Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Visitation (2)

Note from Bill's wife: see the previous blog labeled Visitation which I wrote from a family member's point of view. This is Bill's perspective.

Friends and family can visit inmates on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and federal holidays. Friday visitation is from 5-8:30p. Saturday and Sunday it is from 8:30a-3p. Immediate family members (parents, spouse, children and siblings) are automatically approved. All others must fill out a special visitor information form in advance and mail it in for approval. Detailed visiting guidelines are on the BOP website.

FPC Pensacola is located on Saufley Field, part of the Pensacola Naval Air Station. The only two buildings that the inmate's visitors are allowed access to are the visitor's room (VR) and the chapel.

Arriving visitors enter the VR through a canopied entrance and give the CO, who is in a small windowed room, the visitor's form. This form must be filled out each day you visit. It identifies the visitor and the inmate you are visiting. The inmate is then paged over the camp intercom system.

Inmates usually know when to expect visitors so they are listening for their name. You must wear your greens - sweats and t-shirts are not allowed. I usually wait in the law library which is actually an annex of the VR building. This not only has a good intercom but provides a view of the parking lot. Physical contact outside the VR is strictly forbidden, but there are no gates or locks, only your own self-control, and the security cameras that monitor the parking lot.

Inmates enter the VR through a security room to the left of the main entrance. After removing any metal (e.g. belt and steel top shoes), you walk through a metal detector and hand the CO your ID. He then inventories your possessions (wedding ring, glasses, etc). You are not allowed to bring anything else with you (although the website says a comb and a handkerchief are allowed). On one occasion, I brought a blank visitor information form that I wanted to give to my parents so they could copy it and give it to non-immediate family. The CO said that technically it was not allowed. I asked, "What about non-technically?" He said, "If you put it in your pocket, I don't give a sh**." It all depends on the CO on duty.

The VR is a large room reminiscent of a large church fellowship hall. There are tables, chairs, 5 TVs, change machines and vending machines in the back. There are 3 bathrooms - men, women and inmates; I guess we are a different gender - it feels like it sometimes! The official capacity is 162.

There is a door that opens to a large outdoor courtyard, perhaps 1 1/2 acres in size. It is surrounded by a 6' wooden fence and fronted by the back of the chapel. There is a sidewalk circling the courtyard with concrete tables and benches sprinkled around the grass.

Inmates transferred from other prisons report that this is the best visitation arrangement they have seen, especially for kids. The COs are generally lenient on the rules here. More physical affection is allowed. Visitors can bring card and board games. But all items must be in clear bags. I didn't know you could purchase the variety of clear purses and bags I have seen in the VR.

I have been here 4 weekends as I write this (not counting the weekend I arrived). My wife and parents visited the 1st and 3rd weekends and my parents visited the other two. Except for Easter weekend, I would guess that less than 10% of the inmates get visitors on any given weekend; for most it is simply too expensive for their family to visit.

The first weekend I was struck by how friendly and considerate everyone was. Not just the typical Southern courtesies, but the kindness that is shared among those who have suffered - like what you might find among parents in a pediatric cancer ward. There is an unspoken, non-judgmental understanding. I tried to imagine as I looked across the room how much heartache was represented in that room. Note from Bill's wife: Me too. The first weekend I couldn't think of anything else ...

On a lighter note, it is a little funny to see how inmates you only know in the context of their prison life act completely differently on the weekends. I work 4 1/2 days a week and then see my wife or parents for 2 1/2. I now see my parents far more than I normally would and I still see my wife more than many businessmen who travel. And, there is not much to do but talk. I bet for some inmates this time talking to their spouses is much more quality time than they usually had back in the real world.

If the visitors stay till the end, then the inmates clean up the room and leave out the back gate with trash bags while the CO returns each inmate's ID.

If your visitor leaves early, then the inmate leaves also but through the same security room he entered. The CO returns the ID but after that the procedure has varied wildly. In one case, I simply left. In another I was strip-searched. In most cases, I am patted down and walk through the metal detector. As usual, it just depends on the CO.

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