|Rev. Cynthia Landrum|
|Wall of the Armory Arts, the former Michigan State Prison - Photo from MLive.com|
I've driven past the prisons before, but they're tucked up in the north part of town above the city where nobody goes unless they're going to prison. And I'd never been in there, in all my years of Jackson. I'd visited jail to visit a church member, but never prison. My first time in was for a brief orientation.
I was most nervous about getting in and out. There are a lot of rules about what you can bring, what you can wear, etc. No high heels -- you need to be able to run. No low-cut shirts. No jewelry. These are all pretty obvious. No colors resembling the prison uniforms. You can bring in $25 in cash, but no food without special permission if for medical reasons. At orientation, I was given a list of "Allowable Items without a Gate Manifest," but for that first day I walked in with only my ID and my car key. The list of allowable items says I can have eyeglasses, pens (clear) and pencils (no more than two of each), feminine hygiene products (one day's supply), one tube lip balm, one lipstick, and various other personal items. Phones and cameras are not allowed, so I start wearing a watch. In prison, everybody wears a watch, something increasingly rare on the outside, now that we all have our cell phones. The woman who gives me the allowable items list wrote on it in pen, "NO GUM." Apparently gum must be one of the most often confiscated items, or maybe it's just what she misses most.
|Cooper Street Entrance - Photo from www.michigan.gov/corrections|
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After you've passed through the metal detectors, you go to the next window, where you trade in your car key, and a third officer gives you what I call the "panic button," a small thing that looks like a garage door opener that you put in your pocket or clip at the waist, that can call the officers if you have trouble. It has a button that does nothing. The way you activate it is to pull out what looks like an antenna.
I then proceed past what appears to be a waiting room filled with a dozen or more prisoners, and head to the next window near the back door of this pole barn entry building. At that window, I tell them who I am and where I'm going (something I've done with first two officers, as well), and ask for an escort. They call an officer who usually meets me outside the door, but sometimes down the walk a ways, who will escort me to where I'm going. The first day, I'm going to "Programs" for my orientation, but thereafter I'll be going to the "school" or the "trailer" depending on how they refer to it. The classroom, which I'll be shown that day, is in one half of a double-wide trailer.
I've heard it's easy for volunteers and teachers, who have of course come here to help the prisoners, to start identifying with the prisoners. We're mostly humanities teachers coming from the college, but some business and math. But I think they worry about the humanities teachers more -- we're soft-sided, caring, want to see the humanity in each person, and that's easier in our students, the felons, than in the guards. In my case, I need to make the switch in my head from the discussion groups I've come from about the "New Jim Crow," to the fact that I'm really in prison, and not everybody here is a victim of bad drug laws. My students, according to their online prisoner profiles, include murderers and rapists. The guards and prison staff are full of stories about people who've gotten involved with prisoners and the trouble they can get into. Walking in and out through security, it'd be easy to feel hassled with or frustrated by the guards, and so that adds to the feeling that when you're in there, you're more like the prisoners and less like the guards. It's an illusion, because you get to come out at the end of your day. I remind myself constantly that the officers are there also to protect me. That's why I get the escort in and out.
I remind myself of all of that as I greet the officer who will escort me, and I take my first step out into the prison yard.