On a Sunday in October, 1998, whilst living in Houston, I drove a few hours north to Tennessee Colony, Texas, where the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has a prison unit.  I had never before set foot in a prison, and I wondered what it would be like to visit.  A friend who knows something about the prison system suggested that I visit a fellow named Charles who never gets visits.  I liked the suggestion.  I thought a visit would be a kind and humane gesture to a prisoner; but by the time the visit ended, I was having doubts about the wisdom of the visit.  Prisons are not zoos, and one does not go there to gawk at prisoners.  
This account is taken from my priate journal.  Since 1998, I am sure that the details of how one enters the prison and signs in to visit a prisoner have changed.   In any event, I would not recommend visiting a prisoner unless you are willing to have an extended relationship with that prisoner, even after he is released.  
October 4, 1998 Sunday

I got to the Michael Unit just before 11:00. This was my first time inside the prison itself. You walk into a front building where they have a sign-in desk. You show your driver’s license and the inmate’s prison number, and a lady writes your name on the sign-in sheet. Then a door slides open and you walk outside about a hundred yards down a sidewalk toward the dorm. The most striking, almost chilling thing you notice is the fence. It is a double row chain link fence, ten feet high or more, and at the top is razor sharp concertina wire. Between the two rows of fence is about 20 feet of no man’s land, and there is a guard tower a couple of hundred yards down the line of the fence.

The dorm itself looks innocent enough. You walk in the front lobby and there is a photo display, “life in our prison” kind of thing, showing prisoners at work, in classes, in the hospital, doing laundry. At the front desk they check your ID again. Then you wait for a guard to escort you to the visitors room. A word about the guards… They wear rumpled, gunmetal gray uniforms, but no guns. They look more like maintenance men than guards. Some are beefy, most are paunchy and there was at least one young, scrawny looking guard. They do not inspire confidence.

A guard escorts you to the visitors room. You enter the room through a short sealed-off hallway. To enter the hallway, you wait for a heavy metal door to slowly slide open. You step into the hallway and the metal door slides shut with a heavy thud. Another metal door slides open, and you enter the visitors room. It looks like a lunch room except no one is eating. There is no food. You are not allowed to bring in food, but there are soda machines. There are a couple of dozen wooden picnic tables with benches. These are for contact visits, where families get to visit with inmates without any barrier. Except for the tables and the soda machines, everything is beige or gray.

From the center of one wall, a long, narrow chamber juts out into the middle of the visitors room. This chamber is a cage of sorts, a room within a room, with solid walls and lined with windows. This is for all non-contact visits. My visit with Charles will be non-contact, because I am not a member of Charles’s family. Inside the cage, by each window, there is a phone and a metal stool. Each such visiting station is separated from the next by a metal divider. Outside the cage, there are stations for visitors. Each station corresponds to one inside the cage, each with its own phone set on a counter, identical to the phone inside the cage. Inside the cage, an inmate sits on the metal stool to talk on the phone with the visitor sitting outside the cage in a cheap office chair. I sat in chair B-9 to wait for Charles. Inside the cage, at the far end, a lone guard stands by a door.

I waited maybe fifteen minutes before the prisoners came in. The door opened, and Charles walked in, smiling. He sat on the metal stool, by the phone at B-9. He is a young, black man. 28 years old. He picked up his phone, I picked up mine, and we greeted each other like old friends. One would think that because we were sitting only about two feet apart, separated by thick glass, the phone connection would be crystal clear. It wasn’t. The connection was surprisingly poor. Charles is soft spoken, and at times I did not hear him clearly. He was friendly, smiling, seeming very glad to have a visitor. I had been told that no one comes to see him. Truth is, I felt awkward talking to Charles on the phone, even though we were face to face. I know almost nothing about this guy, and even as verbose as I am I wondered how we were going to find enough to talk about for two hours. We had exchanged letters only one time, hardly enough to spark two hours of conversation. Let’s face it… his world and mine are very different. I began by telling him about my drive to the prison, and I probably rattled on too much.

Charles seemed to notice my awkwardness, but it did not faze him. He cheerfully asked if this is my first time to TDCJ. I said yes. He said something about it not being easy for me the first time. I brushed it off and said I’m OK. But he was right. Visiting a state prisoner is not like dropping in on someone at the hospital where you can chat a minute or two then leave.

Charles has been in prison six years on a fifteen year sentence. He is up for parole in six months. I had already been told that, in prison culture, you do not ask a prisoner why he is in prison — that is not done even between the prisoners themselves. Charles did not volunteer why he is in, and I did not ask.

He asked about my family, my travels, my interests. He told me that he is from Dallas, he has a brother and a sister. He is married but it looks like she is going to divorce him. He has a six year old son, born about the time he went to prison. He has seen his son only once.

We talked sports and music. Charles says we ought to get together when he gets out, he can show me some good clubs for music up in Dallas. Several times during our visit, he talked about us getting together when he is paroled. I began feeling uneasy. I pictured this guy getting paroled, then knocking on my door wanting me to take him in. I regretted putting my return address on the envelope. He also wants me to send him a picture. I said that I would have to look around for a pic, and as for getting together, well, we’ll see.

I bought him a Coke. You get the Coke from the machine, then hand it to a guard, and they give it to the prisoner. After a while I tried to end the visit, thinking we were pretty much talked out. He was surprised. “You tired already?” he asked looking at his wrist like he was checking the time, but of course he doesn’t have a watch. He seemed to really want me to stay longer, so I did.

We talked some about his plans for when he gets out. In prison he is a barber. Most of his prison clients are black, but he’d like to learn to cut other races’ hair. We talked some about churches. His brother was just made a deacon at a church, but he couldn’t remember the name. I asked him what he does for recreation here. He said they have a recreation room, and yes he spends some time there. I know better but I asked a stupid question– I asked if they have a pool. “Uh… no,” he said, then patiently explained to his visitor from another planet, “I guess they think that would be too much of a luxury for prisoners.” At least I had enough sense not to ask if he can leave whenever he wants to.

Finally the visiting time was up. Charles asked if he could write me, and I said sure you can. “As much as I want?” he asked eagerly. Well, yes. Again I felt uneasy. I began wondering if visiting prisoners is really such a good idea. In theory, it sounds like a good idea. In practice, I am not so sure. Undoubtedly, Charles enjoy visits; and it is a shame that his own family does not come to see him. But I wonder… what exactly am I doing when I go to see him? He is talking about coming to see me when he gets out. This is not something I want—it makes me uneasy. Is it right for me to visit him in prison when I would rather not see him when he is out? Visiting prisoners should not be like a visit to the zoo, yet that is what it amounts to unless you are prepared to keep up the friendship after they are out.

Please let us know what you think about what we see.