watching, the humiliation of being female.
An officer holds the woman's eyes as she hands him her ID. He remarks on her looks in the ID, on how she was prettier with that long hair in the photo, takes her hand to stamp it. The stamp rolls across the top of her palm as he turns her hand.
Validated, she is allowed behind two more sets of sliding bars, spat out next to the same barbed wire she photographed from the restroom in the trailer. Halfway through to the visitation room.