From the ferry: 9/17/09

Posted: September 18, 2009 in from the ferry
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My commute to and from the prison includes a twenty minute ferry crossing plus however long I get to sit in line to wait to board. It’s a good time to reflect on the night at Monroe, to record first impressions and document those moments that are resonating with me the most before I have a chance to filter them or make them academic. I’ll post these thoughts from the ferry each time I go to Monroe.

The Reformatory

Back to the prison tonight. Not the same group of guys. Not even the same unit of the prison. We’ve moved to what is called the Washington State Reformatory (WSR). The Reformatory looks like it sounds. Tall, 1960’s – 70’s era buildings, that could be mistaken for university buildings or a museum. It sits up on the hill overlooking Monroe, with a sloping, manicured lawn that goes down the hill until you hit the bus barn for the Monroe schools and a soccer field where I could hear kids playing as we walked across the prison parking lot. Surreal, to say the least. On the lawn are two of the biggest, most stunning trees I’ve ever seen. One, a large cedar. The other, I couldn’t identify, but it has one of those wide trunks that begs for you to run up to it and see how far you can get your arms around it (which I didn’t do on account of the staffed and armed guard towers competing with the trees for tallest feature on the property). From the parking lot there isn’t a lot of barbed wire and fencing visible—like there was at TRU. So, it was almost disarming.

But once inside WSR you quickly understand—prison. Even more so than TRU. At WSR you go through three sets of doors—each one slides open, you step into the holding area, the door slides closed behind you, you wait, the next door slides open. Then there is the final door, which, once you are though it lets you out into the yard. Yes, the yard. The inmates were busy with a baseball game when we walked through, and to be clear they were in a fenced off area of the yard, so we didn’t actually have access to one another, but they certainly noticed us walking by and we certainly noticed them. Then we go through a metal turn style and make our way to our building and room. It’s intimidating. At TRU we never saw inmates until we were safely in our room. At WSR you feel as if you have stepped into their living space. Though at the same time it’s hard to know whose privacy feels the most invaded—if that’s even an appropriate expression.

Here’s the thing—to be a “good” volunteer, you feel compelled to act natural. To not look. Definitely don’t stare. But then to look away, so to speak, also feels unnatural. ‘Cause who am I kidding? I’m from the outside, walking through the heart of the inside. Isn’t it normal for both sides to be curious about the other? Add to that that this is the first, after going up to the prison for over a year, that I have ever felt nervous. Ever felt intimidated, even in the slightest. So, I’m left wondering, what does that mean? About me? About all I still have left to learn—about the prison, about myself, about being in the prison?

This is what I have missed while we have been away this summer, I must confess. The ways in which going inside challenges me. No where else must you so quickly and closely bump up against your fears, your stereotypes (the ones you’d like to deny you have, especially), your discomforts, you questions and your perceptions of self. It will take me several visits to get comfortable (for as much as that word can ever apply to prison) with being in this new facility, and over the course of those visits I expect to grow once again.

It’s good to be back.


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