A prison visit… [sort of]

IMG_0646 1

The other day, I went to jail…

I’ve never been to prison before.

When the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, it’s an interesting reflection on my privileged situation that I’ve really really barely had any brushes with the criminal justice system whatsoever, nor known many people who’ve done time.

But the reality is that a lot of my neighbors end up in jail, often for relatively minor offenses. We already know that the system is broken (or rather, that the system is a well oiled machine that makes money off of locking people up rather than healing our communities…)

If you want to skip the rest of this post, you can just head on over to DecarceratePA to sign up for their updates and maybe donate $5 (or more.) – That’s my ask of you here. 

Why did I go to jail?

It’s pretty simple: I went to visit a neighbor.

But it’s not so simple… in fact, it’s one of the more complicatedly infuriating stories ever.

This neighbor had been taken away for a minor parole violation issue. He’s a sweet fellow who’s had the bad luck of being born into a broken city and unsupportive environment… run into a tiny bit of trouble and gotten swallowed up by the big bad system.

(If you think that people deserve what they get when they run into trouble with the law, you should have a few conversations with my former housemate who works as a Public Defender… every week, she gets cases across her desk like this: Man is hungry and hopeless and steals a $6 sandwich from convenience store. Rather than being forgiven and assigned to help mop the floor of the store or something useful, he is slapped with thousands of dollars of court fines that he’ll never be able to pay. How does this make our society better?!?)

IMG_0626 2

Before going to jail, I tried to write…

Knowing that my neighbor friend was stuck in jail for a while, I wanted to check in on him. Sometimes it’s helpful to know that there’s people out there looking out for you.

No wait: before writing, I tried to call or visit.

Here’s the whole crazy sequence of events:

[It pains me so that across our city, state and country, countless families are probably having similar difficulties in contacting their loved ones...]

  • I try the online inmate finder to track him down.
  • It just lists some mystery code “OJ” that doesn’t correspond to any of the Philly prison facilities [Other Jurisdiction?]
  • I call the main line, and they have trouble telling me where he is.
  • I finally find out that he’s in a place called “Hoffman Hall”. Or maybe “Coleman Hall”.
  • They’re not sure. Probably Hoffman if he has a PP number. But maybe not.
  • I call Hoffman Hall. They won’t tell me if he’s there or not, and tell me that I need to know what unit he’s on.
  • I ask how I can find out what unit he’s on, and they say that he has to tell me.
  • I try to explain that the only phone number that this young man knows by heart is to a landline that’s been disconnected, so it’s unlikely that he’s able to reach out.
  • I ask if they could relay a message, but of course they refuse.
  • They tell me that I can write to him if I want to.
  • But they refuse to confirm that he’s actually there.
  • So I write to him.

IMG_0640 2

  • A week later, the card gets back, rejected, because “No cards allowed.”
  • Who knew that a 5×7 How Philly Moves greeting card was so dangerous?
  • I bang my head against the wall, wishing that they’d told me ahead of time if there were any restrictions.
  • I bang my head against the wall some more, knowing that there’s no way that they’ve bothered to inform my friend that someone’s trying to get in touch with him or what the return address was for the card…
  • I then figure out that I should just go and show up at visiting hours.
  • Because I still don’t know what unit he’s in, I don’t know which of the two visiting slots to go to, so I plan on spending *all* of Sunday afternoon there.
  • I drive all the way out there, and am greeted by a receptionist who has zero interest in helping me.
  • She informs me that there’s no visiting hours on Sunday.
  • I try to use my phone to show her the facility’s website, which clearly states:
  • Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.15.59 AM
  • Sunday visiting hours, right?
  • She chastises me for trying to show her the website, pointing to the “no phones in the facility” sign.
  • I’m informed that visiting hours are on certain weekdays.
  • I then ask if I can come back and visit on those days.
  • I’m informed that my friend has to put me on his visiting list for me to visit anyways.
  • I ask how to get in touch with him, and am again instructed to write.
  • IMG_0638 2
  • Back out in the parking lot, I meet a gentleman who works at Coleman Hall, the neighboring sister-facility.
  • I tell him my story, and he says “That’s weird – we get cards all the time.”
  • I want to bang my head against the wall again.
  • Then a glimmer of hope:
  • He tells me: “Here’s what you should do. Call back tomorrow morning, and ask to talk to your friend’s counsellor. They can relay the message, and have him get in touch with you. The folks on the phone won’t volunteer that information, but if you ask, then they’ll put you in touch.”
  • I call back the next day and ask to be put in touch with my friend’s counsellor.
  • The response: “Well, do you know what unit he’s on? I can’t really tell you unless you know what unit he’s on.”
  • I bang my head against the wall again.

At this point, I’ve exhausted all of my energy for this. And I’ve probably got more time, energy and resources available than many low income folks trying to visit family here. I’ve got to get back to work, family, other things, and another week slips by before I get around to writing another simple letter, this time making sure to include just a simple single sheet of paper.

I photocopy my letter and mail four copies of it; While I think that my neighbor is in Hoffman Hall, there’s still a chance that he might be in Coleman Hall… or the guard that I met in the parking lot asked if he might be in one of the nearby facilities, which is how I learn about Roth Hall and Walker Hall a block away. Not wanting my neighbor to spend yet another week not even knowing that anyone’s looking out for him, I mail a letter to each facility.

Will it get to him?

Who knows.

Maybe some change is possible… I took a peek at the website for Hoffman Hall this morning, and Miracle! they’ve updated the visiting hours. Maybe my first trip out there wasn’t completely wasted after all. You can bet I’m still going to share this post with @cecintl in the hopes that they can fix their system a bit in the short term.

The system is broken:

It will take all of us, with a lot of organizing and political will to change the prison-industrial complex. Yes, prisons create jobs, but I don’t want to live in a world where half of us work as jailers and the other half are locked up. We need real community support…  we need to invest not just in healing for the victims of crimes, but for perpetrators of it too… only in this way can we heal our broken communities.

Did I mention DecarceratePA? That’s exactly what they’re about.

Head on over there and give them $5 in honor of my neighbor and the card that he didn’t get.

Because this is not what a just world looks like:

IMG_0639 1