25 Nov 08
I am sat in the car park outside of the maximum-security prison in Southern England housing Andrea, one of the two women sharing their prison experiences with us at Jon’s Jail Journal. I have pre-booked a two-hour visit commencing at 5:30pm.
Except for the bars on the windows and the razor wire coiled along the rooftops, the tall white buildings look like cheap apartment blocks. The sky is murky, but I can see a few silhouettes of prisoners in the windows – they remind me of the prisoners I lived with who used to watch the visitors car park from their cell windows and announce whose visitors were arriving long before the guards.
It’s almost a year since my release and it feels peculiar to be going inside a prison, something I never imagined doing again. I’m excited to be meeting Andrea, but also a little nervous.
I’m here because through corresponding with Andrea, I’ve felt increasingly drawn to visit her. She’s relatively new to the prison system, and in her letters she expresses some of the same thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears I had when I was a new prisoner, so I relate to what she’s going through.
I was blessed to have family and friends visit me, so I know how emotionally uplifting visits can be for prisoners. Sitting and chatting with a visitor was the best form of respite I had.
I am also curious to see how the visitation room and procedures differ in England.
It’s almost 5pm and I have to check-in thirty minutes before the visit. I was told by staff to bring a few things. A valid visitation-order slip. Photo ID: either a passport or a driver’s licence. A recent utility bill or bank statement. Up to fifteen pounds for a voucher to spend at the visitation-room shop. A one-pound coin as a deposit on a locker to put my car keys in.
Off I go then…
The visit with Andrea went extremely well.
At the reception station, a tall young guard took my photo, scanned my index fingerprints, and patted me down.
Ten minutes later, an equally polite young guard – “This way, sir.” “Through that door, sir.” – escorted me to the women’s side of the prison.
In the visitation room, a guard scanned my right index fingerprint, affixed a red bracelet to my right arm, and told me to proceed through the turnstile.
The visitation room – the size of a small warehouse – was mostly empty. I didn’t like the tiny tables, each surrounded by four plastic chairs firmly bolted down and coloured differently for prisoners and visitors. In contrast to the lively and often chaotic visitation rooms I experienced, this place had the atmosphere of a library. Too impersonal.
In America visitors are allowed pencils and paper, so hoping to jot down some of the dialogue with Andrea, I asked, “Am I allowed a pen and paper?”
The butch female at the guard station said, “What’s it for?”
“To take notes.”
Andrea is classified as a maximum-security inmate because she was arrested for attempted murder and convicted of a violent crime. So I sat there curious to see the face of this near murderess. I didn’t have long to wait.
I was immediately struck by her innocent looks. She has long brown hair. Big warm eyes. Thick lips. A dazzling smile. She’s a former bodybuilder and in excellent shape. The only things suggesting a darker side were her tattoos. A large panther on her left arm. Scotland The Brave and a skull’s face on her left.
In a quaint Scottish accent, she confessed how nervous she was. But immediately, the conversation flowed naturally, with frequent bursts of laughter. We traded prison stories and contrasted our experiences and environments. She said my tales of cockroaches, red death and the general mayhem at Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jail made her feel somewhat lucky.
One of the funniest things she told me was about the male prisoners. In her prison, the males are housed in an adjacent unit. When she first arrived some of the males caught sight of her. Word must have quickly spread about her looks because she was inundated with mail from the men. She felt like she was being stalked through the mail system.
This couldn’t have happened where I was at because prisoners in Arizona are not allowed to write to other prisoners.
Like me, Andrea has done drugs. As a consequence, during periods of her life, she’s lost control. She says she’s using prison time for introspection and doesn’t want to repeat her past mistakes.
If she’s truly changing, she’ll be successful at whatever she applies her mind to. Behind her angelic appearance is an extremely tough woman.
I asked her if she’d like my new boss to consider her speaking to audiences about domestic violence, and she said she would.
She could use her experiences to do good. She has a lot of potential.
I've asked Andrea to write her version of this visit.
Click here to read Andrea’s previous blog entry.
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Shaun P. Attwood