|Not Sam's Prison|
Yesterday we left off with the tale of my first visit to see my friend Sam in prison for selling unlicensed fireworks—a box of firecrackers loaded with a wee bit too much gunpowder.
Sam entered the visitation area looking fit and healthy, and was in good spirits. Prison visits are allowed on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 8:00am to 3:00pm. Any non-felon can visit, but they have to be pre-approved with a background check and on the official visitor list. The first thing Sam wanted to do was hit the vending machines. Prisoners have a canteen where they can buy some snack foods, but they usually don’t have access to sweets. They are absolutely forbidden to use the vending machines in the visiting area and aren’t allowed near them. Visitors bring rolls or bags of quarters to get treats for the prisoners. Throughout our visit, I think Sam had two bags of Pop Tarts, two packages of doughnuts, a candy bar, some Fritos, some vending machine White Castles, a Coke and three coffees. Good thing he has a fast metabolism.
Sam talked a bit about the makeup of the prison. The population was around 50% black, 20% Hispanic, and 30% white and “other.” He has a Master’s Degree in Communications from Eastern Kentucky University. He said only about 1% of the prisoners has an advanced degree; there was a pharmacist and a banker there who were both highly educated. The currency inside is postage stamps. Prisoners use stamps among themselves for favors and to buy small items from each other. He has several jobs, one of which is to clean certain rooms, and in a few weeks he will begin teaching a public speaking class. As an adjunct professor at several local universities, that teaching experience will finally come in handy. The reward for this gainful employment is around $10.00 per month.
The mail situation is interesting. Apparently prisoners can get magazines in the mail, but not books or newspapers. They can get photographs, as long as no one is fully nude. The mail is censored, or at least opened and given a cursory glance, but most things get through. There are sports available, and Sam has played pool, soccer and worked out. The security is minimal. A prisoner can walk away any time, but when they are caught (and they’re almost always caught), they will go back to the maximum-security facility. And no one wants that.
The prisoners do not have to get up at a certain time, but they do have several head counts per day and they have to be at those counts. On foggy days they can have as many as four or five counts per day to make sure no one slips away in the mist. That actually happened recently, as one prisoner slipped away in the fog to meet his girlfriend and get some nookie and Burger King. The man may have even intended to return—but he was found out, caught, and is now serving the remainder of his sentence, plus added time, at the facility next door. Needless to say he won’t be slipping away again. I hope the Whopper was worth it. For her and him.
We discussed what was happening in our lives, and Sam was hungry for news from the outside; of our friends and family and the latest gossip. We had a great visit and I stayed until the guards tossed everyone out at 3:00pm. As we embraced and said goodbye we both teared up. I miss my friend and hate to see him trapped like an animal for 18 months because he sold a hot firecracker. Not when there are real criminals to lock up. Sam’s friends are trying to have someone visit him every weekend, so he doesn’t get too lonely. Hopefully he can rebuild his life, although the loss of his business and now a felony record will make things difficult. Luckily, he’s intelligent, ambitious and has a vast support system. He’ll be all right.