It’s a really funny thing when people ask you what your plans are for the weekend and you respond with the biggest smile, “visiting prison”.
I’m an intern for a non-profit organization called Freedom to Choose (FTC). This organization offers workshops and classes that are highly accessible to men and women of all cultures, education levels, and faiths.
“It is designed to teach practical communication, emotional competency and self-responsibility skills to men and women in prison, on parole and probation so that they may return to society and lead productive, successful lives.”
A Few times a year FTC pays a visit to the Valley State Men and Women’s Prison in the Fresno area. This year I had the opportunity to participate in this project as a volunteer. Volunteers spend hundreds of dollars twice a year on gas, money, and hotel – some even fly out, all to go into maximum-security prisons. I thought to myself, “If people are spending all of this money and time to go into prison…something remarkable must be happening.”
Of course, I was nervous as well… It’s a maximum-security prison. There were so many restrictions as to what we could wear and many guidelines to help keep us safe – it was all a bit overwhelming. I was told to dress “grandma style” because the point of the project was rehabilitation, so it was important not to sexualize the experience and keep distractions to a minimum.
The list is very intimidating of what we can’t wear. I found it odd that we were allowed to bring umbrellas in but were not allowed to wear bras with underwire.
Below is a list of what we could not wear:
• DO NOT WEAR BLUE, NAVY, DENIM OR OLIVE/KHAKI CLOTHING
• Keep jewelry to a minimum
• Footwear/Shoes/Sandals must cover at least half the top of the foot and/or have an ankle strap or back strap. Heels will be no higher than 3 inches. Flip-flops, beach shoes, shower shoes or slippers are not permitted.
• NO tank tops with straps less than 3″ wide.
• NO back pillows of any kind.
• NO hoodies of any kind or color! (Sweaters/jackets that are not “gym apparel” are ok.)
• Sweatshirts are ok as long as they fit the other color guidelines. (NO: blue, olive green, grey, orange, bright yellow or lime green.)
• Please do not wear all-orange outfits (new inmates wear orange jumpsuits and we don’t want to resemble them). For the same reason, please do not wear bright yellow or lime green pants/jackets. (You can wear these as accent colors mixed in with other colors.)
• NO underwire bras. On one project they surprised us with this rule and we almost didn’t get a few women in!
• Please avoid clothing with extra zippers, metal buckles, decorative metal pieces, etc. The metal detector is VERY sensitive (a metal button on pants sets it off). Example: if you have pants with a metal zipper, you can cover that with one hand and likely get through. Zipper + buckle = two hands, etc.
• Please DO NOT wear religious symbols on clothing or jewelry (this includes “hu”).
• No transparent clothing,
no tank tops with straps less than 3″ wide or low cut blouses, Shirts/Blouses cannot reveal bare back below neckline area nor cleavage in the front,no exposed midriffs, and
“no dresses, skirts, pants or shorts exposing more than two inches above the knee,
no hats, wigs or hairpieces.
• No cells phones, beepers, or electronics of any kind.
• No wallets, no money, no credit cards, no valuables, etc.
• No chewing gum!
• No visible tattoos
My anxiety was starting to kick in on Saturday morning, around 4 A.M., and I could hardly eat. Before I knew it, I was in a car and headed straight for Valley State Men’s Prison (VSP). The first part of being able to enter the prison is said to be the trickiest part – if you’re wearing the wrong thing or if you set off a metal detector, you will not be allowed in. No exceptions. All of the veteran volunteers (volunteers who have attended previous prison projects), say that the security check/waiting room looks like a bus stop, so that’s what they refer to it as, but I think it looks more like the DMV. I’m sitting in a chair waiting for my name to be called so I can hopefully enter past the barbwire gates. Suddenly I start to get caught up with negative self-talk. “I shouldn’t be here.” “How am I, a 21 year old girl, going to be helpful at all in this project, what if I say the wrong thing?” “What if I accidentally offend someone!?” “What if I can’t even make it past security!” “I should probably just leave now before I embarrass myself.”
I hear my name called. Now the “DMV room” is feeling much more like the airport security. I have to take off my shoes, they check my ID, I sign a few papers and I’m in. Well not quite. We walk through several different gates, yards and security checkpoints and about a half mile later I’m actually in.
*Editors note: FTC refers to prisoners as participants so I will as well
A group of the volunteers and I start heading over to a building that looks similar to a school gym. There are participants standing outside in blue shirts with big yellow lettering on the back reading “prisoner” and denim pants. They start greeting us as we walk past them with the biggest most genuine smiles. Some recognize the veteran volunteers from previous workshops and I observe friendly exchanges.
As I observed, I felt like I was having an out of body experience. Big guys with tear drop tattoos and scars, buff, mean-looking men who didn’t fit the conventional look of “nice” people… These are the things I witnessed on T.V. shows and movies, but boy was I wrong. Contrary to popular belief, the people I met inside that gym, that Saturday morning at 8am, were some of the greatest people I’ve ever met in my whole life.
I sat down in a chair, like the one’s pictured above, and for some reason, I felt compelled to turn around. There were a couple of participants sitting behind me, no handcuffs, no barriers separating us, and they just smiled at me and greeted me with such kindness and respect. I’ve never felt more comfortable in my life. They looked like they could be one of my friends. We got to talking, and what I learned by the end of this weekend broke my heart.
One of the participants shared his story with me:
He was 16 when he was incarcerated for murder. By the age of 5, he was smoking marijuana; by elementary school, he was a heavy drinker; by middle school he was shooting up heroin and smoking meth; and by the age of 16 he was incarcerated for murder. If you’re wondering where his mom was during all of this, she was the one who taught him how do these things. When I was 8, my mom was taking me to soccer practice and on errands with her, and when he was 8 his mom was taking him on drug deals and drive by shootings. When I was 13 my mom was helping me with homework, while his mom was helping him shoot up. That’s all he knew growing up. That’s how he was raised. Being in prison, he has done so much self-work and been involved in so many programs. He has completely turned his life around behind bars. He is now working on creating a youth diversion program with several other guys in the prison and has just finished writing the by-laws to be able to start it up. One of the most amazing things he said to me was “I have so much love for my mom”. I was shocked. How could he love this woman after all of the trauma she put him through? This man has the biggest heart; he was able to forgive her.
I never thought I would be able to connect and share an understanding with people who are incarcerated for extremely serious crimes. This experience really forced me to look at how corrupt our social justice system is.Coming home from the prison project was a bittersweet feeling. I felt safe inside the prison. I made so many great connections that I haven’t experienced out in the free world.
I will never forget what one of the participants, said to me, “Isn’t it weird how you come into prison to be set free?” I couldn’t agree more.
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