Remember to label your bras

Posted: May 2, 2012 in prison, general, prisoner writing, teaching, writing
Tags: , ,

Things change at the prison from week to week, day to day, and believe it or not, the prison rarely gives us notice (and if you were inclined to believe they might, well, spend more time on this blog getting to know the Department of Corrections). So, when we arrived last night to a new electronic keypad lock on the door we normally just waltz through into the lobby where we get our nametags, put away our carkeys and then follow a custody upstairs for screening, we were confused, but not suprised. We had been given no code for the door (wouldn’t that be cool–having a code for anything at the prison?), and there was no sign giving any sort of instructions. A simple: A custody officer will be with you shortly to allow you entrance, would have sufficed, but no. Just a shiny keypad lock, daring us to try a code–any code. We did not dare. So, we stood there at the door, looking in, watching for a guard, sort of like those women in old department store commercials–open, open, open (though we refrained from actually tapping on the glass of the door because, well, tapping might now be a punishable offense, you never know).

We ended up being let in by another volunteer. How she got in, I don’t know. But I saw her, dared to give a light knock on the glass and she opened right up. A custody officer showed up shortly thereafter to collect our ids and start issuing our nametags. Even he looked a little baffled as to how we’d all beat the new lock system and were standing in his lobby waiting on him instead of the other way around. Later, as we left for the night, my co-facilitator, asked why the new lock had been installed. The response? To keep folks from getting in and just waiting around without supervision. Yep, tax payer dollars well spent there, folks. I sort of felt for the officer, he seemed disappointed as well to realize it was still possible for us to figure out how to get in on our own accord. Like the long staff meeting he’d had to endure to figure out how to prevent such loitering in the lobby was now only 2 hours of his life he’d never get back.

Oh, and perhaps now is also the moment to note, not in a demeaning way, I’m sure it’s just a small oversight, but there are two entrances to the lobby. Only one has the new lock. The other…well, that might be how the other volunteer got in.

Once we had our nametags we marched upstairs as we always do to go through the screening process. I’m pretty conscientious about this process. I don’t wear jewelry, try to remember to leave my belt in the car and never have change or other various what-nots in my pockets. Not having all these extras speeds up the process, and also keeps me from setting off the metal detetector or otherwise drawing any unnecessary attention from the custody officer. The best policy as a prison volunteer in terms of not having your program hassled unnecessarily (and we were already “in trouble” for being behind with our volunteer evaluations) is to try to just stay off everyone’s radar. Don’t cause problems and you’ll have less problems.

I put my bag of class materials, shoes, jacket, nametag (because the clip on them is metal so you put it on downstairs then have to take it off upstairs) and glasses on the table for the officer search and walked slowly through the metal detector with my arms at my sides as a newly posted sign clearly instructed us to now do (DO NOT CROSS YOUR ARMS WHILE GOING THROUGH SCREENING! – these sorts of signs always make me wondered what the hell happened in the 2 weeks since our last visit). The screener went off. Damn. I went back through and tried again. No luck. I rarely set off the screener. The custody officer looked at me as if to say, well, what do you have to hide? And even though I had nothing to hide, I started to get nervous. This is probably a natural response to failing any test, but failing a test in prison can have all sorts of consquences, including being denied entrance for the night.

I turned out my pockets and took the two hairclips out of my hair (even though I’m pretty certain they are plastic). I walked through again. It screamed its alarm again. I had no choice but to look at the custody officer and confess: it must be my bra. I tried to remember which one I had on, since I know I have one with underwires that will make it through the screener. Which one had I grabbed that morning? White or black? I couldn’t remember, I only knew I’d gotten it wrong.

The officer is a relatively young guy and his cheeks flushed a little and he immediately stepped to the phone to call for a female officer. Oh, Lord. Officers used to use a wand (you’ve seen them at the airport, I’m sure) if you set off the screener. They ran it over your front, over your back, saw where it went off–like right over your breasts–and would assume that you were telling the truth–it’s my underwires. A male or female officer could use the wand because they didn’t actually have to touch you. Apparently, the wand is now old school. Now, you get a real search.

The officer instructed me to wait in the screening area while he took all the other volunteers into the prison. I said goodbye to my co-facilitator (we have a standing policy we don’t go in alone) and assured her I’d be right there. But we both knew in these sorts of situations there are no guarantees. I waited, and while waiting told myself there wasn’t anything I could do. I certainly knew I wasn’t smuggling in any contraband. I knew I’d simply worn the wrong bra, and once the female officer got there I assumed she’d understand (she must’ve gone through this a million times with the number of women who come to visit on family day) and I’d be on my way.

The original officer finally returned, female officer in tow. She had a strange way of not looking at me, which is awkward when there are only three of you in a room and you’re the only odd one out–not to mention the subject of all the fuss. I could only assume later that in anticipation of having to feel me up in a pat down she thought eye contact would be a tad too intimate. At any rate, I was instructed to once again go through the metal detector.

It didn’t go off.

Now you might think this is a good thing, but I panicked. Here’s why. They’d left me alone for nearly ten minutes. For all they knew I’d gone into the restroom and removed a dozen razor blades, or a shank or a nail (I don’t know) from my bra and flushed them down the toilet. I jokingly said, I promise I didn’t toss anything out while you were gone. I knew I sounded nervous and immediately regretted saying anything. Humor is not always a good idea in prison. But the male guard just looked at me and said, we know that–you’re on camera the whole time we’re gone. I should have thought of that, but I didn’t, and I was strangely not comforted by knowing.

I’m still going to need to search you, the female guard said. Of course. She took me down a short hallway, supposedly out of the sightline of the male guard. She told me she would explain what she wanted me to do, and that I was not to do anything until she was done explaining. Okay. They have a way of making you feel like a very small child…and an idiot. She showed me how she needed me to pull my bra away from my chest and “shake” it out. I stared at her for a minute. Okay. I put a hand up my shirt, and she was quick to assure me I didn’t actually need to lift my shirt all the way. Good, because I wasn’t going to. I awkwardly grabbed ahold of my underwire on one side, pulled it out and sort of jumped up and down simultaneously. She nodded. Okay. Then I repeated the gesture on the other side until she nodded again. It occurred to mid-bounce on the final side that if I were to be hiding something up in my bra, it would be easy enough to keep it from falling out for discovery. But I refrained from making any sort of joke about the illusions of security. I actually didn’t want to end up naked with this woman.

She then turned me around, ran her hands over my shoulders, down the length of my outstretched arms, under my armpits, down my sides, around my waist, down and between my legs and then simply walked away. I followed. They were going to let me in. That’s all I cared about at that moment.

I don’t like walking out to the building where we have our class by myself. I mean I wasn’t alone–the male officer walked with me. But normally I’m one of a half dozen volunteers walking out together. And normally, we cross the prison yard before the inmates are released for movement (when they get 10 minutes to move from their cells to wherever they want to go for the next hour). But I was late. So, it was just me, and inmates were out and about in the yard, and maybe because I’d just been felt up and shaken out I felt weirdly exposed. Look, there’s a woman in the yard. I know all the men don’t think that, but there are simply some realities of being a female volunteer visiting a male prison. All to say, I was relieved to get to my building, and even more relieved to get to my classroom where 17 students smiled at me and teased me for being late and joked about what’d you try to get in, huh and then more quietly asked if I was okay.

I am, I said. I’m just glad to be here with the people I trust.

  1. Cindy Zelman says:

    Erika, great piece. I think you should find a place to send this out. You are funny, yet underlying the humor, you say so much that we need to know. Loved it.

  2. How unsettling! After reading “I’ll Fly Away,” and then your account of this process, I wonder why so many people end up going back to prison. I know there are a lot of factors to consider, but once you’re out, wouldn’t you do your best to stay out? (Not volunteers. I mean prisoners in general.) I loved the way you ended your account. Keep up the good work!

  3. Jill says:

    I’ve been teaching journal writing in a local county jail for one year. SO happy to find your blog. Looking forward to reading and learning from you!

    • islandwriter says:

      Hi Jill, I’m glad you found the blog too. It’s hard for folks working in prisons to find one another (something I’d like to work on as a prjoect one day). I’d love to know more about what you are doing and how it’s going as I’ve taught some journal writing in my past and think it would be fascinating to do with prisoners. Keep me updated on your work.

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