By Taj Mahon-Haft
Remember the “grosser than gross” jokes of childhood? Quickly, what’s gross? Wearing used underwear, ever. What’s grosser than gross? Wearing communal tighty-whities–they’re called “slingshots” here; not sure why–in prison. That is a highlight of what we’ve been recently subjected to in order to maintain our opportunities to spend time with family and friends.
Without a doubt, the best part of my existence in prison is visitation time. In a world of hyper-masculinity, where affection is prohibited and displays of joy perceived as weakness, that weekly connection with loved ones is like oxygen to a suffocating man.
We are allowed but one hug and kiss on the way in and one leaving, but they are electric and the comfort lingers for days. Unlimited, each smile beams like the first dawn.
I am very fortunate in that my support system is so incredible that I almost never miss a weekend, coasting through the beginning of most weeks on the winds of companionship. This may sound ephemeral, but there really is no way to fully express the power of connecting with those you love when living a life of designed isolation and deprevation.
Hence, it is not surprising that Virginia’s Department of Corrections claims commitment to maintaining strong ties between people behind bars–they reduce us to “offenders,” of course–and their families. Operating Procedure 851.1.IV.A.3 states, “visitation provides offenders with opportunities for involvement with family and participation in community activities before final release.”
In this era or purported reform, it is surprising that they recently instituted pointless statewide changes that directly attack those bonds and discourage visitation. Recently policies we–families and residents– have had to endure put lipstick on the lip service they offer about promoting familial bonds.
Until mid-2017, we were able to wear our “blues” to visits. Those are the institutional uniforms, and they were bad enough–elastic waisted male maternity jeans and rough chambray shirts. On the way in and on the way out we underwent full searches examining literally every inch of us, as did our visitors–not fully nude for them, though. This process could not have been any more secure already. Visitors even had to go through multiple scanners, more than airports.
However, they have now added the most demeaning possible attire to the process arbitrarily. We still have to submit to the full search on the way in and the way out, so the actual security procedure has not changed. Now, though, we must put on socks, t-shirts, and underwear from a communal supply. Yes, here, in prison.
My friends who work in the laundry area have assured me that, while they do get washed after every use, they find drawers with streaks, spots, and stains. The administration cannot let it be communal boxers like the boxers they have us wear at all other times. They choose this one time to force us to don the undies that get most personal. With the search, the switching of underwear is entirely redundant and only meant to inconvenience and dissuade.
Furthermore, during our visits, we are now forced to wear backwards onesie jumpsuits, shapeless, enormous, and beige, like a cross between a straight jacket, oversized infant attire, and a burlap sack. They are highly uncomfortable and unflattering, but more than that, they are degrading. We are grown men being forced without cause to clothe ourselves to see the people that matter most in something that requires us to ask for help zipping and unzipping. We are deliberately made to look and feel ridiculous. Visual shaming and marking.
In addition, the recent rule changes also included a loss of eating privileges in the visitation room. If we are lucky enough to have a visit that lasts more than an hour or two, we likely miss an official meal–of what they claim as food.
Previously, the impact of this was mitigated by the opportunity to purchase overpriced gas station sandwiches and chips from vending machines. In fact, while far from Panera or Chipotle, those microwaveable snacks were the best thing we ever got here. More than that, they gave us and our visitors a chance to eat; nourishment being essential, and all. Now the new visitation rules include a ban on all food except the least nutritious and filling. Yup, now all we can have at visits are candy bars.
On what grounds did they make these changes? The official claim here is security, but that is simply not a legitimate justification. It’s a matter of making an easy scapegoat of those already behind bars and therefore allowed to be presumed guilty of everything.
Certainly, the opportunity to eat potato chips and sandwiches instead of candy did not create a greater risk of contraband. When the D.O.C. was questioned about this, they claimed it was necessary to stem the tide of drugs coming in through visits. Yes, that does rarely happen, but the numbers they quoted were minuscule, amounting to hundredths of a percent of the visits that occur, less than a couple dozen times a year throughout the whole state with nearly 40,000 people behind bars.
Everyone here will tell you that, yes, drugs are available. They will also tell you that the availability did not change at all with the new visitation rules because, frankly, the vast majority of drugs enter with employees, not residents. Having considerable second hand knowledge of the process, I would estimate 85-90% is coming in via guards and contract workers. Most of what arrives simply cannot make it in through visitation. The authorities know this and simply prefer to scapegoat us because it is an easier way to claim they are doing something when an incident occurs. It requires much more introspection and admission of a systemic problem to deal with the real sources of most contraband.
When the biggest contraband bust happened last year at the largest state penitentiary on the East Coast, thousands in cash, pounds of tobacco, nearly a pound of weed and a dozen cell phones in boxes were found. Where? In the guards break room ceiling, where we have no access, ever. They even arrested a contract employee in the process.
Certainly none of that could fit inside any body cavities during a visit! Seems fundamentally obvious that boxed phones or pounds of anything did not come in via the private parts railroad. Ouch! Yet they responded by locking us down for two weeks and canceling visits for a month, even with the outfits. Such is the extent of the scapegoat mentality.
What these changes really amount to is a public shaming of both us and our loved ones. It visually marks us and serves to remind them of the judgement against us and the presumption of guilt against them by association. This is also entirely out of line with the claimed philosophical foundations of contemporary corrections. Furthermore, it is entirely out of line with the rubric of evidence-based practice. It is well established that shaming is a poor way to teach lessons of any sort. Instead, it creates trauma and emotional scars that lead to isolation from society and feelings of disengagement. It encourages future insecurities and secretive behavior.
The shaming of our loved ones extends beyond the visits too, serving as an ongoing reminder that we are deemed “untrustworthy” and “criminal.” It is hard enough on them to brave long drives, unpleasant guards, pat downs, and razor wire for limited time at a plastic table. Now all memories and our only photo ops look like a medieval Missy Elliott video.
Sadly, these dehumanizing rituals discouraging visitation are counterproductive for all. People behind bars do much better, both here and after release, the stronger their links with external support networks. My own experience here is emblematic. Without outside bonds when I began, I would have succumbed to depression following an unjust and unexpected incarceration. I would have either committed suicide or committed to chasing highs. Instead, the desire to maintain my standards for the sake of my son, my incredible fiancee, my parents, my friends motivated me past those darkest days. The interactions we shared pushed me to find hope and purpose in my existence here, leading to reinvigoration and self-motivation. Every hug and laugh during a visit helped save me.
I am not alone in this, either. One of the purposes I have found here has involved utilizing my unique intersection of sociologist and prisoner roles to conduct ethnographic research. My unprecedented access allowed me to learn a lot about the guys here doing the best despite the circumstances. One thing that stood out was how the positive leaders in these environs almost unanimously described family relationships as a primary motivating factor. Visitors are a common theme among the rare few who conquer context to be authors, organizers and teachers while being actively dehumanized.
This is a very focused window into a broader pattern, too.
Discouraging visits is a terrible idea for broader society because strong relationships with loved ones make up one of the two most clearly beneficial things for people behind bars–education being the other one. Those locked up are almost all going to be part of society again in the future, and all of us here are still living now, even if it doesn't always feel that way. The people that have strong bonds while here avoid
trouble best, feel the least discarded by society, and are most likely to remain positive members of their families–remember the millions of kids with incarcerated parents. They are also most likely to have the necessary hope, confidence, and support to succeed in a tough world full of stigma once released. That is safer and cheaper for everyone, along with being aligned with the stated rehabilitation and public safety mission of the D.O.C.
My partner, my family, and I continue to find all the joy possible from our visits. We will not allow administrative buffoonery to steal that from us. Plus, I have a pretty high gross tolerance when it comes to seeing that gorgeous woman. Many guys do not though. For many, these changes have made visits too much to bear. For others, it is too much to acquiesce to such mistreatment.
I have battled internally about this issue myself, and I’d like to join in if there were collective action against this. However, that is unlikely because there is actually a policy where if we organize any group movement, no matter how peaceful or small, it is considered “inciting a riot” and we will be sent to the hole, losing our meager 45¢/hour jobs and meager good time that this parole-less state allows us to earn.
In the mean time, I suffer the literal and figurative shit stains of this situation in order to share those precious moments of connections. Be it known, though, that they occur despite rather than because of the policies here.