As if California’s prison visitors didn’t have it demanding enough.
It goes without saying that, for family members, prison visits are psychologically and emotionally demanding. Just keeping up with background check requirements, approved visiting days, bureaucratic obstacles, and the distinct operational eccentricities of the facilities in which your loved one may be housed is an education in itself – a part-time job. And none of it applies to the wild-card of lockdowns or the myriad other things that can affect visitations, like visits being cut short due to overcrowding.
The experience itself is more akin to driving for four hours only to stand in line to deal with a speeding ticket for which you’d previously failed to appear. You get a strong sense that you’re only being grudgingly tolerated by authorities, who’ve lumped you in with the rest, with “those people.” And in fact you are literally penned in with other visitors awaiting approval and entry.
Such areas are always some variation of “Visitor Intake” or “Processing,” and they’re never short on militaristic signage and ALL CAPS ANXIOUSNESS. Depending on the facility and its administrator’s interpretation of departmental policy, waiting areas may be lined with hard wooden benches (the kind you could easily be handcuffed to), tattered airport seating, or flimsy plastic stackables.
Many in your group have never had a relationship with authority, only against, so you keep your eyes down when voices are raised. You didn’t drive all that way to wind up like the woman and two kids who just lost their visiting privileges. But toss in every conceivable permutation of judgment and profiling imaginable, plus the learned behaviors of macho, mayhem, and menace, and what do you get? Personnel trained to fall back on indifference as an emotional defense.
You’re here to show support, to see your loved one or friend for yourself, up close. And even that can be hard to hang onto once you’re inside, trying to center yourself amidst the latent hostility of inmates and guards who’ve seen each other’s true colors and will likely return to them when this is over. Don’t let the inmate painted murals of Key West or circus clowns fool you: these rooms are never relaxing.
Back in the parking lot and the sanctity of your car, you’ll be overwhelmingly grateful you get to be the one to drive away, because you’ve just been spat out of a turbine of criminal, ethnic, and economic profiling. You’re not even the inmate, and yet self appraisal, hard reality, and genuine relief have just slammed against one another with such force that it’ll take a day or two to decide whether you feel violated or restored.
Prison visitation is emotionally exhausting even for correctional officers, who:
- are under pressure to scrutinize civilians to prevent drugs and weapons from entering the facility (though most of these folks aren’t too good at differentiating between “scrutinize” and “size-up”)
- must blur the psychological lines between maintaining a command presence over inmates and begrudgingly conveying the intent of the department’s visitor program to encourage “healthy family and community relationships”
- must assist members of the community sporting the same tattoos as “those assholes in the chow hall”
- must smile back at people who hate them, fear them, and otherwise profile them as “weak-ass punks” and “Nazi goons”
- must listen to weeping wives, screaming babies, begging husbands, and excuses galore for eight hours at a stretch
Don’t worry, though, as members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) and attendant support clubs, those guards make out just fine. And now, disturbing coping outlets aside, detention administrators across the country are receiving national and international attention for their efforts. Despite the same ‘ol operational management and inherent marginalizing of prison visitors, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) appears to be addressing rehabilitation and parolee reentry issues as never before (and I do mean never).
The department wants people to know that it, too, is a Netflix subscriber: after all, everybody loves Orange Is the New Black. It’s even teamed up with Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” program, which is all about family contact. And a few clicks around the CDCR website will confirm the department’s intent to soften up its whole approach to scumbag gang-banger wives and parolee babies.
There’s only one problem: the contradictions California’s prison system wears like a tattoo it got on the Yard.
Just this month, California confirmed its reputation as a lousy state in which to visit inmates by beginning to test new “emergency” visitation rules, hardball hoops designed to decrease the weed, speed, and smartphones smuggled into its facilities. (Good luck with that iPhone 6 Plus, though I am told it bends.)
Even as the national dialogue on prison reform brings a dawning revelation that America’s attempts to incarcerate its way out of crime have backfired, California is introducing drug dogs, ion scanners, and random visitor strip searches, which will no doubt take little more than a rookie badge convincing his or her sergeant that you smell like weed to initiate.
In other words, if these new policies are implemented the way the old ones were, then like every other rule in California prisons, they’ll be carried out arbitrarily and subjectively. Kind of like the mind-bending prison visitor dress code…Be sure not to smart off when bickering with that ready-to-retire fussybuttons about what exactly constitutes an underwire; they’re forbidden in California facilities.
Governor Jerry Brown’s efforts to catch up with other states making strides in prison reform, overcrowding, conditions, and re-entry will turn up the heat on CDCR employees to justify expenditures associated with playing visitor hardball.
Besides, prison families already face isolation, so further criminalizing them only makes it harder for inmates to get the support from loved ones that is so essential to genuine rehabilitation. And corrections officers are usually decent people forced to rely on indifference and judgment as emotional defenses. Given the state of the state, they may be doing so now more than ever.
But if we can start to cut law-and-order rhetoric from prison soundbites and eliminate sentencing disparities, surely we can improve visiting room operations as well, maybe ease up some on the indifference and reduce the feeling of guilt-by-association.
It’s aspirational, I know. From recycling bodies to redirecting offenders, California has a long road ahead.
Tags: California, California Correctional Peace Officers Association, CCPOA, CDCR, corrections officers, incarceration, ion scanner, iPhone 6, Jerry Brown, Netflix, Orange Is the New Black, overcrowding, Prison Guards, Prison reform, prison visitation, rehabilitation, Sesame Street, smartphone