Stories and thoughts about family and life

Not Judging a Book by its Cover

on March 12, 2014

I have a friend who is incarcerated currently. Why he’s there is really not relevant to this story, except that I went to see him for a few hours over the past weekend. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years (well prior to this phase of his life), so I was excited to get to see him again. I remember how much communication meant to me when I was performing military training and had little or no real contact regularly with people I knew, and I can only imagine how lonely and frustrating his time there will be for him. Anyway, I went to visit him and, never having visited a facility where people are held (prison, jail, detention center, etc.), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
I had contacted the facility prior to my trip to be sure I could go on the day I was planning, and they warned me that I would pass through a security checkpoint and not to bring anything in except my keys and ID. When I arrived at the check-in location, it felt very much like proceeding through the security line at the airport, minus placing my bags in the x-ray scanner. Several other people were there to visit as well, and as I stood in line waiting for my turn I began to watch the family ahead of me with several small children.
I watched as a gentleman who appeared to be in his mid-40s lined up four children, took their shoes off and helped each through the scanner. These children were delightful–very polite and energetic. They apparently had been through this drill several times and understood what was happening. They weren’t frightened by the scanner or the guard who needed to pat them down on the other side. They patiently went through the process and giggled and talked with each other. The oldest child (probably about 10) watched out for the younger children, and each child was responsible for the each of the younger kids.
As I watched the gentleman accompanying them, I was certain he was likely the uncle of these children, bringing them to see their father. I noted that he had given each child three or four dollars. I marveled at this whole story I was creating in my head. How sweet this guy is to bring all his nieces and nephews, and how attentive he was to them. How wonderful these children were and how they each understood the younger ones needed more help. It was beautiful to watch. The most incredible thing to me, though, was the guard stopping and helping the youngest child (a boy of about two and a half years) to put his shoes back on. It was absolutely not what you would expect, in this area where the guards should be stern and unkind. Watching that little boy enthusiastically nod when the guard asked if she could help him (seeing the gentleman was busy with all the other kids) melted my heart. This kid had no understand of this guard as anything but a kind human being, helping him out.
I watched this little family all work their way through the security checkpoint and into the actual facility. To watch these children, you would have thought they were headed to the park or to Chuck E. Cheese. I thought about the innocence of this whole interaction, and the difference my 40+ years make in proceeding through this same situation. They weren’t concerned about what their relative had done or how he got here. It was just the pure excitement of getting to see him. Maybe it’s because my children are getting older and have more awareness of the world and I miss those small gestures, but I find I’m moved a lot lately by what small children will do that’s so pure of heart.
As I follow the instructions of the guard and proceed into the visitation room, I see several small groups of families around the room. At the end of the room is this same family again. The children are all hurriedly running from one machine to another, purchasing snacks and drinks and goodies. When they see their relative come out to greet them, they present many of the things they’ve purchased to him. It was precious to see, and the excitement on their faces was remarkable.
What really drew my attention after watching this spectacle, however, was that the relative was not the father of these children. He simply couldn’t have been. He appeared to be a mere 18 or 19 years old himself. I was especially humbled at realizing that the gentleman I mistook for the kind uncle to these kids and brother to the inmate, was actually most likely the father for all of them.
As my friend and I sat and visited over the next couple of hours, we watched these children all interact with each other. I told my friend my whole imaginary story of what must have happened, and how I was certain those were the children of the inmate, until I saw him and realized how young he was. I wondered what he must have done to have gotten into trouble and ended up here. How wrong a turn he must have taken in his life, and how a few hours on a Sunday afternoon could simply not replace the daily interactions he is missing with his family. I found myself praying for this young man that his incarceration would not be too long and he would get on with his life and have a new appreciation for what he has ahead of him. I don’t know him at all, but I was thinking the same thoughts for him that I think for my friend. I hope he won’t be too lonely for too long, and that he won’t forget what a wonderful world awaits him outside.
As I sat and talked to my friend, I looked around the room at the various inmates. I don’t know what I thought I would find when I got into the facility that day. I suppose, having nothing else to draw on, I was expecting a movie scene where all the inmates are tattooed and speak roughly and threaten violence to anyone who walks by. For all I know, that might be exactly how they are in their own spaces, but in this room, surrounded by their loved ones, you could see so many stories unfold, and feel so many emotions.
The man in his 40s with a wedding ring on and a woman I’m assuming was his wife, holding each other and talking. A man who looked to be in his late 30s, with his head in his hands and his wife holding him, and both of them crying. White men, black men, older men, younger men–those categories didn’t mean anything really in this group of people. The man who spoke softly and quietly to the woman and teenage boy (probably his son?) who listened intently to each word.
I remarked to my friend several times that this did not look like a room full of criminals, by any means. He reminded me that some of the offenses, such as drugs, for which people were serving time would not be evident to me in this setting. These people had long-since been clean. The person who had his head down and he and his wife were crying was actually a murderer, who is continually denied parole. I remarked that I could certainly appreciate that if this person had murdered my loved one, I wouldn’t want him out either. Watching him, though, and his tenderness with his wife, he didn’t strike me as that type of person. The whole experience was a sobering reminder that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
What happens between the innocence of the children waiting through the security checkpoint, and the inmates in the visitation room a mere 100 yards away? How do some of us manage to make it through and others hit a roadblock of some sort? And then what determines how productive a life these people will have when they’re out again? My friend spoke to me of his concerns about that life–how he will get a job, make a life, and move on. He spoke of the various expenses many people face when they’re first out, and how he worries about those things. I shudder to think of the people who are unlike him and that entire room of people, and have no one to worry with them or help them figure it all out.
This whole process with my friend has been quite the learning experience. I know more about the legal system and incarceration than I ever imagined I would need to know in my lifetime. I am shaken by how differently the same laws are applied in various scenarios, how it depends on the lawyer you get, and how different counties/states have different objectives over the same crime. I am moved when thinking about going out to eat, watching whatever I want on TV, reading my favorite book, or taking a vacation, and knowing that he cannot. I try to help him find humor in his routine and activities. We exchanged stories and laughed and made jokes in a our brief encounter that afternoon. For a few hours hopefully he got to experience just our friendship, and not worry too much about his current predicament. I pray those visits will keep him motivated, and help see him through.
I don’t know any of the names of any of the people in that room except my friend, but I know this whole experience has touched me. It gave me a new perspective for the personal lives of these people, and how many of them are husbands, fathers, brothers, or uncles. I think many of us think of criminals of any sort to be some other type of species, and they’re not. They’re people who have gone astray for one reason or another, and perhaps just need a friend or a mentor to help them get their lives back on track. I don’t know that I could have had the same perspective without sitting in that room and watching all those interactions, but I’m grateful I was able to see the other side of these people.


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