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The Day Before Prison

Tomorrow is a prison visit to Jorge, the student who is in chapter 10 in my book.
I always dread these.
It goes like this: I get up earlier than I want to and find something to wear that doesn't involve blue, khaki, or forest green. Red is not expressly forbidden but it is discouraged, because of gang connotations. I can't have a scarf and a rain jacket must be clear. I have to measure the length of my shorts or skirt if it's hot weather.
Then I drive to east Oakland to pick up Jorge's family, then drive to Orinda and meet a wonderful incredible generous friend, who then drives us 3 1/2 hours to the least beautiful part of California.
We then go in and get treated like we’re not people by the guards, and if they’re feeling particularly spiteful, they insult or his sister or grandmother because they know they can get away with it. Last time they leered at his sister and made fun of her for wearing a "see-through" shirt. (It wasn't at all.) This gave them an excuse to have a discussion about how inappropriate it was (it wasn't) while looking at her chest.
They count our earrings and rings, make sure we don’t have any other piercings, turn our pockets inside out, and send us through a metal detector barefoot. Then we wait in a metal cage to be buzzed through to walk along the walkway with razor wire to the visiting area.
Then we get to visit and it’s incredibly wonderful to see him. But it’s also dehumanizing and demoralizing. The inmates can’t touch the vending machines, the whole place smells like a middle school cafeteria, the guards are watching your every move, and they sometimes just stop all prisoners coming into the visiting room for reasons we don’t know.
Then we leave his family to visit a little longer and we either go visit his former cell mate who is dying of lung cancer and has literally no visitors ever except for us, or if his walk is on lockdown like last time, we go to McDonald’s, which is the only place to go in town. And I mean the ONLY place to go.
Then we go back and pick up his family, which is always interesting because they can’t use cell phones to call us when they’re ready to be picked up and we can’t wait in the waiting room, so if we move the car we have to sort of hope we see each other. I’ve seen people just waiting aimlessly out there before, looking panicked because they have no way to communicate with the person who’s picking them up.
Then my friend drives us 3 1/2 hours back to Orinda and I drive his family back to east Oakland.
I dread it every time. I wouldn’t be able to go without my friend, I don’t think. And at the same time, it’s so wonderful to see him and such an honor to be a part of this person’s life and now a part of his family’s life. It is a privilege to be trusted.
But my life would be so much easier without it, and I selfishly think that the night before every prison visit.
Then I think how much harder it would be if it were my child, parent, or partner.
Then I think how much harder it would be if I didn’t speak English or had been in the prison system before.
And I struggle between gratitude that I’m able to do this and help this family and hopefully encourage this young man, and anger that it is so hard even for me, a person with so much privilege, to do this.
So, that’s my day tomorrow.


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