While in prison the 17th century English poet, Richard Lovelace penned, "To Althea, From Prison". The last stanza illustrates an ability to emotionally transcend self imposed or human created barriers.
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.
Many friends and families visiting our incarcerated demonstrate an innate sense of when to morph facial expressions and postures to stiff, one dimensional movements. Or slip into robotic Stepford wife behavior. As in the case of the older couple I stood behind in the exit line. The final step when visits have ended is to hand visitor forms to correction officers, -c.o.s,- and once again our identification cards are scrutinized.
My visit was successful. The metal detector was not triggered. I had remembered to wear a bra minus the underwire, and clothing and shoes without metal adornments.
Sometimes female c.o.s will ask women visitors if they are wearing underwear. The c.o. makes a decision whether to tell the woman under question that the only way she will be processed in for a visit is if she agrees to go into the bathroom to show the female c.o. that she has donned undergarments.
Months earlier after spending half the day driving to another prison town 50 miles west of Phoenix to visit my loved one, I was refused entry to the prison. Each time I passed the metal detector it beeped. I tore the insoles out of my shoes in front of the c.o. and said, “Look. There’s nothing in my shoes.” I held up my favorite ballerina style shoes, now ripped apart. “I’ll walk around in my socks.” I desperately offered. He shook his head. “Our policy doesn’t allow that.”
Stunned, I drove the car lacking an air conditioner through the scorching sandy wasteland to the nearest tiny town that boasts a shrimp farm and pulled into a General Store. Intent on purchasing a pair of cheap rubber thongs guaranteed to be manufactured without metal contents, I hoped to pass silently through the prison metal detector. I was determined to ignore the protest of pain as cheap rubber shoes rub my 60 year old collection of corns and bunions through each step I would take toward my visit with my loved one.
Business like, I asked for the flip flop section. A woman stooped over the shelves as she stocked shoes.
“I want to pass through a metal detector. I need a pair of flip flops or cheap canvas shoes. They can’t have any metal inside the shoe.”
She handed me a pair of canvas shoes. “These will work.” She said.
“How can you be sure?” I took the shoes.
“I’m a guard.” She started to say then changed her mind. “I’m a correction officer.” She finished.
“You guys make so much money. Why are you working here?”
“I need the money.”
Sometimes I think of the old James Cagney movie, where he played an inmate behind bars, frantic to be heard, he banged his tin cup along the bars yelling, ‘Guard! Guard!’
Correction officers do not like to be called guards. They prefer to be addressed by their job title, correction officer.
I say to the couple in front of me in line, “I drove over a hundred miles. Long drive home, it’ll help me unwind.”
“We have a 4 hour trip.” The lady jauntily grinned. The man remained face forward. She said, “We visited our son in the medical ward.” I was impressed by her chirpy openness.
“What’s wrong with your son?”
Always on an information gathering mission, I prepare to use her response as a cautionary tale at my next visit with my loved one.
Her smile brightens, she cocks her head and replies, “He’s on oxygen and paralyzed. Inmates beat him up a year ago.”
The line we stand in is parallel to the fence strung with razor wire. Children broken away from the adults in line, play a game, the sound of their shoes slapping on the concrete as they run along the fence to the street where a chair is elevated on a high wooden platform. During the week c.o.s take turns to climb atop the chair while an inmate works a shine into their shoes. Birds build nests atop the fence and fallen baby birds in various atrophied stages are skewered up and down the wire.