A very important, but often overlooked issue inherent in the system of mass incarceration in the US is the effect incarceration has on friends, loved ones, and family members of those incarcerated. The prison visiting experience is just one of the many issues surrounding mass incarceration, but it is important to note, as the prison makes the experience such that people no longer want to visit their loved ones. However studies have shown that being visited by, and having support from, loved ones while you are incarcerated increases the likelihood of success once re-entering society. So why would the prison want to discourage that?
I have been to San Quentin in both a volunteer and visitor capacity. While one would think you would be treated the same by the prison, the experience is actually very different. Basically when visiting a family member, friend, or loved one in prison you are treated as if you yourself are a criminal. It is not necessarily that way when you are a volunteer.
Before my first visit as a visitor I made a 10 am appointment through the California Department of Corrections’s online system, VPASS. I got to the prison at about 10:02 am, walked up to the window and waited for another 5 minutes for the correctional officer (CO) to appear. When she finally came out she asked me what time my appointment was. I said 10 am. She said "it is 10:07, sorry you have to wait in line." Never mind the fact that she had me waiting for 5 minutes outside. I looked to my left at the line going way out the door. I said "ok," and the CO said "is that a tank top?" I was like "yeah," (meanwhile I had a long sleeve sweater on as well over the tank top). She said, "you are going to have to change and you will lose your place in line." I had only been at the prison for about 20 minutes and already wanted to lose it but considering I had not seen my friend in about a year, I decided to wait and comply. I didn't have any clothing in my car so was sent up the hill to the visitors center where I was greeted by 2 surprisingly nice women. They led me to a walk-in closet with rows of clothes. Granted, things were faded and nothing fit me, however we eventually decided that a faded little boys long sleeve black t-shirt would work. So I tried it on, left my sweater and tank top with them, and went back down to wait in line with all of the other visitors without an appointment. The line was still out the door.
While waiting in line, I hear constant chatter about whether people will be let in based on their clothing or otherwise, what is taking so long to get through the line, wondering what the mood of the CO’s are that day, and why people are there visiting. There are family members, friends, pastors, and women who met their loved ones online waiting to get in. Women are lifting and stretching their shirts in hopes they can make them appear looser and higher than they are. All of a sudden the door slams open, a teenage girl comes out with tears in her eyes screaming that she is never coming back and how the CO's are all unreasonable and let her come in the week before wearing what she had on that day, but today they decided she could not wear it and that she had no patience to go change and come back and wait in line again. She was there to visit her brother. She sat there for a couple minutes trying to get it together and then stormed off. I hope she comes back. What if she was her brother’s only visitor?
After another 15 minutes in line, one of the men who was in line with another fellow comes back out of the CO office and says they told him he cannot visit today because his paperwork had been on file for more than 3 years and apparently every 3 years prospective visitors have to complete their application paperwork again. People who were waiting in line said that he should be able to complete the forms again that day in the office and be let in however the CO’s decided that they were going to do it differently that day, so he could not visit. Meanwhile his friend was admitted so now this man had to go wait in the parking lot for 3 some hours until the visit was over. I am sure he is thrilled at the thought of coming back.
After waiting for about an hour in line (which is surely trying for anyone, especially on a weekend), I finally get to the office, they accept my outfit, make me turn my pockets inside out, and I am directed to a man at a desk who runs my ID and asks who I am visiting. Mind you, the only thing you are allowed to bring inside the prison as a visitor is your ID, a clear plastic bag with $1 bills and coins only, and a key ring with one key on it. I was given a piece of paper with my friends name and CDC number on it, led through a metal detector in which I had to take my shoes off, and sent on my way to the visiting area. Oh and never mind about wearing a bra with an underwire. They will make you leave if you are wearing one of those. It sets the metal detector off. Fortunately I had a friend tell me this beforehand so I was aware. I now have a special “San Quentin bra” that I cut open and took the wire out of.
Assuming a visitor is able to pass all of those hurdles, visitors must follow a painted yellow line on the sidewalk which goes to the visiting area. When I finally got to the door of the visiting area I stood there. None of the other visitors were around at that time so I assumed I just had to wait for the CO’s to open the door. About 10 minutes later another visitor comes up behind me and said, “uh you need to knock on the gate.” So we get let into a caged box, hand our ID's to the CO who holds onto it until we leave. Another gate opens and we get into the visiting room. They have a kids area set up with toys and books, vending machines, and lots of tables and chairs where people are visiting with their loved ones. I have to walk up to the CO’s “platform” (I call it a “platform” because it is way high up in the air so I, at 5’9”, literally have to stand on my tippy toes to see the CO. They obviously designed it this way for psychological reasons; never forget that “we” are better than “you”) to hand the paper with the my friends name to the CO. I am then kindly directed by an inmate volunteer to a seating area where I have to wait for my friend and where we will be sitting for the visit.
As I am sitting there I see some inmates sitting in silence with their loved ones, savoring their time together; I see people laughing, smiling, holding hands; I see people doing some shadey things sexually; and then I see some kids visiting with their fathers. The children have such innocence, not realizing the environment they are forced to spend time with their fathers in and not knowing why they can only see their fathers in this environment. I also see one of the men I helped when I was a volunteer which was really exciting. He came up and gave me a hug. I felt at home. There were people lined up at the vending machines using the $1’s and coins which visitors are allowed to bring in to the prison to buy all of the healthy eating choices the prison has available that day: candy, soda, chips, or the like, for their loved ones.
I sat for longer than most because my first visit was a surprise visit and my friend did not know I was coming. He was playing basketball when they first called him and he did not hear it. I waited nearly an hour before my friend got there. I gave him a huge hug and then the CO says to him,” Where were you? What took you so long?” So I had to wait there while my friend was interrogated, but finally we got to sit down. By that time, we had about 2 hours left to visit which went by super-fast. The prison provides about a 10 minute warning before visiting is over (if you can make it that long as they send visitors home early if the room gets too crowded), so everyone gets up to say their good byes and leave. All the visitors are then sent back to a caged area to wait for their name to be called. We cannot leave until the person we are visiting is humiliated by having to strip and cough for the officers to ensure that visitors did not bring any contraband into the prison. Once the inmate has been cleared, our names are called, and we are allowed to leave. This process can take up to 45 minutes to complete. I then get my ID back and am able to walk down the long yellow line to exit the prison. I got there at 10, left at 230, and had 2 hours with my friend. That is 2.5 hours of wasted time. It took me longer going through all the administrative bullshit than actually being able to spend time with my friend.
The experience as a volunteer is very different. As a volunteer you meet at another gate of the prison, show your ID, sign in and go through. It takes about 15 minutes to go down to the yard. We are wanded with a metal detector, but do not have to take our shoes off nor does it matter if we are wearing an underwire bra. If we wear an item of clothing that is iffy, they usually let it slide but remind us to not do it next time. We meet with the inmates who are already there, and leave at the designated time. There is no check to see whether volunteers have brought in contraband (which HAS happened before), no long line to get in, no huge hassle, and no harassment. So why is there a difference in treatment? Why does the prison assume family members or loved ones of inmates are criminals or suspicious while volunteers are not? We both meet with inmates at the same proximities minus the hugs I guess. We both spend time talking alone to the inmates. It is extremely troubling and there are so many reasons why someone would not want to make the trek to visit that person, especially those who are poor or who are coming from long distances.
Given the attitudes of some of the CO’s as well as the unpredictability of what visitors are allowed to wear, and the length of time visitors have to spend waiting, I am not sure why anyone would want to visit, at least on a regular basis. The process as it currently stands discourages people from visiting their loved ones in prison. This has a negative effect on those potential visitors, who are often times children and family members of the inmate, but also on the inmates themselves. It is crucial for inmates to receive love and support from people on the outside. Again it has been shown to be crucial for their success in prison but also upon re-entering society. This must change. I encourage everyone to get a pen pal or friend in prison, provide support, try to visit. Believe me, your perspective on this very expensive system will shift dramatically.