Chapter 3

Visiting Day – the Brooklyn Way
I have to be honest- although I knew that there were rules and regulations pertaining to visiting in prison, it never actually occurred to me that the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) could impose anything on ME.  After all, I wasn't the one in prison, right? Ha. I went to the BOP website to find out exactly what visiting entailed, and quickly realized that not only would it be difficult, emotional, intimidating and frustrating, but that it would also entail a dress code.  Seriously?  The website was interesting to read- no skirts above the knee (just like high school), close toe shoes, nothing sheer or revealing, not too tight, no hoods, no sweatpants…Having attended private school all my life, the idea of being told what to wear and/or how to look really gets under my skin. Also, I like choosing my own clothes.

Then I started reading about what you can bring in (nothing) and how you gain admittance.  Surprise! It's somewhat of a process with a lot of pre-planning, and you can't just show up. First the person you want to visit has to mail you the visiting request form and then you have to fill it out, identifying who you are and what your relationship is to the inmate you want to visit. After you mail it in and hopefully get approved, you can then come on the correct day pertaining to your inmate’s placement in the building (i.e. 5th floor visits afternoons on Thursday and it rotates monthly).  Bring in up to $25 in dollar bills, in a clear plastic bag.  There is absolutely no touching whatsoever except an appropriate hug and kiss at the beginning and end of the visit.  The list went on and on. I wondered what I needed $25 in singles for. 

I figured I was prepared- just in case I brought an extra set of clothes- but I thought jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers could not fail.  I found the building- if you live in Brooklyn and take the Bronx Queens Expressway chances are you pass it all the time and never realize it.  It just looks like another big giant warehouse type building.  Once you know it is there, it very obviously is a prison, but when you do not notice the extra cameras and barbed wire, it easily blends in like every other building.  I pulled into the parking lot, gathered my wallet, phone and clear plastic bag with $25 in dollar bills, took a deep breath and went inside.

First thing you notice- the same damn “In God We Trust” seal above the front desk.  Didn't anyone get the memo about separation of church and state?  In addition, I noted an incredible lack of windows.  Actually, that was pretty much a fact in every single place we went to, no windows.  The CO (Correctional Officer) was sitting at a desk behind a thick sheet of bulletproof glass.  Whoever designed these facilities obviously failed to take into account that the visitors usually have many questions for the impatient CO’s and trying to communicate through the aforementioned sheet of glass is beyond frustrating.  Also, you don't necessarily want the other visitors waiting in the room in total silence to hear all your personal details, but what do I know. There are no signs posted explaining what you are supposed to do, so I walk up to the front.

When I approached the CO at the desk, she looked like she would rather be doing literally anything except this job. First she asked for my form.  What form, the one I mailed in last week?  Oh, the one at the front when you come in that all visitors fill out at every visit.  I backtracked, grabbed the form and went up to her again.  She looked at me as if I could potentially be mildly mentally challenged and said I needed to hand it in with my ID when she called for it and that I had to leave everything in the car.  I went back out and put back my wallet and phone, taking only the car key, my id and the Ziploc bag with the $25.  
This time when I approached, she did not even have to say anything; I already knew I was doing something else wrong.  
Oh, you are not processing visitors in yet, ok.  
I will just sit here then and wait?  
Oh, I cannot wait inside until after count clears, ok, I will sit outside on the front steps then.
I take a seat outside unsure how long I am going to be waiting and unsure what exactly is going on.
WHAT THE HECK IS COUNT?

Well, it turns out that Count is a very integral part of the BOP system and fundamental in the upkeep of inmates.  It is basically what it sounds like- the counting of the inmates.  They do it so often to make sure none of the prisoners is missing or dead.  Not a joke. Although it also acts as a pastime for CO’s to while away time because sometimes it can take a few recounts before the few guards counting the 40 or so men in each unit come up with the same number.  Until every CO gets the same number, for each unit, on each floor and it all is called in to the main control and tallied, there is no movement at all within the facility.  If you are in your cell, you sit in your cell.  If you are doing anything else, you must stay there until everyone is counted and then you hear them announce “Count Clear”.  This facility wide freeze includes visitors.  Even the ones who don't know how to fill out their forms yet.

So, I sat on the steps outside the giant building waiting for the CO to motion that it was ok to enter again (I guess if I was sitting in the chair in the front lobby, I could accidentally be counted and throw everything off?).  As I sat there, a few more people joined me on the steps. Then I started to notice people sitting in their cars.  Ah, they all know about this count business already- next time, I will know too.

I did not understand it at the time but as I looked around, I saw people standing in seemingly random spots across the parking lot, looking up at the sky.  Very odd. I later found out the inmates would write to their families and tell them where to stand somehow and then the guys would be able to look out through these slatted, thick windows and literally stare at their families who couldn't see them back.  Something so stupid, but so meaningful.  At MDC, and at later facilities as well, I used to do the same thing- stand in random pre-agreed spots and look up.  Even though I couldn’t see him (IF the building had windows, they were usually thick doubled pained, dirty, covered with mesh and usually angled so there was no way for an outsider to see in) at least he could stare out at me.  I should probably mention that not only were there no windows, the majority of the time that Dan spent at MDC he never even got to see sunlight except if he went out to the yard, ah hang on…I’ll get to the yard in a bit.

Finally count is done, we are motioned inside, and told to sit in the chairs.  There are more people than chairs, so I stand at the back because that's how I was raised- wait, big surprise, I am doing something wrong again somehow.  
Oh, I see, you sit according to the order you came- and apparently, I am first.  I was hoping to get to watch someone else do this so I could see what was supposed to happen.  Everyone sits in total unnerving silence, waiting. This very sweet older woman sitting a few seats over leans toward me and whispers, “First time hon?  Just be polite and don’t ask questions- do what they tell you, you’ll be fine”.
Fine is all relative.

The officer stands up and looks past the entire room as though she doesn’t see us and calls for number one. I walk up to the counter- and immediately get the eye roll.  
“Lady, fill out your form”.
Oh.  Right.  That should have been obvious. Except it has all kinds of disclaimers and federal warnings on it and I'm extremely anxious about forms I have to sign to begin with.
“Next!  Number Two!  Come back when it’s filled out”.
She is very annoyed with me. This makes me very nervous. I get an eye roll from Number Two as he passes me. I return to my seat and realize I do not have a pen because I followed the instructions about not bringing anything in to visiting… the same nice woman from before taps me and wordlessly hands me a pen.  She has definitely done this a few times before.  I fill out the form, return the pen and approach the glass.  
Ok, handed in the form and my license.  
Standing there, waiting for my next instructions.
“What’s the inmate’s number?”
His what?  Like, phone number?  This makes no sense. I had the urge to yell out 42 at the top of my lungs but I knew better than to assume this CO would have read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Panic starts to set in, I do not know what she is referring to…ohhhh, his INMATE NUMBER.  Face palm.  The number the BOP assigns to every inmate in lieu of their name. Although they all enter with a name, but this number system seems to be more popular here.
Um.  I have to run outside to find it since I saved it on my phone, which I left in my car... you get the idea. Apparently the inmate number it is like a direct Bat Signal to indicate who Dan is because I have to include it on every letter I mail him- and now I know I also need it for visits.  I will memorize it. Hand in the form, again. I appear to have made no further errors at this time.
“Ma’am!”
Who, me?  I am a ‘Ma’am’ now?  I have never been called that in my life, it is weird.  
A different CO is motioning me over very seriously.  What did I do now?
Nervous, walk over…
“Turn out your pockets, arms out to the sides”
Oh, like the airport.  I see.
“Turn around, arms out”
Oh how awkward, I am facing a room full of impatient visitors.  All watching me. People who definitely for the most part have little to no education, are possibly illegal immigrants where English is a second, third (fourth?) language.  People who can fill out these goddamn forms on the first try and get through all of this red tape without speaking a word to the guards and who know all the tricks and ways to make this all go smoothly.  Trick number one- grab extra forms at the end of the visit and fill it out at home, bring one pre-filled form with you for next visit. People who know that I am slowing things down for them, stealing time from their visit by being the dumb white new chic. People who are coming to see real live criminals, in a real live prison.  OH MY GOD I AM IN A PRISON. Every once in a while it hits me again.

I walk through the metal detector (yes! no beeping!  That became something to celebrate after I saw the way they heartlessly rejected anyone who beeped, and no, you don't get a second try) and am pointed towards a wall to wait.  Slowly each person is processed and scanned.  Some are denied and asked to leave. For those that have passed the first level, we all get an invisible stamp on our hands that we have to show under the light to get through the very imposing heavy steel door in front of us. 
Through the door, now I am led into a tiny room, of course no windows, with ten other visitors and a guard waiting for… not sure what…oh I see, they don’t open the second door until the first one we entered through is locked shut again behind us.  This is not a process that anyone with any form of claustrophobia should embark on.  

We are led into another dreary room with rows of plastic chairs lined up side-by-side and a few sad looking vending machines in a corner.  In the order we come in, we are pointed at a chair and told to leave a chair between visitors for the inmates (no inmates can sit next to each other- which is funny because once they leave visiting, the inmates are free and clear to sit next to each other, eat together, play games…hang out. But they cannot interact during visiting…ah good old BOP logic). It is also funny because that means I have to sit next to an inmate I don't know, with Dan on my other side. I try not to worry about who the unknown inmate will be. I was prepared to meet MY inmate- I didn't plan on the ones I didn't know!

I seem to have missed another memo because once everyone has gotten their seat assignments, they run up to the dinky vending machines and load up on snacks and sodas.  And Buffalo Wings which look awful.  Turns out, they smell even worse.  There are two ancient microwaves and a coffee machine that seems to take more money than it gives out coffee.  I venture up to the machines when the rush dies down (wow- they must be super hungry- people are carrying armfuls of goods and the selection which was pathetic to start with is pretty grim now). I choose a Snickers bar.  $2 for a candy bar?  Wow- not that there are any left, but sandwiches are $4.  I suddenly understand the $25 in singles.

I go back and wait in my seat- and see men enter in tan jumpers (like the kind mechanics wear).  A group of about ten inmates line up to hand their ID’s to the CO at the front.  There he is! Dan looks so out of place next to these other guys, so military in a uniform, and so very happy to see me!  He is the only one with a giant smile on his face, the other guys are all scowly and grumpy. When he is allowed to, he comes over to me and hugs me, and then we sit next to each other and talk and talk and talk.  It is as though we have not spoken in years, and somehow there is so much to say. I pretend there is not an inmate sitting on the other side of me, I just turn towards Dan, study him. He looks alright, a little tired maybe but nothing else seems that different.  I notice the room gets fuller as more visitors and then more inmates enter, and it gets louder.  The cacophony is deafening.  People are yelling over people yelling which results in more yelling.  Dan notices my obvious hearing issues and I struggle to hear what he is saying as he leans in towards me.
“This is actually relatively quiet, inside our tier it’s always much louder”.

All too soon our visit is over (we only get one hour each week) and he hugs me goodbye and lines up with the other guys.  He gets his ID, turns to me and blows a kiss.
“See you next week baby, I love you”.
I wave, with what I hope is an encouraging smile on my face. Just like that, he is gone again.  But at least I know in 6 days and 22 hours I will see him again.  Next time I will even fill out the form before I walk up to the counter.

Backtrack through the double door system, show hand under the black light, get ID back from front desk, grab a few visitor forms and head out to car.  No one has broken into my car, no one has followed me, seems ok. Open the door, sit down in the driver’s seat, shut the door, inhale, exhale, lean my forehead against the steering wheel… and fall apart, just absolutely crumble into a mess of tears and hiccups and exhausted sobs.  

Overall, a decent first visit.