The Pokey

Today we visited my brother in prison.

If I were going to write a memoir — tentatively entitled A Million Little Miles — I would fill it with all sorts of (probably) inappropriate details about how my family set me up to be the obsessive, mildly neurotic, fun-loving person I am today but that it’s really all my own doing. This is just the sort of thing that people love to write these days (think Falling Leaves, All Saints, A Million Little Pieces, all those porn star memoirs, etc.). But my family is mostly all living, and I like them. So, like Humbert Humbert, I will keep the details out of the public sphere. (Don’t ask.)

So let’s talk about prison. I have found visiting prisons to be unnervingly normal experiences. Regardless of who they are visiting, all manner of people travel across states, commonwealths, and the country to visit relatives and friends in the pokey. When you visit, inmates seem like normal people you might meet on the street or in a place of work or at a family reunion or at Thanksgiving dinner.

(This, in fact, is my main gripe with how we present people “accused” of crimes, much less convicts. We criminalize and condemn people rather than actions, and as a result we really don’t believe offenders can be redeemed. Dont get me wrong, convicts have hurt others and need to repay society and their victims; but we do let them out, and we need to work them back into society. Okay, the public service announcement is over now.)

The places in prisons where insiders and outsiders meet are not unhappy. Low-key and sometimes melancholy, sure, but it’s just a microcosm of the American condition. There are (rather young) people meeting their great-grandbabies, and everbody — even prison guards — love babies. Spouses embrace and talk around small tables. Children play board or card games with their fathers. (This really helps with awkward pauses.) As far as I can tell Shawshank Redemption is a great story; but in Iowa, civility still binds the free and unfree (perhaps it’s just a veneer, but I don’t think so).

But prison does seem rather uneventful, which is probably the most terrible part about it — spending years of your life not being free to do things or go places or have one’s own space. And there’s really not a lot to say about this particular visit or the trip there through the gently rolling farmlands of northwest Missouri and southwest Iowa. So, if you haven’t had the chance to visit someone in the house of correction, here’s a primer.

(1) You have to be invited. After returning the form sent by the inmate, you can visit on specific days for limited amounts of time.

(2) Don’t bring much with you. Basically just a form of ID. No phones. No papers. No wallets. Certainly no weapons or drugs. You can bring change for vending machines, and experienced visitors carry their change in plastic zippy bags; it makes the pat-down and metal detector procedure simpler. Everything else needs to be locked up somewhere.

(3) Sign in with the nice person behind the bulletproof glass who controls the door locks. You may have to go through several pairs of locked gates and doors. Depending on the level of security, you may need an escort.

(4) Follow all directions, and you shouldn’t have any problems from the Man.

(5) To avoid frustration, don’t expect amazing transformations or ask really difficult questions.

(6) Learn the rules to rummy and pick a reasonable target . . . say 500 for three people to play two hours. Learn how to shuffle very well-worn cards.

(7) Remind your inmate to call relatives, because no one can phone them.

(8) Do the whole process in reverse: follow directions, sign out, get things out of the locker, leave.

(9) Wonder what’s going to happen at the indeterminate time when your loved one is released.

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