But in the past year, a lot has changed in my life.
I now feel completely comfortable and quite at home during my time inside the walls, and in case you haven't had this experience for yourself, please let me share it with you.
Part One: From waking up to walking into the visiting room
Part Two: Happy times in the visiting room.
* * * * *
After five hours on a journey across the state, and a thorough going-over at the visitors' check-in, my fellow visitors and I have finally made it to the actual visiting room.
The room looks a bit like the lunch room in a small, low-budget elementary school. A row of windows run high along the walls, letting in brilliant natural light. The lower parts of the walls are decorated with painted murals of wild animals - bears, wolves, orcas. A children's play area - (2) on the map below - sports brightly colored play mats and a handful of toys. Some of the tables feature built-in checkerboards for playing checkers or chess.
But we still have a few more hoops to go before our visits begin.
^ My handmade map of the West Complex visiting room.
See the key below, and please remember that this is a rough representation
rather than a technically accurate schematic.
^ Channeling my inner cartographer.
As we leave the tight quarters of the visitor's entry (10), we are instructed to walk single file along the walls of the visiting room, past the professional visit rooms (8) and around the corner by the office (5) and storeroom (4).
There we wait as the corrections officers sitting near the restrooms (3) assign us to our tables. One by one, they call out the last name of the man we are visiting; we then step forward, hand over our drivers' licenses to be filed away for the day, and listen for our table number.
Each table sports a triangular wedge of wood with a number woodburned into both sides. These relics look like a middle school shop project from the 1950s and they make me smile every time I see them.
Now the hunting and gathering begins. While we wait the last few minutes for the men to join us, we crowd around the vending machines (1), pulling together meals of our guys' favorite treats:
Deli sandwiches, hot pockets, chicken wings, breakfast sandwiches
Cheetos, Sun Chips, Oven Baked Lays
Twizzlers, Kit Kats, Snickers
Dasani sparkling water, Cokes and Dr Pepper, coffee.
As our prison debit cards fly in and out of the machines' chip readers, and we follow the rules about removing all food wrappers and serving the food on paper plates, we keep our heads on a swivel toward the inmates' entry (9).
They should be arriving any time, and the excitement is palpable.
* * * * *
And then they come. Sometimes in a trickle, sometimes in a steady stream. We see our men through their entry window just before they join us, and electricity snaps through the room. As they walk in, I like to watch their eyes search among the tables to find their loved ones, and see how their faces soften and their shoulders relax once that connection is made.
I watch for my friend and there he is, tall and lanky, tanned and strong. Our eyes meet across the room too, and we grin at each other.
This is a profoundly beautiful moment. Whatever has gone wrong in the lives of these men, whatever toll that has taken on these relationships, in this minute,
All is restored.
All is healed
All is love.
We all stand and hug our men. Lovers share modest kisses, babies are passed into their father's arms, toddlers shriek in happiness, grown men wordlessly pound each other on the back. Mothers hold their sons at arms's length and give them a good looking over, and then pull them back into a hug.
Tears are shed here and there around the room. But they are tears of happiness and joy and sweet, sweet relief.
We are all so glad to be together.
* * * * *
Before I visited prison, I thought I would feel scared to sit in a room full of convicted criminals.
I expected that they would put out a menacing vibe, a dark energy,
I was prepared to feel afraid.
But now I laugh at my preconceptions because they were so silly and so wrong.
The men, as a whole, are shy. For the most part, they keep their heads down, their attention focused on their own visitors. But from time to time, my friend will tell me a story about one of the other men in the room, and as we are looking at him, that other man may glance over and notice us staring. The guys will share a private smile, and often, the other man will offer me a small wave. I smile and wave back.
The men offer a certain reverence toward me, and seem very much in awe of my freedom and apparent success in navigating life in the outside world.
Appearance wise, the men also defy stereotypes. Orange may be the new black on Netflix, but at Washington State Penitentiary, they wear white t-shirts tucked into khaki pants, accessorized with khaki military style web belts and white trainers. In the winter, they add grey crew neck sweatshirts over the top.
Though their clothes all match, the men express their individuality through hair and beard styling, and homemade tattoos. Some of the men earn reputations as skilled barbers and tattoo artists, and with basic tools, provide these services under the radar. The guys can also buy a range of styling products so there are plenty of sleek pony tails, neat man buns, and well-oiled Afros.
* * * * *
So finally, finally we all settle in to visit.
My friend and I eat together.
We talk about anything and everything. I listen to whatever is on his mind. We swap funny stories from our everyday lives. We discuss books, movies, TV shows, current events. We talk about fun things, happy things. And sometimes we talk about hard things.
We laugh a lot.
Sometimes we cry.
And we pray together.
Six and a half hours fly by
When other people are visiting with us, we often play games or cards. My friend teaches us new games he's learned from other guys.
Of course, there are plenty of rules to guide our behavior during the visits.
Hands above the table at all times
Touching is allowed but keep it clean.
Inmates are not allowed by the vending machines but they can get water.
Both feet must remain on the floor.
Restrooms are available only at designated time windows throughout the visit.
After using the bathroom, you must be pat searched again.
Inmates must sit in the green chairs placed at each table, so all are facing in the same direction.
The men may eat their regularly scheduled meals while visiting.
On and on the rules go. No one can ever remember them all, so the COs watch over us and correct us when we make mistakes.
* * * * *
At 5:20 pm, the COs announce that the visit is almost over. We wrap up our conversations, clean up our tables, and steel ourselves for what's to come.
As my friend says, saying goodbye is so awkward.
And I agree with him. There's just no way to make it not awful. So we do our best to power through those last minutes and the final hug as quickly and quietly as possible.
All around us, I see other groups doing the same thing. No one cries or wails or breakdowns. Well, other than a few toddlers who feel free to express what we are all feeling.
We hate this.
We all hate this.
We want the bad dream to be over and we want to take our loved ones home and have life just be normal and happy again.
But that can't happen and we all know it. So as we visitors crowd toward our entry once again, we just search out our loved ones' eyes one more time. We wave and we smile and we say, "See you soon!"
And our men watch from the tables as the COs hand us back our licences and check our arm stamps with a little black light flashlight, and herd us back toward the visitors' entry where those five metal doors will open to let us out and then slam shut between us.
This is a hard part of the day.
And you might think it is sad.
But it's not. We walk back to the visitors' check-in with smiles on our faces, with strength in our hearts, with the certain knowledge that, at least for right now, everything is okay.
And we know that soon enough, we will be back to visit again.