Dehumanized

Her

She fussed and fidgeted over the few items she had on the table just waiting for her visitor to arrive. I had seen her before, on numerous previous visits in fact. Her hair had once been brown but was streaked mercilessly with gray as it fell past her shoulders in straight greasy strands. A pair of overly large glasses with thick lenses dominated her face. Her clothes were shabby, plain at best. She was tall, slim, willowy, and put me in mind of Olive Oil’s older, frailer sister. On the few occasions when I had heard her speak it sounded like the frail, muted mewing of a newly arrived kitten. Listening to some COs talk let me know that she visited every week, sometimes more than once, and that she always walked all the way out to the prison for these visits. The officers ridiculed her for her obvious poverty and lack of transportation.

Him

His clothes were covered in grime and filth, his shirt untucked. He looked disheveled and disgusting. His hair was a loose mop of gray and nearly white kept mercifully short atop his head, leaving him one less thing for which to care. The scruff on his face wasn’t a beard, but a thatch of stubbled scrub that was a few days past the razor’s appointment. He had the hollow-eyed confusion and hesitant shuffle of the extremely medicated. When he spoke it was a gruff baritone that sounded empty of some essential element, as if he was speaking from a long way off.

Together

When she saw him she rose from her seat, and anxious excitement thrumming through her thin frame, and she met him halfway as he walked towards the table they had been assigned for their visit. She embraced him fiercely, laying her head against his chest and holding tightly as if doing so soothed some desperate aching need. He reciprocated with unsure slow motion movements. There was an unashamed openness about the scene that made me feel uncomfortable, as if I were spying on an intimate and private moment. Which, of course, I was. Intimate, that is, though there’s no real privacy in prison.

Unconditional

During the course of their visit she doted on her husband. He mostly struggled to remain present in the moment. Whatever mood stabilizers or tranquilizers he was being prescribed had him slogging through molasses both physically and mentally. Nothing came simple. She was patient, involved, almost animated, or at least as much as her mousey persona would allow. It had to be a chore at times, but she never flagged in her unconditional devotion to him. When it was time for them to part she clutched him once more with a desperation and unabashedness that was miraculous to behold. My chest ached at the tender beauty of her naked display of affection as she planted several quick kisses on his lips and face—he received each with drugged befuddlement. After he had turned to trudge away she continued speaking words of hope and encouragement to his receding figure. Once he was gone she looked utterly hopeless, lost, on the verge of tears.

I have no idea what crime landed this man in prison, nor am I award of the exact nature of his obvious mental health issue. After witnessing what I did, I do know that he is loved, and that rather deeply.

Stinky

My visit ended only moments after his did and I was invited to enter the other shakedown room for my strip search. I complied with the officer’s wishes but asked why we couldn’t just use the one he had been exiting as I walked into the sally port that separated the visiting room from the shakedown room. I had always known this CO to be respectful, polite, and professional. It was me who was going to take my clothes off, but I was about to see an entirely different side of him.

“I just got done shaking down that stinky sonofabitch in there, you don’t want to go in there. It’s friggin’ disgusting. I’m so sick of it. Makes me want to puke. It smells like pure shit. He won’t take a damn shower. Should just turn a hose on his stupid ass and sandblast that shit off him.” There was a venomous and viciousness unlike his usual lackadaisical tone as he groused through gritted teeth. He was just getting started.

“And that wife of his isn’t too pleasant herself. Smells almost as bad, practically homeless. She’s always here way too early and we have to chase her out of the parking lot. After the tenth time you’d think she’d figure it out, she’d learn something. Dumb bitch. She should wander into traffic on one of her trips out here and save us all the headache.” After a few long and painfully silent awkward moments on my part he finished his thought while handing my pants back to me. “Yeah, Stinky and the Idiot. They’re perfect for each other.”

True Feelings

Though I had always had a high opinion of this officer, I believe that I was getting a glimpse at the unvarnished feelings shared by the majority of Correctional Officers. While it’s not true of them all, many COs have dealt with prisoners for so long, or with such indifference, that ofttimes they barely even see their wards as human anymore. And therefore certainly not deserving of human compassion.

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A Despicable Reflex

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I did not know this man; I had never laid eyes on him before he entered the visiting room. He walked past the table where I sat with my visitor and gave me a harsh glare full of meanness—that hard prison stare that many guys develop shortly after their arrival. At first, this look is designed to intimidate and to ensure that people take you seriously, not try to take advantage of you. It’s a practiced facade put on just like any other accessory, but it becomes habit, until eventually it simply becomes who you are. We made eye contact for an instant, and I was pretty sure his mean look was not an act at all.

men-neck-tattoos2He seemed to be tailor-made for the cruelty his gaze denoted. His jaw was squared and hard-set, eyes dark and sunk into his skull, hiding under the shelf of his too-prominent Neanderthal brow. Tattoos blackened his neck with many more crawling up his arms. Scar tissue from past violent encounters smudged his cheeks, and his left ear had a sizable chunk missing, probably lost in a brawl of some kind. With a glance, I was fairly certain that I didn’t want to get on this guy’s bad side or run across him in a dark alley.

There was a woman visiting him, probably about his age—mid 30’s—and a girl in a wheelchair; not a regular wheelchair, but one with the seat much higher and a tall inclined back and straps to securely hold its occupant.

The man had to undo the straps before he could hold his daughter. Her arms and legs were spindles, but she wrapped them around him with a loving reflex and made a soft moaning sound that seemed happy to me. With her out of the chair, I could see she had the height of a healthy twelve-year-old girl, but there didn’t appear to be anything else healthy about her. She had a developmental disorder of some kind; her arms had never hefted even the lightest of burdens, and her legs had never bore her weight. Her head rolled around on her neck at times as if independent from the rest of her body, and her eyes had trouble focusing, lolling in their sockets like errant, mischievous marbles. It was clear that her developmental setback was not only a physical one, but mental as well.

This man who I did not know and had pegged as a killer of some kind, or at least a killer-in-waiting, lowered himself into the squat chair, wedging himself into the scant space between the seat and the table, and cradled his daughter in his lap with love and care. Her head snapped back unexpectedly and with frightening force, but he gently repositioned her so she could rest her cheek against his chest, just over his heart. He gathered the lifeless arms hanging at her sides and stowed them in her lap; her legs he pulled close to his body where they wouldn’t dangle haphazardly.

Thin blond hair held mostly atop her head by a lime green scrunchie had fallen over her forehead and eyes. With a hand I’d assumed was made for inflicting pain, he carefully brushed her bangs back in place and smiled down on his daughter, then spoke to her. Though it was clearly a struggle, her eyes fought to focus on her father and eventually achieved the feat. The smile he reserved for his daughter was full of warmth and unequivocal love—the opposite of the stony, uninviting gaze he’d shot my way just moments before. Leaning down, he kissed her forehead, then caressed her cheek while saying something I couldn’t hear from where I was spying. The smile that erupted across her face broke my heart with its open, honest, and unconditional love.

I had to look away, as I felt the burning sting of impending tears at the edges of my eyes and had to shut down the rising well of emotions threatening to flood my system. Shame, hot and angry, rushed over my cheeks and across my neck—shame for judging and pigeon-holing the man so quickly and easily, like a despicable reflex, and shame for interloping on their precious moment of intimacy.

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