Double fences topped with rolls of barbed wire surround the Columbia Correctional Institution. The observation tower provides a 360-degree view of the yard, the visitor and staff parking lot, and the green countryside that envelops the double-max prison. All who enter are buzzed in by security through two sets of heavy doors.
Visiting hours are posted below the sign-in window. Small, brown lockers are provided free of charge. Inside there will be allowed: No jackets. No cell phones. No jewelry. No recording devices. No weapons.
There are bathrooms and a payphone. There is a machine to change your bills to coins. There is a photo of the governor above a glass display case that holds examples of prisoners’ toils: teddy bears, books on tape, Braille books, crocheted hats, scarves and mittens for children, wooden bird houses, ancient eyeglasses packaged in ziplock baggies with the prescription handwritten on a white sticker in the corner.
The floor is tile, red and orange. The walls are concrete block, painted the color of an old woman’s teeth. The bars are brick red. The bars cover every window, every door.
We remove our shoes, place our locker keys in a cup, and proceed through the metal detector. Our hands are stamped.
“Don’t forget to get stamped,” says Susan, a prison ministry volunteer. “They won’t let you out if you don’t have a stamp.”
We wait by another barred door. When we are buzzed through, the door slides closed, and the deep sound of metal latching echoes in the tiny room between doors. The next door with the red bars opens and shuts, and we are in. We stride down a short hall and into the visitors room. There are windows at the top of the walls, the ever-present red bars across them. Ahead, chairs are arranged to face a podium. At the rear, small tables have tiny chairs, children’s chairs, on top of them. The wall has Sesame Street characters painted on it.
To the left are the men in green. They are seated in neat rows facing the podium. They smile when we enter. They sit up straighter and watch us. They nod. They look happy, nervous, expectant.
We sit. It feels like church. It’s quiet.
I wonder what got them here. I wonder how long they have been here, how long they will stay. I wonder if I have ever met any of them, if I ever will meet them when they are released, if they will be released at all. I wonder what I will say when I get the chance to speak to them.
I will soon find out.
Part 2, Part 3