Saturday, September 13, 2014

Landrum Prison Files 2

When I step out into the prison yard for the first time, I'm overwhelmed.  It's a large open space, and it's a bright and sunny August day, and this is free time.  That means hundreds of men in prison grey and orange milling about in every direction.  At first, this is all I can see -- I'm surrounded by hundreds of felons, and I'm inside a big enclosed area surrounded by barbed wire.  It floods the senses.  A big clump of men are standing next and in a structure that looks like a screened picnic pavilion, but filled with exercise equipment rather than picnic tables.  The officer leads me through the yard at a fast clip, and is not chatty or familiar with the prisoners in any way.  None of them are, I realize.  They aren't ignoring them, but they're not greeting them or exchanging any communication.  It's a strange thing, in Michigan, where we greet strangers in elevators with "Hello" and a conversation about something, whether it's the weather or something about the location, or the elevator speed.

Sunflower photo from Wikipedia
The prison yard actually has buildings on most sides of the yard, so you don't really see the wall or fence in most directions, although you know it's there.  I presume some of the buildings are the units where the prisoners are housed, and one will be the cafeteria.  We're heading to "programs" where, apparently, various classes and programs are held, but not the college classes, which are in a double-wide trailer.  As we get past the exercise pavilion in the center of the yard, I start to take in something startling: it's lush in here.  Really, really verdant and lush.  There are large flower beds flowing out with flowers in every grass, save the one that's clearly a soccer field.  I remark on the flowers, and the officer tells me there's a strong horticulture program that some prisoners participate in, and they spend a lot of time tending the beds.  It shows.  He tells me there's a garden (we've already passed it), where they grow vegetables, and that those are donated to the Salvation Army and places like that, for soup kitchens.  On another trip across the yard, I'll remark that I'm surprised they don't just use it in the kitchens in prison, but the officer tells me that would cause all kinds of problems, and that the soup kitchens "need the food more than these guys do."  I don't argue, but it doesn't make sense to me, except that part of the punishment of prison seems to be bad food.

Actually, food is a big issue.  Food in the Jackson prisons is outsourced, one of the many ways corporations make money off of the prison industrial system.  This was highly controversial, as it cut union jobs and further privatized the prisons.  The company that provides meals in the Jackson prisons is Aramark.  The officer tells me a story of an Aramark employee who started having an affair with a prisoner.  It's the first of several stories I'll hear from guards about warnings not to get involved with prisoners.  But back to the food, a month before my first trip in, there was a pretty big scandal about maggots in the prison food in this facility, and thirty inmates got sick from food poisoning. 

I'm not remembering that story as I muse on the gardens, taking in their bright blooms.  I'm just surprised that prison could contain such beauty.

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