It was 7:15 and there were already two people standing at the door that would not open until 7:30. He took his place as third. There seemed to be more of a chill in the air before even though the fog was beginning to break away.
“Did the fog make things colder or warmer,” he wondered to himself. He couldn’t remember and didn’t really know if he ever knew the answer.
By the time 7:30 came a more people had piled up behind him, a couple, probably parents, a girlfriend, two women with a baby. It wasn’t always obvious who these people were, or more important, how they knew the prisoner they were visiting.
As they all entered into the waiting room they each pulled a form from the stack at some tall tables. The people who had visited before explained how to fill it out the form. It was pretty simple, but essential. There were all sorts of little tricks to the place. Get there early. Then get in line first at the little window.
At the window there was a guard behind thick glass with a single round hole in it. Through this hole is where one push the rolled up form with name, social security number, phone, and address along with a drivers license. He was second to be called up to the window after waiting behind a stanchion with a sign, “Wait Behind This Sign.”
“Next,” the voice said.
In went the rolled up form with the license. It was an unfamiliar face behind the glass.
“You an attorney?” she asked?
“No, not an attorney,” he said.
“OK,” she said, “Must be the tie,” she said. Attorneys got in first. They always went ahead in the line.
She looked at her computer screen and made some marks on the form. She reached around to her right and pushed back a key.
“Thanks,” he said. It was wise to be polite and keep these people happy.
The key was for a locker into which everything went, keys, phones, anything and everything in pockets, including wallets. He always was sure to check every possible place. He didn’t want any trouble. He’d gotten pretty good at this.
Then another wait. All of this mattered because at about 9AM there was a lock down, and that meant nobody moved anywhere for about 30 to 45 minutes. Visits were two hours and could last longer if there were another lock down or if there were delays in moving people in and out.
In any event, he heard his name. Each group was about 5 names; each name was going in to visit a prisoner. A large heavy door would open and each group would shuffle through the door that would slam heavily and loudly. It was a noise one would become used to after awhile, but at first it was jarring, alarming. Slam! Every time, and without any effort, usually, to stop it.
Each person had to get stamp on the right hand, a glow in the dark, and fluorescent yellow highlighter color stamp. It would show up under ultra violet light. That never happened, a review of a stamp with a light. Everything through the scanner, just like an airport, and a walk through a detector. Some people would get a pat down. It was random.
On the wall opposite of the desk and scanner was a picture of the President, the Attorney General, and the head of the Bureau of Prisons.
“Why put those pictures there?” he wondered. Was there any doubt about whose prison everyone was in? Perhaps someone would mistake this for a state prison.
Then there was another wait, after the detector. Another sound was keys, especially from the guards who opened doors and escorted visitors in and out. They jangled loudly against each other and against the chains that held them all together. All keys. Clanky doors and jangling keys. Slam. Jangling keys. Squeek. Slam. More jangling. Again, unnerving at first, then somehow all part of the rhythm of the place.
While waiting and hearing all the doors and keys, there was a video screen highlighting the latest Bureau of Prisons health insurance updates. Then the screen would dissolve into another announcement about an upcoming seminar on the BLS retirement plan. Then another. Then it would go back to the insurance update. The group would wait. Then a door would open.
The group of visitors would march through another door. That would slam heavily, and loudly behind them. They’d wait. Then the next door would open, and the group would be in the visiting room. That door would slam.
The room was full of extruded plastic furniture, brown chairs and little tables. There was a section for male and female prisoners. The women would see their visitors closest to the door the group entered through. Then men would take up the rest of the room. Newcomers would often wander about. On the wall just opposite of the entrance was a big desk, round, where a guard sat and could see the whole room.
Usually, the first group would settle quickly. Newcomers would get the direction about men and women and where they were supposed to wait. Each group or individual would find a spot to wait. Prisoners were supposed to sit on the west side and visitors on the east, opposite of each other with the little plastic table between them.
There was an odd mural of the city skyline on the wall to the left of where he would take a chair and wait. He’d stare at it sometimes, memorizing its various takes on buildings he knew. And he’d wait. And wait with everyone else.
He’d sit there with his tie, looking like a lawyer. He had a meeting afterward. Most everyone else, families, girlfriends all were more casual. Children were allowed in. Sometimes a baby would start crying. There was a door, another heavy, slamming door, squeaky, opened by big jangling keys that was where prisoners would emerge.
This early in the morning, the room wasn’t full. But the first groups through the outer door and process were arriving. Everyone was waiting for his or her prisoner. He’d come to recognize regulars. The woman with the tattoos. The older woman who visited the older man. Something with taxes. The guy who was here for 10 years. The Vietnamese woman who used to run a nail salon. Then there was the new people, the first timers, people coming to see their son or daughter for the first time in prison. The old friend who happened to be in town and set up a visit.
Some of this was overheard or intuited, but the room was well lit, and not just from the high set windows, but also from a kind of optimism or something that exuded from everyone there. Maybe it was forced. Maybe the prisoners were so happy to be breaking up their routine that it lit the place up.
Something made the place far from the sad place one would think it would be. Everyone was the same; nobody was better off than anyone else in that room. Guards, prisoners, and visitors were all there because of a crime, an accusation, a conviction, a sentence, a plea, and a release date and a plan for the future. Nobody wants to be in jail except those pictures.
He kept his eye on that door, the one where prisoners came into the visiting room. But he could have been blind. The sound was what mattered. He could heard the jangling and clattering of keys on the other side of the door, a slam of another door. Then more jangling and clanging of keys and the door would swing open. She’d walk out, usually with a big smile on her face with two other women prisoners. Or one.
She’d walk up to that circular desk and hand over her ID. He’d watch. She’d joke around with the guards. They’d call her by her last name. It annoyed him. He got jealous. It seemed like they were coworkers. It annoyed him. Then he let his better getter the better of him. Whatever.
Then she lost the smile and came toward him.
“Hi,” she said.
They hugged in an awkward obligatory way. He hated that. It was a show for the other prisoners. That mattered.
Her dark hair was damp. She looked at him.
“Hi,” he said. He reached out and held her hand.
“Mom was here yesterday,” she said. “You guys had better fucking work out your visiting schedule because you both can’t be here.”
“Hey,” a guard shouted. “There’s kids here. Take it easy with the F bombs.”
“Yeah, right,” she said nervously over her shoulder.
He took a breath. Breathing was supposed to help. He did that.
“Jesus Christ,” he said quietly, “I’m fucking doing the best I can with her, and with you.”
“I get it,” she said.
She leaned forward so the guard couldn’t hear.
“I didn’t fucking ask for you to be my parents.”
A thought and feeling passed through him, and then it became regret.
“I didn’t fucking ask for you to be my daughter,” was the thought.
Fuck. And he didn’t ask for any of this. Did. Not. Ask.
“I’m sorry, again,” he thought as he held her hand. “I’m sorry a million times,” he thought.
Another woman prisoner sat down. Her visitor was trapped behind the door and process.
“Yeah,” he said, “nobody would choose any of this.”
He took both of her hands.
“ Can we talk about this now?” he asked.