19 Dec 05
The First Visit: Two accounts by Jon’s parents …..
Driving south on Highway 85, Lewis Prison lies in the foothills of the Buckeye Mountains, a picturesque setting for a State incarceration facility.
Our first journey to the complex was enlivened by the sight of the rising sun to our left. The sky above the line of the Estrella Mountains became blood- red before the emergence of the Phoenix sun.
Along this stretch of highway are instructions to keep headlights on ‘day and night’, as the length of the road and its straightness makes it look as if distant cars are invisible without headlights on. As we passed the notorious road sign ‘State Prison – DO NOT STOP FOR HITCHHIKERS’, we knew that we were getting close to our son’s new home.
Arrival at the facility brought the first of many ID checks and searches. A swinging barrier stopped all cars as a guard with a clipboard stooped to check our passports and driving licence. We were waved on to the visitor car park, where we deposited our valuables into the boot of the car, only being allowed to take in 1 watch, 1 ring, 1 car key with remote, prescriptions glasses only, and $20 per person in quarters (to purchase food and drink from vending machines). The quarters have to be in a clear bag for the guards to check that no other items are being smuggled in. We had no quarters and no plastic bag. Fortunately other visitors seeing our plight kindly offered change for dollars and gave us a plastic food bag to put them in.
At the next check point we filled in the paper work; queued to hand it in at the office with our ID and joined the numerous visitors to await our name call.
When the guard shouted, ‘Attwood’, we were asked to remove our jackets; empty our pockets; take off belts; and our belonging were sent through an X ray machine, as we walked through the scanner.
In spite of the bright sun, at this time of the year it is very cold early in the morning and with our jackets off we started to shiver. Visitors with high boots which could conceal a weapon, had to walk through the scanner bare foot.
With our items returned, we were moved on through a fenced passage where a guard with a large, sniffer dog shouted, “Backs to the fence and hands by your sides”. We followed his instructions, lining up against the chain mail fence while the enthusiastic Alsatian jumped up and down behind us.
Given the 'all clear', we filed through a turnstile whose melancholic sound resembled that made by the squeaking windmill in the opening sequence to Sergio Leone’s masterpiece ‘Once Upon a Time in the West”.
The turnstile led to a bus stop. A trustie driving an old yellow school bus around the complex picking up and delivering the visitors to the various units, gave us a friendly, "Hello". A short ride brought us to a vast iron gate with a buzzer which signalled to the guard that visitors have arrived. The gate clanked open and we walked passed the grassy visitation compound surrounded with razor wire.
Inside the unit our paperwork and IDs were checked once again and the guard picked up the phone and asked that our son be brought to the visitation area. We went through another scanner, and after setting the alarm off with my belt buckle and shoes, I was ‘wanded’ by the guard, who gave us back the paperwork. We went through 2 more electronic doors which slid back to reveal the visitation room.
Once again the paperwork was checked and the guard assigned us a white, plastic table. We sat down, looked at each other and waited for our son to come through a door.
..........Passing the desert scenery that Jon had described so well in his blog, I became him, looking out from the transportation van, longing to be free.
Scanning the horizon the desert stretched for miles, skirted by the Estrella Mountain range: there were no signs of the prison, as we sped further into the arid landscape.
I thought my eyes were deceiving me, as, in the far distance I spied what looked like rows of silver pods suspended against the dark hills. Blinking hard, I tried to focus my distance vision, and as we drew closer I realised that the pods were flood lights: luminous eyes surveying the scence.
My heart sank to the pit of my stomach as the low sprawling mass of Lewis prison gradually revealed itself, and I wondered what part of the complex held my son captive…. …. …
… … …Chatting to Jon across the plastic table, we could have been in any café, in any country, smiling, talking, exchanging views on crime and justice, life and death, sorrow and joy. I stared at his animated face and time stopped. Glancing away, the walls of razor wire glistening in the bright Arizona sunshine remind me sharply of where I was.
Jon's parents would like to thank the prison authorities for granting us extra visits. After travelling 5200 miles this was greatly appreciated, as was the kindness and courtesy we received from all of the visitation staff.
Jon's impressions of our first visit have been held up in the Christmas mail and will be posted asap. He is doing well and sends everyone his regards.
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