When you see prison movies or documentaries about prison, it’s all about the visits. Wives coming on Thursday, girlfriends coming Friday, kids coming on Saturday. But prison is really about distances and disconnection. It’s loneliness and estrangement. One person’s life is frozen while the other person’s life has movement. This creates fractures between people. The inmate is sitting in a cage thinking that everyone’s forgotten him, while the other is trying to survive in the ruins often left by the inmate.
Prison takes a terrible situation and makes it exponentially worse. Rather than healing or rehabilitating people, it deepens every wound, rips open every scab and spreads infection in every possible direction. Prison mutilates families. It takes whatever might have been once healthy, good or at least salvageable, and leaves it twisted and damaged beyond repair.
That the Christian family values people are the ones most in favor of the drug war, incarceration and severe punishment is one of the sickest and most grotesque cancers on our society. Nothing reveals the lie that is the Right in America more than the fact that these self-proclaimed lovers of liberty and personal freedoms are the ones most responsible for the draconian laws that have ripped families apart for generations. It is my fervent belief that the drug war—which has damaged millions of children and families for more than forty years across five continents—would have been addressed more pragmatically and sensibly if not for a pocket of right wing Christians in North America who have used it as a vehicle to express the blackness of their ugly and vindictive hearts.
I got a letter from my father saying that they had transferred him to Lewisburg in Pennsylvania. He had been up at a prison in upstate New York before, and before that in Texas and before that Colorado. The transfers in prison are part of the nightmare for families; you spend a ton of energy not really knowing where they are or if they’re okay (“okay” being a relative term here). To this day, whenever I’m driving down the highway and see a van or bus with white steel windows, I picture my father sitting on a wood bench chained to the man next to him, his life totally out of his own control.
Lewisburg was only two hours away, so it was a one-day thing. Jimbo lent me his car, which was a way, I think, of saying sorry for not being more supportive. We were all going through our own shit. I woke up at 5:00 a.m., put on my best clothes and hit the road. As I crossed into the Alabama part of Pennsylvania, I got a dark feeling that only got darker as I approached the prison.
Lewisburg is a notorious high-security federal penitentiary. The facility was built in 1932 and had no business still being used to jail people. Six or seven years after I visited my dad, there was a full-blown riot due to inhumane conditions and abuses. Everyone loves the TV shows about the brutality of being locked up in third world countries, but the conditions that exist in third world prisons aren’t all that different from the conditions that exist in American prisons, except there are a lot more American prisoners.
I got there and, as expected, the guards were terrible. You can’t work every day in a place that dark and not become something warped. I had a small earring and they all gave me a hard time about it. I head one of them whisper to another that I was a fag. The other laughed and whispered something to the effect that a guy like me would do real good in Lewisburg. There was a young, attractive black woman in front of me with her son. The hacks, whose salaries are paid by her tax dollars, were loudly checking her out, whispering stuff about her tits. After she went through the metal detector with her son, one brazenly said to her: “Come back and see us after you’re done.” Everyone in line was embarrassed. For the woman, for her son, and for ourselves. We were trash by association. Helpless and powerless. The lowest of the low. They guards thought they could treat us any way they wanted and if we spoke up, all they had to do was say that we couldn’t visit and we’d be led off the premises or even arrested. And if it was like this for us, you can only imagine what it was like for our loved ones on the inside. Visiting Lewisburg was a descent into hell.
The visiting room was in complete chaos. Kids running around screaming, television blaring, vending machines clanging, some people crying, some arguing, everyone lost in their own little blur. Yet it was also darkly repressive. Everything was monitored, under the hard eyes of the guards, kept in check by advanced security. The smallest move threatening the structure of the institution and the weapons would have been drawn in an instant, the inmates dragged away in chains and everyone left cowering on the floor. In this way, it was Real America, where on one level everyone seems like they’re doing what they want, but on another level the entire place is on lockdown.
Through the Plexiglass windows in one of the prison doors I could see my father standing in shackles with his head down. He stood there alone for about twenty minutes, trapped in the steel chamber. I saw see no reason why they couldn’t open the door and let him into the visiting room. It was about power and control. He couldn’t see me, but I could see him. He was frozen in time, almost like he was dead.
When he finally came out I hugged him. He was tense and rigid at first, but then became so warm that I thought he was making a joke about being affectionate, until I realized that he was trying to do what he remembered people did when they embraced one another. When we pulled away, his movements were nervous and jerky. He couldn’t make eye contact. We sat down at a stained rickety table next to the Coke machines. The mere hour and a half I had spent at Lewisburg was having a bad effect on me: my heart was pounding in my chest, nausea rising up in my stomach, headache behind my eyes and a constant need to fight off tears. I couldn’t figure out what to say and wanted to say that I didn’t know what to say other than that I loved him, but I couldn’t get a word in. He was trying to keep reality at bay through constant talk. Lost talk. Empty talk. Almost like a soap opera. When he would try to be serious, he was serious to the point where I thought that he was making a joke about being serious. When he would try to be funny, he would go so over the top that I thought he was making a joke about being funny. The system had carved out and gutted the very humanity that existed between father and son.
I sat there, my heart breaking. My father was a shell of what he used to be. All he had were memories of this guy he thought that he once was. There was no present anymore. No future. Only past.
“What’s happening with the Steelers…You still playing football…What about Wharton…You get in there yet…How’s your mom…What about the house in Santa Fe…You been back there lately…Government took it…Took everything…”
His celly, this white tattooed piece of shit from Georgia, came over with his fat wife and sat down at the table without being invited. I saw it. I felt it. They forced themselves on us. I wanted to tell him to go away, but couldn’t out of the fear that I might cause problems for him back in lockup. My dad tried to play it off and say something funny about the Dallas Cowboys that no one in their right mind would construe as disrespectful, but this piece of shit got an angry look on his face and said: “We gonna have to have a talk with you when you get back.” I watched as my father spent the next thirty minutes of our visit trying to diffuse the situation. “Hey, Terry, just kidding around, buddy. Just kidding around…” He kept repeating it: “You know I’m kidding around, right Terry? Hey, man, you know I was just kidding around? Right, Terry. Right? Right, man…Right?”
There’s no way to process the threat of violence hanging over your own father. There is no way to deal with witnessing your parent in a state of submission. It makes you into a lower and darker person. A person withdrawn into himself. More than an outsider in the the world—an outsider in your own life.
“Hey, Terry…We’re good. Right? You know I was just kidding, right. Cowboys are great. Cowboys are great…” The man saying these words was the same man who sat me down at Furr’s and told me that I was still going to go to Harvard and study economics.
After the piece of trash and his fat wife left to go watch TV, we bought some popcorn and cokes out of the vending machines with a roll of quarters that he had earned from his job sweeping up the gym.
“CPA to janitor,” he said. “Step up in the right direction.”
That was the one bright spot. He still had that subversive sense of humor. It almost made it more painful, to see that glimpse of him still there.
“You been skiing lately…What’s going on with Sarah…Your bike wreck was something else…Remember A Jiffy…They took it…Gone…They took everything…You ever see that show The Cosbys…”
He had done five years with eleven still to go. After the lifetime of damage that had already been done, the fact that he still had more than decade to go was inconceivable. A kind of living death. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Five years in prison with still eleven to go. Two years in prison is heavy. Bonds are broken, houses are lost, people move and the inmate emerges into a different world. Five years in prison is tragic. He did five years in prison…you can see it in the way he moves…He’s never been the same… But five and still having two more fives and then another year after that? It was so brutalizing that I had to fight off thoughts of my father taking his own life. If he had gone back to his cell that night and hung himself…What are you supposed to say, that you couldn’t picture it?
And for what? Not for rape. Not for murder. For the shit Freud and his pals used to help invent the field of modern psychology.
The appeals were exhausted. There was no exit. As I sat there listening to him talk about things that happened eight years ago like it was yesterday, I truly understood for the first time that this story was not going to have the ending I wanted. I realize now that no matter how bad his letters were or how dark the situation was, I still carried with me an incredible amount of hope. I had faith that something would happen. That something would come along—maybe god—and say okay, that’s enough. Now go make up for lost time.The warped reality of sixteen years in prison had never fully come down on me with all of its terrible weight until I went to Lewisburg. Through the trial in Houston, through the trials of Albuquerque, I had always carried with me a secret reservoir of belief or denial: That this would all somehow come to an end. That it couldn’t happen to us. That the insanity of all this couldn’t be real. But as they took him away in shackles and held him behind the door, I understood that the thing that might have been would never be. The players were still breathing, but the play was over. If there was still play at all, it was Waiting for Godot.
Jason Flores-Williams is an author, lawyer and activist.