Some evenings, after a full day of work, you can find me in a church basement bundling up books and writing notes to prisoners.
Normally, I haven’t eaten dinner yet. I just go straight there from the office on the bus. The small room smells like paperbacks and cardboard and coffee even though there is no coffee to be found. Stacks of books line the walls. Folding tables hold scales and stamps, pens and paper.
The small space is typically bustling with volunteers. First, we carefully read a letter that has been pre-screened and stuffed into an old shoe box. Then we set about selecting, weighing, and wrapping the books we picked out for each inmate. Each package also goes out with a short handwritten note.
It’s a funny scene; people with a half puzzled, intently searching look, wandering slowly- sometimes even into each other- holding a letter in one hand and a potential book in the other. This might work…but is there a better one? We stand up on tipy-toe to see if the right book might be up on that shelf over there. One asks another with gravitas, “have you seen any zombie mystery novels?” While we might grin occasionally, there’s really no judgment here. The volunteers all seem to respect the inquiries, no matter what they are. Generally, we don’t know much about the letter writers but I think we must all imagine that our own requests would be just as diverse or possibly strange, revealing an intimate part of ourselves to a stranger.
I find it curious, reading the requests from these brothers and sisters- the ones we’ve decided to lock in uninspired standardized cells for years on end. Each letter is different, just as the authors must be. It’s oddly satisfying to snoop through the stacks of donated books, looking for just the right one to match the personality, the handwriting, the inquiry. To answer the unspoken question that comes though the handwritten pages, “does anyone out there care about me?” with a resounding: “yes, and here it is, the perfect book for you, friend.”
The last time I went in, I really was too tired to be of much use, but I’d gotten an email saying I had a response letter waiting for me. A letter? I hurried to retrieve it.
Tonight 7 of us returned to the immigrant detention center. I noted that someone had cut down the sad sunflower.
After our last experience, we decided to show up later in the evening. We arrived at 7:00. Our volunteer coordinator was already there and handling things so we chatted outside until about 7:30. By the time we ventured in, there were still a few families visiting, but it was much less chaotic. There was a different guard this time; a youngish white guy who would give us a hard time, and then back off. “I’ll cut you some slack since it’s your first time here,” he’d say. Just like last time, the guard in the box didn’t seem to have any prior notice of our arrival. Again, we waited for an hour for the facility to arrange our visits.
We visited with the same men as we had before. Once our visits were approved, we all filed in to meet the first four men. I sat down to talk to M. He was wearing simple plastic frame glasses, and a goatee. He has a hopeful smile and is easy to talk to. His English is very good. I learned that M. came to the US 12 years ago when he was 19. He is a concrete worker. I asked him why he came to the US. He said that the money is just so much better in the US than in Mexico. And, he’d met a woman…a US resident. They married 11 years ago and had two children together, but he never got the paperwork completed for his residency status. “My cousins, they told me to get my paperwork done, but I just didn’t do it. I never thought I would end up in here, I thought it would be OK because we were married,” he said. He has a boy and a girl who were born in the US. They are living with his wife. He explained he had been charged with some crimes (I’m being purposely vague here, and I’ve asked him if it was OK to share his story). “I was bad,” he admitted, looking down, “But not anymore. When I get out, I will be on the straight path.” He was wearing a white plastic rosary. “I pray every morning and every night. I didn’t know God before I was here. I found God in here.” He said. “God is the only way out of this hole.” He was amazingly upbeat, and hopeful about his situation. He has a hearing coming up in October. He is worried about his kids. “In here, I can’t work, I can’t do anything! I want to get out so I can take care of my babies. What good am I to anyone in here? How is my wife supposed to take care of them by herself?” I asked if they come to visit him. He said he can talk to them on the phone sometimes (for a fee) but they live 3 hours away and it is hard for his wife to find enough money, and take time off of work. They can’t come.
“I had a lot of friends too, but when I went to jail, none of them came to visit me. No one has put even $1 in my account. You find out who your real friends are when you go to jail.”
“Sounds like you need better friends,” I said. He agreed. I made a mental note to be sure to add money to my friends commissary accounts if they are ever in jail.
During our conversation, the phones often crackled with static. We had to stop talking several times because it was so loud. A sign outside made clear that our conversation could be recorded or listened in on at any time.
“No one has been to visit me except for you guys,” he said. “I have had 3 visits.” He thanked us for coming to see him. “It’s good to talk to someone. Every day is the same in here. We watch TV, some people play cards. I like to read or draw. But I want to work. I want to take care of my babies.”
“The hardest part is, you don’t have a release date, you know?” he said. “If you do a crime, you know, OK, I have to serve so much time, and you can prepare for that in your mind. You can plan. But, this…you don’t know.” I nodded. I get it. I’m totally a planner. That would drive me nuts.
In the station next to me and M., a fluent Spanish speaking volunteer, now retired, originally from Peru, was talking to J., the 23 year old young man who started crying when I spoke to him last time. I waved to him, and he gave me a big smile. I showed him the cat drawing in my notebook and he laughed. Later, I learned from the Peruvian volunteer that he has a hearing on Monday. He does not have a lawyer. This fact does not give me a warm fuzzy feeling.
The Peruvian woman spoke with both J. and also with E., the 18 year old we met last time. In the lobby, after we were done, I asked her about her visits with these two boys. “My heart is broken,” she said. I understood. I gave her a hug.
S., the man from Nigeria, was happy to see us again too. I spoke with him for a few minutes before he had to go back. I had sent post cards to all the guys after our last visit. He told me that the guards let them know about the post cards, but wouldn’t give them the post cards because they were color photos. He thanked me anyway. “It’s the thought that counts,” he said with a weak smile. We continued chatting. I learned that he came to the US with his mom and his sister when he was 11 years old. I tried to imagine making such a journey when I was 11 and then being forever an outsider in my new home. He has tattoos on his arms, the kind you would be able to read if his fists were up, ready for a fight. They say, “Me Against the World.” Yeah. I’d imagine so.
As we walked out, I got reprimanded by the guard. He saw I had a pen. Not allowed. “I didn’t make these rules, but they are for a good reason and I have to enforce them.” I dropped my pen onto his ledge and hoped he didn’t see my notebook. He explained the rules sternly. “But, it’s your first time so… You’ll know for next time.” He grinned at me.
Just before we left, I passed this guard a simple thank you note too. “What’s this?” He read it and smiled. “You’re welcome,” he said. “I’m happy I could help.”
It was late when we left. Bright lights lit up the curls of razor wire around the building. A guard was outside taking down the flags.
We will be back.
This past Saturday night, I drove with a group of 5 other volunteers to an immigrant detention center. The center is in a location off of an unassuming highway exit. At this exit there is a McDonalds, an I-Hop, and a T&A Travel Plaza. There is no public transportation that goes there. I didn’t see any law offices either.
We arrived at 6:30 in front of a one story building. I parked the car and we left all of our belongings inside. I was allowed to carry my keys and my notebook containing the list of people we planned to visit. We walked up to the uninviting building. A lone sunflower, planted in front of the building, hung her heavy head. Curls of razor wire adorned the top of the fence that extended from the edge of the building. We went inside and entered a waiting lobby full of families: babies, children, moms, brothers. All of them appeared to be waiting to visit family members.
All of the people were various shades of brown, including the guard. The guard’s box was located at the far side of the room next to the doorway to the visitation area. The trim parts of his box are what I’d call state-park brown and the top half was made of glass windows with a little ledge and a slot for passing papers and IDs. The walls were, well, white and prison gray. The waiting room chairs were black. Bright orange lockers lined another wall.
Though we had made an appointment, and confirmed the day before via e-mail, the guard in the brown and glass box had clearly received no information about our group ahead of time. “Who are you with again?? he quizzed me, “who did you talk to??” He seemed no-nonsense but kind…just puzzled. There was a lot going on. I leaned over to put my ear closer to the slot and tried again. He was hard to hear. I explained our purpose and passed him my notebook through the slot. He made a copy on a fax machine that looked to be from 1995. It took a full minute to copy one page. He was making a phone call. As I stood there, I looked past him into the visiting area.
17 visiting stations were lined up in a row. They had been numbered with stencils overhead. One metal stool was affixed to the floor in front of each one. Each station had a black payphone style handset hung in a metal cradle above a Plexiglas window and small ledge. On the other side of the glass, a narrow hallway allowed the facility residents to enter and sit at a station. Every station was full of family members talking into the phones to their loved ones across the glass, also on a phone. Mothers were holding crying toddlers with one hand and phones in the other. I guessed a father was talking to a son. A woman seemed to be talking to her husband. More people were leaning against the wall behind them. It was noisy. There was absolutely no contact, and no privacy.
The guard seemed a bit frazzled. Whoever was supposed to be picking up the phone wasn’t. More people kept coming, wanting to check in. A former inmate with a bunch of tattoos of demons and Disney characters was insisting on visiting his buddy inside. Apparently, the immigrants are detained alongside the other criminals. The guard was trying to keep an eye on the visitors, figure out who was coming and going, deal with me, and check families in all at the same time. I told him we were not in a hurry. We would wait. He assured me he’d sort it out.
An hour and a half passed while we waited for the facility to decide that we were ok and arrange our visits. In the lobby, we made small talk with two kids sitting behind us, one adorably dorky looking little guy sporting black glasses and his older sister- they were there to visit their dad. They start school tomorrow. Their mother was on the phone trying to sort something out. The pastor in our group was engaged in an involved conversation with 3 others. We took note of the surroundings: a flat-screen TV scrolling messages littered with spelling errors, a machine that lets you add money to an inmate’s commissary account- for a hefty fee, info about a phone line that also lets you transfer money- for a fee that increases as the amount increases. We couldn’t figure that one out. Why does it cost more to send $300 than $30?
Shortly after 8:00 we met with our guys. Some spoke English, some spoke Spanish. Our group had two Spanish/English speakers (a teacher and a pastor), one English only, one English/French speaker, and me. I speak English and just enough French and Spanish to bumble through a basic interaction.
A guard shuttled in the first round of men and they took their seats. Most of the families had gone home by now so it was just us. I surveyed the guys seated on the other side of the stations. They were all dressed in blue uniforms. They all wore wristbands with their names, photos, and ID numbers on them. They looked as curious about us as we were about them. In our first set of guys, we had 3 Spanish speakers- one more than Spanish speaking volunteers. I decided to at least give it a shot and then switch with one of the more fluent ladies in a few minutes. I sat down across the glass from a gentle looking young man.
“Hola!” I started, brightly (I have hola down).
“Hola.” He said, followed by a bunch of Spanish I couldn’t understand at all.
I shook my head, “Lo Siento… Yo hablo Espanol un poquito.” (Sorry … I speak a little Spanish)
“No English” he said, looking disappointed. I smiled anyway. I knew enough Spanish to at least introduce myself and ask his name, and how old he was. That sort of thing. Yay for that community college class I took… I learned that he is 23, he is from El Salvador, he has 2 kids- one is 4 and one is a baby. He can’t afford a lawyer. He has no money. I told him I was from Washington, I didn’t have kids, I was divorced. I told him I had a cat. My Spanish is so terrible that I had to draw him a picture of a cat to convey this concept effectively. The picture made him laugh.
I put my hands together and expressed that I would pray for him with my church. He nodded vigorously and thanked me. We quickly exhausted my phrase-book Spanish. What else could I say in Spanish?? Oh yeah.
“Dios te ama” (God loves you) I said. “Yo te ama” (I love you) I said.
His beautiful brown eyes welled up with tears. His face was sad and he started a stream of Spanish that I pretty much understood. He missed his family, he missed his children, he was worried about them, no one came to visit him, he was all alone. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what would happen. I put my hand on the glass and stayed with him a while watching the tears stream down his face. I was crying too, the isolation and sadness was too much for my heart to take. This was not a hardened criminal, he was probably just like I was when I was 23, trying to figure out a better life in a tough world. And it had all gone terribly wrong. After a bit, I went to get the Spanish speaking pastor to switch with me and have a more fluent conversation with him. She did. I was glad.
I went to learn about and speak with the others. The other volunteers were doing a great job. They were all engaged in conversations with their guys. One was from Nigeria waiting for travel papers. He’s been waiting for 17 months. Our volunteer had just been there so they had lots to talk about! No one had visited him or written to him the entire time. One guy was from the Congo, one from Mexico City with a wife and two kids in the US. I spoke to a 23 year old mechanic who wished he had some Spanish books to read- he’s been in there for 16 months- he asked me what the weather was like outside. “I’ve been two summers in here,” he lamented. We met one 18 year old. His parents had sent him to live with a relative in Virginia to escape the gangs in El Salvador and send money back home. All was going as planned, and then, as 18 year old boys will do, he met a girl, and got picked up on his way to visit her. Now he is locked up.
All told, we spent about 30 minutes each with 8 men. They were all polite and grateful. They all thanked us for coming to visit them. As we were wrapping up our visit, I paused to pen a simple thank you note to the guard. “Thank you for letting us come and visit!” it said. I signed it with a heart and all of our first names. I passed it through the slot. He took it, read it, and stopped to look intently at me.
“Thank you for what you are doing,” he said. “I was an immigrant myself 18 years ago.” Then he just started to talk. He apologized for the long wait. He explained how he was trying to juggle many tasks. He wanted us to know how much he appreciated the time we took to care about these fellows. This was personal. He asked if he could keep my note.
He tapped his heart repeatedly. “I can’t say much, but I thank you all from here.”
We will be back.
Per aspera ad astra or Ad astra per aspera is a Latin phrase which means any of the following: “Through hardships to the stars”, “A rough road leads to the stars” or “To the stars through difficulties”.