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.
Jail inmates face substantial emotional, economic, legal, and other challenges when they are incarcerated. The extent to which they are able to maintain contacts with individuals on the outside can substantially determine how well they cope with these concerns, and visitation is the primary way that such links may be maintained. To date, no systematic assessment of jail visitation policies has been conducted. The current study examined the availability of visitation policy information and the content of policies for national samples of large and small jails. The results suggest that large jails provide more opportunities for visitation and that they provide more information than small jails. Overall, there exists an opportunity for jails to substantially increase the availability of crucial visitation information. Policy implications are discussed.¹
Prisoners can have things. There is a list. Visitors who become good at the process, who have had someone they love in the prison system for years, enter with blue plastic grocery bags from Walmart twisting up their arms. They know to approach the card table near the door of the entry trailer, to hand everything over to the officer seated.
The officer takes the plastic, removes each item individually and announces it. "One bag of chips." A secondary corrections officer tallies items being called. Items held up, shaken, checked for the integrity of their factory seal. On the other side of the room, visitors sit, waiting for their numbers to be called, waiting to move to the next building, the next step in visitation to this New York State prison. This, the part of delivering items to your man behind bars, is Part One.
Food can be vacuum-sealed only. Nuts must come without shells. Cheese can be sliced or chunked, not shredded. Fruit cannot be dried. Canned goods must have "does not require cooking" designated on their labels. There are dozens of rules. Some rules are enforced haphazardly; some are unwritten.
On a visit when he was a new inmate, your man asked you for hair conditioner. He doesn't want much, doesn't care about food. But this would make him happy. The list says shampoo is allowed.
List of allowable items, New York State prison
You buy a family-sized container at Walmart, knowing he'll be inside for many more months. He can use it liberally, this small thing he's been without, the thing he's thought to want.
The trip to prison is far, a dozen-hour bus ride from New York City. Visiting is allowed once per week. You want to make it back for the conditioner. Items become tantamount to caring.
The next week, at the table, the corrections officer tells you that the conditioner must be 16 ounces or less, must be in a vacuum-sealed container and that the liquid must be see-through. It's handed back to you. You place it in your locker with your purse. You visit your man and say that you tried, that you'll try again. You take the conditioner home, 12 hours in its Walmart bag.
There is weight to your man's request, in remembering what it is to be outside. Trivial things are not trivial here.
The next month, the next trip, you find that in Walmart Supercenter, hair conditioner takes up a side of a row from end to end. Suave, V05, Pantene, Dove, Herbal Essences, TRESemme, Garnier Fructis, Big Sexy Hair. You look at each for too long, until a woman stocking the shelves asks if you need help. You try to put together words that convey how nothing seems right for you to buy, though you didn't know this many products existed. Nothing is clear, 16-ounces or less and vacuum sealed. Akin to nothing in the hundreds of day-glo pink to stark white bottles, in the dozens of brands.
You find one small and vacuum-sealed, a miniature, free product affixed to its side. A free hair gel with purchase. You choose another option in case that one fails. They both meet the requirements. He'll have two bottles of conditioner. He can choose between coconut and fresh mountain spring.
Back inside the prison, you have pride. He'll have the conditioner you promised. You will have done something right, something good for him.
At the table, the officer flips the bottle around, in a way the officer did not do last time. He flips around the other. He says the bottles have alcohol in the ingredient list, comprising the last ingredient in the label. He points at the fine print as though you struggle with language. They won't be allowed inside. They need to go inside your visitation locker for removal.
You visit your man empty-handed. You can't prove how hard you tried, can only only sit across the numbered table, assure him that he'll have conditioner somehow. It will happen. You sit and talk, tell him to expect more books, the things that, paperback, always get through. He'll read about whales, about the World's Fair, about circuses, about things he never wanted to know, while you travel the 12 hours home and put two more bottles of conditioner in your shower.