Wednesday, October 31, 2007

field trip

today my incarceration class took a field trip to FCI Greenville, a federal prison. i appreciate the effort my professor made to arrange the trip, because knowing what goes on in a prison is crucial to being able to understand the law of incarceration, and the tension between the interests of the prison management and the prisoners. i also understand that a prison tour is probably the closest a common person who does not actually work in a correctional facility will ever get to life on the inside.

still, i really feel like it did more harm than good. first of all, the prison officials were very evasive, as if they were hiding something. i'm not surprised, but was still disappointed. i don't trust law enforcement a whole lot, and corrections officers and wardens are part of that. but, the trip through the prison felt a lot like a public relations event--which, i'm sure, is exactly why they allow people to take tours of federal prisons, to gain goodwill among the citizenry.

the only person who struck me as particularly honest was the prison psychologist. the prison holds about 1500 people. she told us she was the only psychologist on staff for the entire prison, that there was no way you got to see her unless things were serious, and that the people she saw today had been on the waitlist for three months. apparently full staffing is four psychologists. that is still quite disturbing; many prisoners have mental issues that demand treatment, and i doubt even four psychologists are enough to treat several hundred people who need psychological treatment.

but, at least she was clear that she was doing what she could, but her services weren't enough. everyone else i talked to equated all they could do with ideally all that could be done, and i found that to be such a defeatist attitude toward running a prison, an attitude that could be fatal to much-needed prison reforms. they seemed more concerned with making sure we left the prison with a positive impression of the place. i would have left with a far more positive feeling about federal prison if the people running it were a little more ready to admit that they still had a ways to go before the conditions were anywhere near optimal.

the other thing that bothered me profoundly about the prison tour was the fact that we were going right through their living, working, and playing areas. i had been on jail and prison tours before, and seen cellblocks, recreation areas, and work areas. all of those previous trips, i had seen the facilities without any people in them. it was always interesting to see the facilities, but i had wondered what they would be like, if they would be any different, if people had occupied them.

i learned today, and it was unpleasant. i felt so uncomfortable when i was i was a voyeur. i was not allowed to talk to them, and they were not allowed to talk to me, because any question from a person on the outside to someone on the inside would be considered an interview--something that required written consent from the prisoner. this rule was interpreted so rigidly that it included common pleasantries, such as "hi, how are you." all we could do was walk around and look. it started innocently enough; we saw the prisoners stroll across the prison yard from building to building during their ten-minute transfer period that they get every hour. that didn't affect me much at all.

but, we then walked into a cellblock and watched the people who were still in it. we saw people sitting and chatting...we saw people watching television...we saw people walking in and out of their cellblocks...we saw people leading on their lives in the most private area that they get. i felt so out of place as a stranger watching what was going on in the cellblock. it never got any better as we walked to other places: the fitness room, the gymnasium, the classrooms, the library, the religious building. it all felt the same: like i was watching strangers to live their lives when i wasn't invited at all to see them. it was wrong for me to be there.

you lose a lot of rights going to prison, and i understand lose the right to come and go as you please, and the right to interact with the rest of society. that's part of the deterrent, and the hope is that the time away can be used for rehabilitative purposes. but, it's unsettling to think that one of the rights you lose is the right not to have random people traipsing through your living space, while you were there, at the whim of the warden. that goes to basic human decency, and that's a right you shouldn't lose no matter what you may have done.


Eric said...

Sounds disturbingly like touring a zoo. Which would be a very painful process too if the animals in it were self-conscious enough to care about being looked at.

nicolle said...

you hit the nail on the head right there. it was like touring a zoo, but a zoo where the captive beings knew and cared that they were on display and being ogled at and shown off. it was disconcerting, and i couldn't really handle it since i know i'd get mad if there were tour groups being taken through my apartment at any hour of the day.

Eric said...

Yeah, the closest I've experienced to that personally was with my landlord two apartments back, who showed my apartment to prospective tenants in the most abusive manner possible, including once when I was actually in the shower. But at least then I was able to exact revenge by complaining about something to him every subsequent time he brought someone through, so it's really no comparison.