The Rehabilitation Experience: My First Prison Visit
I remember my first day getting a contact visit in prison. This gorgeous woman, inside and out, came to visit me. I hugged her and didn’t want to let go. This beautiful soul drove eight hours to come see little ol’ me. Yes, you read that right, eight hours!
Losing My Mind In Jail
Now, let me give you a bit of background information for this story. When you are going through sentencing as an inmate, you are housed in a jail or detention center. These facilities do not allow contact visits. Visits are normally through plexi-glass, where you pick up a phone and have to talk to your loved ones on that while you look at them through the barrier between you. Some facilities don’t even have that option; they only have video visits, where you are only allowed to video chat with your visitor.
I was in these facilities for the first 11 months and 15 days of my incarceration. Actually, I was in six of these facilities before finally making it to my first prison in Ashland, Kentucky. A young man from Atlanta, Georgia was sent to federal prison in Ashland Kentucky, which is eight hours away traveling by car.
I had been on a roller coaster for the last year. I didn’t know how much prison time I was facing, I had never even seen the inside of a jail cell before that day, and the culture shock of being locked up was beating me down mentally. During that first year locked up, I could count on one hand the amount of times I stood outside and felt the sun.
My grooming had went down the toilet. Every now and then we were able to get haircuts. Sometimes, based on the rules in the facility I was housed in, I would have to go days without a shower.
I worried about my nutrition. Jail food definitely takes getting used to; it’s bland, not well proportioned for grown adult men, expiration dates are not regularly checked, and the meat I believe was the same grade as dog food (def not USDA Grade A). So, all in all, that first year was not fun.
Preparing for My Visit
When I finally got to Ashland, Kentucky’s federal prison things got better. I was able to walk around outside in the sun, I was able to buy sneakers and shorts to exercise in, and I could go and get a haircut in the barbershop whenever I wanted. Soon after getting to Ashland, I got approved for a visit and a young lady came to see me.
This was quite an event. I had gotten visits before while in jail, but this was different. It was a contact visit. I would be able to actually hold and touch the person who was visiting me; a person who I cared about and who cared about me. After going a whole year without being able to do that to anyone, it was a big deal.
The young lady who came to see me was a friend of mine. We were in the same program at the University of Georgia together. She actually brought a mutual friend along as well.
Days before the visit is like counting down to Christmas or the first day of school. You are energetic. Your anticipation is high. You’re constantly clock-watching, trying to force time to somehow speed up. Finally, the day comes.
I got up early and ironed my clothes. Each inmate is given one special pair of clothes to wear to visitation. We treasure that outfit and take special care of it, so we can look our best for our loved ones.
After ironing my clothes, I sat patiently in the TV room looking at ESPN Sportscenter, trying to not look too excited and give myself something to do besides watch the clock. I had gotten my haircut the day before and wanted to sit as still as possible and not ruin my clothes or my hair before the visit.
Then, a crackled voice comes over the intercom, “Inmate Lewis, report to visitation. You have a visitor.”
Let’s do this! I think to myself.
I come in through a side room (really, it’s a bathroom). You push a button on the wall and notify the guards in charge of visitation that you are waiting to be allowed into the visit room. A guard shows up, pats you down and makes you strip off your nice clothes that you just spent time ironing while he thoroughly searches. When I think back on it, it’s still degrading to have another man demand you lift up your penis to make sure you’re not hiding anything next to your ball sack. But, the excitement of having a visit makes you not raise much of a fuss.
Photo cred: ACLU
Finally, he nods and says, “Go to your visit.”
Visits Are Vacations in Prison
You walk out into a room full of people. Kids are talking loud and clashing toys around, and families are playing cards and sharing food from the vending machines like they’re at a real restaurant.
You look around at the other inmates, the only people you recognize, partly because they all have on the exact same outfit you do, and mostly these are the faces you see every day in your tiny world that’s a prison compound. Something seems different about the other inmates than back inside the prison where you are housed. Actually, they don’t seem different, they are different. They’re smiling and enjoying themselves.
Back inside prison, most of the time as an inmate is spent on guard: you’re constantly observing your surroundings, noting changes in the mood of inmates around you as that may give off a telltale sign danger is coming, paying attention to how people interact with you because it lets you know the level of respect they have for you, and studying officers and their routines. It’s a constant, exhausting game of survival. And it’s played 24/7, 365 days out of the year while locked up.
You quickly realize that the only physical break you get from this game will be at a visit. Other inmates don’t care what you’re doing or how you’re acting during visit, they’re too busy focusing on their loved ones and enjoying their small window of peace and relaxation.
My Visiting Angel
After a look around, I spot my visitors sitting at a table smiling. When I come close, they get up and give me big hugs. Man, that hug from my friend felt so good. Hugs don’t seem like a big deal, but when you haven’t gotten one in a whole year, all of a sudden, hugs aren’t just hugs, they’re the most precious form of physical connection and you’re grateful for them.
The first words out of my friend’s mouth after her hug was, “You look great! Your skin is clear.”
Flattery will get you everywhere. Wow! What a way to start off my visit.
She was actually referring to something very real, though. Before my incarceration, I was in bad shape. I was exercising less, experimenting with recreational drugs, and drinking a lot more, to the point where I was on the verge of becoming a functional alcoholic. Before my arrest, the refrigerator in my apartment only contained alcohol and Gatorade to help me recover from hangovers.
My visitor spent the next few hours updating me on events that took place after I got locked up: what the media was saying, the gossip around campus, etc. She also spent a considerable amount of time worrying over me and making sure I was doing alright.
Me? I spent most of the time putting on a smile and appearing cool, calm and collected. I was a mess on the inside, but I didn’t want my visitors getting emotional. If that happened, as composed of an individual as I normally am, I was likely to break down.
“Visitation is over. Please say goodbye to your friends and family, then line up at the back wall and wait on a guard to search you,” a voice yelled out.
I got up from my seat, still smiling and putting on a strong front. I hugged my visitor tightly. To be honest, I didn’t want to let go. The warmth of a person you know cares about you pressed against your body is priceless. It makes all your senses wake up. It’s like a cold glass of water on a hot, summer day.
Then, it was over. I watched my visitors walk out of the visitation room and into the parking lot. I watched them for as long as I possibly could, trying to burn the image into my mind.
After the search, I walked straight back to my bunk. A few inmates said a few words to me and seemed like they wanted to have a full-blown conversation, but I had one thing on my mind and it wasn’t talking.
With all my visitation clothes still on, I laid down on my bunk and closed my eyes. I blocked out all the prison noise around me. I stayed there, undisturbed, for as long as I possibly could, trying to keep the images of my visitor clear in my head. I thought about her smile, her hair, her smell, the way she felt when I squeezed her in my arms. I wanted to cherish it all.
Damn, it’ll be a while for that happens again, I thought to myself.
But, was it worth it? Did it give me something to hold onto and cherish for the future? Did it give me hope? Absolutely!
To this day, that is still one of the fondest memories I have in my life.
That’s the power of a visit.