Underwire is not allowed

And other truths about prisons

Created by Nikki Barr in Canva

It was beautiful at the prison this morning, I typed via text. It was a weird thing to say in conversation about the weather taking an ominous turn. Though peculiar, it was more curious that it felt logical in conversation.

And the morning had been gorgeous, the kind that made me wish I didn’t have to work. The kind that made me comment to Joey that the razor wire was especially sparkly in the sunshine. Almost as if avoiding the obvious horror that the gleaming steel securing the non-descript concrete instilled. Everything seemed pristine and clean, except the rain-muddied yard where some inmates played basketball and hung around.

Neither one of us had even been to a prison and as such we really didn’t know what to expect when we walked in. That we randomly were walking around outside from the parking lot felt like a major rule being broken. I’d read everything on the website twice, especially all the rules, and yet, just being present felt as if we had done something wrong.

Ww entered through the large visitor entrance. My first impression was that it looked very much like the DMV just before it opened and a beleaguered 100 people sat in purgatory awaiting a bad photo and the legal ability to drive. We had arrived early because we were newbies.

There was one woman in front of us, who had passed us in the parking lot. She was intently talking about her hoodie — a parcel of clothing not allowed to be worn in the visiting area. She wasn’t wearing another passable shirt underneath as she demonstrated also clearing up the issue of the type of bra — underwire is not allowed. She left to get another shirt. We were up next.

It’s a men’s prison and there are a lot more rules for women’s attire than for men. Men, on the other hand, have to sign in and out twice. I’d been careful in selecting my dress wearing a t-shirt and black cotton pants. I had forgotten to remove my coat and leave it in the car, but hung it up on a rack and walked through the metal detector. It was all good until one of the guards told me leggings were not allowed. I explained they were not leggings as panic crept in. She went off to get a supervisor before I could provide a useless explanation that my thick thighs create the illusion of leggings. The supervisor came over, ran her hand on my legs and determined I was fine with my “sweat pants.” I could tell she understood the thigh conundrum even if she didn’t know pants well.

We were eyed with a sense of judged indifference, swiped for chemicals, escorted through various thick locked doors, and let into the visitor room where we were checked in with our paperwork and took a seat. It was bright, clean, and set up in groups of about eight chairs. A few others were already visiting and chatting, a couple probably pushing the boundaries of allowable affection. Nerves raced and we laughed about something wholly unfunny. We hadn’t seen him since he was taken into custody in the courtroom, pleading to a reduced sentence for something more than what he had been guilty of doing. It had been two years of letters and one quick chat on the phone when our mutual friend had died.

The hope had been that after COVID, he would be paroled and our next visit would be over a dinner together with friends. But, parole had been denied for at least a year, and we were sitting in a concrete room with industrial plastic resin chairs bolted to the floor. He really didn’t look that different when we saw him approach. He claimed he had gained weight but I’m certain the standard prison issued attire hid any truth of that. It was good to hug our friend again. We spent the next three hours taking and laughing as if no time had passed, though we knew all too well just how much had passed, and how much had changed in that time.

We hugged again as we parted. Then silently passed with all other visitors whose time to visit came to its end back through the thick doors, waiting for someone on the other side to allow them to open and us to pass back into the still empty DMV-equese waiting room. We all had to be accounted for, passing back our paperwork, and the men signing out — in case some decided to stay, I guess, or exchange costumes. I supposed anything is possible and more weird shit has happened in the past that makes it all necessary now.

We walked back to the car, still quiet, until I mentioned the glistening razor wire. Joey finally said it: That wasn’t anything like I expected. Did you expect your mobster movie prison visit scenes? I asked. Maybe, he said — a tone suggesting he was annoyed that I guessed it so quickly. I didn’t know what to expect either, I admitted. But it certainly wasn’t a phone booth with plexiglass dividers.

It was good, he said. And I agreed. It was as good as visiting someone you care about in prison could be.

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