The Visitor's Guide to Prison

Kristi Keller

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When we think about prison we always tend to envision the inmate side of the fence. Who are those offenders in there? What did they do to end up behind bars and how much time are they serving?

I invite you to think about the other side of the fence, if you will.

For every single inmate sitting behind bars, there’s at least one person on the outside doing time with him. We are the mothers, brothers, sisters, spouses, grandparents, and children of prison inmates.

In the eyes of prison staff, we are just as guilty as the prisoners and we’re treated accordingly, across the board.

This is what it’s like for us

A routine visit to a federal prison begins hours before we arrive. We choose our clothing carefully because there are guidelines. No shorts, no tank tops, nothing above the knee.

We make sure our clothing is freshly laundered because we’re subjected to rigorous checks on the way inside the prison. These checks include drug swabs on anything the guards choose that day, such as clothing, jewelry, shoes, driver's license, or jackets.

There’s no way for us to know what types of air particles we’ve come in contact with on any given day, so we just show up to prison and hope for the best.

It’s not unheard of, in fact, it’s common, for a 69-year-old grandmother’s watch to hit positive for cocaine, or for a mother’s Walmart jeans to hit positive for fentanyl.

One swab determines your fate as a prison visitor so we spend plenty of time on edge, with high stress levels feeling false guilt for things we’ve never done.

Eventually, we get smart and learn to adjust. We stop wearing jewelry, jackets, and anything that money may have come in contact with. We wash our driver's licenses with soap and water because we’ve done our research and learned that a whopping 90% of currency is contaminated with drug residue.

If we are fortunate enough to evade the ion scan the next step is the drug dog. Groups of us are lined up against a cement wall, just like the inmates, and we’re subjected to another round of drug searching. Except this time we’re at the mercy of an animal that we can only hope knows his job.

Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to watch a 3-year-old scream and cry because she’s afraid of the frisky, invasive dog.

Having witnessed a drug dog find more interest in licking coffee off a floor than doing his actual job, we sometimes question the thoroughness of this search method, but we submit anyway because we have to.

Now, let’s just say we do hit positive on a drug ion scan or a dog sitting next to us. The next step is to be taken to a secluded room behind a metal door for interrogation. Of course, we behave nervously and a little erratically, because we feel persecuted for something we didn’t do.

Interrogation by a prison guard isn’t done with any sort of compassion, it’s done by someone who looks at you exactly the same way they look at an inmate. They don’t speak to you like an innocent citizen, they speak to you like a guilty offender.

The guard orders you to sit down while he stays standing, towering over you as an intimidation tactic. He talks to you like you’re a child who just spilled milk on the floor. Condescending, intimidating, patronizing.

You agree strongly with him that you also don’t want drugs getting inside the prison. You emphatically try to convey that you’ve never even smoked a joint in your lifetime, but there’s no way to make him believe you. He doesn’t know you   but he knows your inmate so you’re already marked.

You remind him that you are the actual person who turned your inmate in for drug-related offenses. You do all of this in hopes that he’ll realize we’re all on the same team.

But instead, he turns you away and puts a blemish into your visitor file. Now you’re flagged simply for showing up wearing your Walmart jeans.

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As visitors, sometimes we have driven several hours to get to the prison. We may have even paid the price of airline tickets and hotel rooms for the privilege of seeing our loved ones.

But sadly, sometimes it’s all for nothing. We can be turned away and end up spending an entire weekend crying in a hotel room because we’ve been denied our visit.

My personal favorite though, is scheduling a visit weeks in advance, flying to another city, and being told upon arrival that your inmate was transferred to a different prison the day before you arrived. No notice, no phone call, yet they knew you were coming.

All we can do is bend over, take it up the tailpipe, and wait for our flight home.

The federal prison system can leave deep, emotional scars on us upstanding citizens. The injustice and discrimination against us are blatant.

It feels insulting that some 25-year-old prison guard who doesn’t even require an education in any human studies, is given a free pass to play judge, jury, and executioner.

I get it — they’re subjected to plenty of criminal and low-life mentalities inside their jobs every single day. It’s got to grate on their nerves and affect who they become. But it’s as if they forget that outside those prison gates, we’re just people who are sacrificing pieces of our lives trying to get through our inmate’s sentences.

We’re corporate workers, we’re senior citizens, we’re positively contributing to society. Heck, we’re paying prison guard wages through our federal tax dollars.

We’re also weary, frustrated, and worn down.

The system is biased and unethical toward us. We spend thousands of dollars funding our inmates' phone accounts, traveling for visits, filling their canteens, and taking time off work.

During my 13 years as a prison visitor, I have come into contact with a mere handful of prison staff that I believe are in it for the right reasons.

You can tell when they care about rehabilitation, and you can definitely tell whether they’re compassionate toward the visitor’s plight.

The rest of them — a huge majority of them — behave like mall cops. The kind that didn’t quite make their way to a real badge. They assert their weak authority over innocent, unsuspecting targets because it makes them feel good to have authority over something.

Prison guards, weigh in here. Am I wrong? Because as tired as you are of the inmates you have to work with, we are also tired of feeling like your battered wives when you come home from a crappy day at work.

You don’t know us, you can’t possibly know who we are by looking at the names and addresses on our visit forms. Did you forget to take notice of the checkbox indicating that we have NEVER been convicted of a crime?

Some of us have been enduring our battles since you were in elementary school so you’re in no position to judge us. But wait….yes you are, and you certainly do.

Unless you say otherwise, we’re just as guilty and we get a record too.

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I'm an old school travel writer who's been flung into another writing world through life experience. I have a compassionate eye, a different opinion, and strong words for this world we live in. I also know a thing or two.

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