Erik and Laura-Marie Magazine

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

prison visit #42

My cousin S is in prison in Susanville. We wanted to go visit him there, so we applied months ago and got approval.

Saturday was the big day. We woke up at 5:30 in the morning and left at about 6:30. The drive is beautiful for the first half. We went up into the Sierras toward Reno. From Reno to Susanville is desert and not as pretty.

We arrived at about 10:15 and went to the visitor building. We were told we were in the wrong place, to go to the trailer for passes. At the trailer we were told to hurry because 11 to 12:30 no visitors are admitted. We filled out our passes and paper clipped our driver’s licenses to them, returned to the visitor building, and gave our passes to the guard there. He told us to sit.

We sat and waited. Other visitors were there. A man was delayed because of a Department of Justice flag. He and his wife had to wait while he was cleared. “Is there any way to find out why he has a flag?” the wife asked. There was a mom with her kids.

We sat on wooden benches. I was nervous. I didn’t know where to look.

Some visitors were called up to the guards to take off their shoes, empty their pockets and turn them inside-out, and pass through the metal detector. There are very particular rules about what can and can’t be brought in. A person can bring in two keys on a key ring, up to thirty dollars in ones and quarters, ten photos in a clear plastic coin purse or, more commonly, a ziplock bag.

When a visitor is done with the metal detector, they’re stamped on their right inner forearm, given back their pass and ID, and held in another room to wait for the van to take them over to the visiting area. That room is small with more benches.

We were called up by the guards. “The visiting room is full,” we were told. “It’s reached 150, which is capacity. You’ll have to go to the trailer and wait until 12:30 when we’ll start bumping people out.”

“Do we have to wait in the trailer?” I asked. I had no interest in spending an hour and a half in that trailer.

“No, you can go get lunch,” the guard said.

“Can I have my license back?” Erik asked.

“You driving?” the guard asked and handed Erik his license. We returned to the dusty gravel parking lot and headed toward Susanville—the prison is actually four miles outside of Susanville.

We were hungry--we hadn’t brought enough food in our little cooler. We don’t eat fast food, but I wanted Taco Bell. I wanted the predictability of bean burritos. Erik said no. We drove through town, looking for a real place, and decided to try a random Mexican restaurant. Then we saw Chinese and Japanese food restaurant. The idea of Japanese is what tempted me, so we looked at the picture menu outside the window. Erik wanted a teriyaki tofu chow mein bowl, while I wanted a teriyaki tofu rice bowl.

The food was unappealing. The tofu itself was nicely fried, but the teriyaki sauce was overly sweet, and my rice was soaked in it. I ate half of my food. “At least there was broccoli,” Erik said afterward.

We still had time to kill, so we drove through Susanville and saw a little cemetery. “Stop!” I said.

Erik parked and said, “The gate’s locked. We can’t go in.” I had seen a people-passage beside the locked gate and told him so.

We looked at headstones and calculated how old the dead were when they died. We marveled that someone who’d died in the 1930s had fake flowers on their grave. We realized that the grave we were looking at was of a baby, born and died the same day in 1936. As we continued through the cemetery, we noticed that all the babies had flowers on their graves. “Someone must have a baby fetish,” I said. All the veterans had flags on their graves.

We looked at the epitaphs, learned headstone designs, and pointed out unusual names. “What if there was a Taylor and a Lundgren and they were right next to eachother?” I asked. “Wouldn’t that be weird?”

Erik said, “That would scare me.”

It was a little hot. We went to tree shade. We started getting bored. “Should we go?” I asked.

“Flowers and flags, stones and bones,” Erik said.

Back at the prison, Erik returned his driver’s license, and we waited on a bench. We were called up to take off our shoes, turn our pockets inside-out, and pass through the metal detector. I went first. There was no beep. I was stamped and told to sit in the other room. I put my ID and pass in my pocket.

Erik went through the metal detector just fine too. We waited together in the little room. Meanwhile, the person after us was told she needed to change her shirt. “Go to the trailer. They have clothes there you can change into.” The woman was furious and slammed the door behind her, saying “fuck.”

Another couple was called up. That woman too was told that she needed to change her shirt. Her bra was showing through. One of the rules is “no transparent clothing,” which means anything pale, like white or yellow—I’m glad I wore gray and brown.

This woman was upset too and started to cry. She and her husband left for the trailer.

Eventually these people came back, the women in non-transparent clothing. The first one complained loudly after passing through the metal detector. “Idiots work here,” she said. “Idiots! Idiots!”

“We don’t have to be subject to this,” a guard called. “You can leave.”

“Thank you,” the woman said.

“Very good,” the guard said.

The other woman was still crying. “This is just so humiliating,” she said.

“Yeah,” the first woman said. “It’s like, who’s the criminal here!”

Another couple came in. This woman had long, long dark brown hair. She was wearing all white and was told she needed to put on another shirt and other pants. She came back in new clothing but couldn’t get through the metal detector. “Are you wearing an underwire bra?” a guard asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“You’re not going to be able to get through,” the guard said. “Go back to the trailer and they’ll help you.” One of the rules is that “undergarments must be worn at all times,” but they can’t have any metal. “You can get another bra, or you can rip the underwire out.” The men were getting through just fine—it was the women who had all the trouble.

A van came. We piled in and were driven a short distance to another building. There was a lobby and a front desk where we had to show our IDs, a UV light was passed over our inner forearms to read the stamps we had been stamped, and we had to print and sign our names in a log book.

Then we passed into a hall and waited there to be locked into a holding place, a double gate. It’s a section of hall that’s blocked off with two big locked doors. There’s one gate locked at all times.

In the actual visiting room, a guard took our passes from us. We stood at the edge of the room, looking to see if S was there. The room was full of prisoners and their families and friends. The room was loud with conversation. People sat at low round tables with chairs. Erik and I took a table and sat to wait for S to be brought to us. It was about 1.

I was overwhelmed by noise, movement, and just being there—trembling, trying to look calm. But everyone around us was in a good mood, happy to see their loved ones. A photographer took Polaroids for duckets against the backdrop of a big square mural of ocean waves crashing on a rocky beach. A young prisoner stood proudly with his pretty girlfriend, his arm around her, as the photographer, who was a prisoner too, took their picture.

Prisoners wear light blue long sleeved shirts with blue jeans or dark blue pants. The prisoner at the table nearest ours had his back to us, and on the back of his neck was a tattoo of a crab. The prisoners were mostly young and looked like nice people.

The reason each visitor can bring in up to 30 dollars in quarters and ones is that there are vending machines in the visiting room. I asked Erik to buy us some water, and it cost $1.25. The food there in the visiting room is considered desirable by the prisoners, treat food.

We started getting impatient. I looked around and saw that the visitors who had come in at the same time as us didn’t have their prisoner yet either, so we tried to relax. “Do you want to play cards?” I asked. There were games that could be checked out. A group near us played Scrabble.

A door opened, a guard stepped out, and a line of prisoners entered the room. We looked to see if S was among them, but he wasn’t there. The visitors who had come in at the same time as us were reunited with their prisoner family member, but why had S not come? We decided there must be some delay and kept waiting.

It was 1:30, then it was 2. I was upset that we would only have half an hour with S. Erik was angry. His body language had changed, and I felt a rising panic. “You’re not helping me here,” I said. “You can be angry later, okay?”

I went up to a desk where a guard sat. I told her, “I’m here to see,” and then the full name of my cousin. “Do you know if he’s coming?”

“I’ll call his yard,” she said, but Erik says he didn’t see her make a call.

A little later another guard saw us sitting alone and said, “Were you never brought your prisoner?”

“No,” we said, and I told him my cousin’s full name.

The guard left the room through the door that the prisoners had entered from, and we hoped that he would come back with S, but he came back alone.

Soon it was 2:25. Visiting hours were over at 2:30. “Visiting hours are now over,” a guard announced. “I need visitors up against that wall and prisoners to that side.” Couples kissed, and family members gave last hugs. Eaters finished up their food.

We were reluctant to leave our table. We were the only ones who never got to be with our prisoner. We didn’t want to give up.

But we got up and went to the side of the room, watching the door where the prisoners had entered. It opened. A guard stepped out, and behind him was my cousin. Erik and I saw him and stared. The guard talked to another guard. They looked at the clock—it was 2:30. My cousin looked healthy and was smiling. We waved, but he didn’t see us. Then the guard who had brought him took him away.

Erik kept watching the door, hoping they would bring him back, and I stood there with my eyes full of tears, thinking that we didn’t get one word. “We didn’t even get to hug him,” I thought, not speaking to Erik so I wouldn’t cry.

The visitors moved out of the building in groups of ten.
We passed by the guard who had tried to help us. “What happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

We passed into the holding area and back to the lobby, where we had to show our IDs and forearms again and sign out. A van came and brought us back to the dusty gravel parking lot. We got into our car and started out on the three and a half hour drive home.

“I can’t believe it,” I said. “All that way.”

“I knew it, once it was 2,” Erik said.

“Was it better, that we got a glimpse of him, or worse?” I asked. We agreed that S had looked healthy.

We drove back through the desert to Reno and got on the 80 to Sacramento. On the 80, we stopped at a forest rest stop and walked on a little trail by a pond. It was beautiful there, up in the conifers, and the air felt clean.

“There are worse things that happen in this world,” I said. “There was no loss of life or property.” We decided we would try again in a few weeks.

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