BZZZZZZZCLUNKCKLUNK. I pull the heavy steel chain link gate open with both hands and walk into a sky- covered cage of steel fencing.
BAMMM. The gate slams shut behind me, locked. The cage is about 4 paces long and 4 paces wide and I cannot go in or out unless either the gate behind me or the gate in front of me gate is unlocked for me.
I look up past the huge rolls of razor wire topping the cage and watch the clear blue sky as I silently wait. I am already sweaty since it is almost 90 degrees this morning. I wear a black t-shirt and tan cropped pants. I also wear my black leather medicine bag and my intricate silver Celtic cross around my neck, each on a pull-away cord or chain. Peeking out of my black sneakers are peacock- blue half-socks, which might actually turn out to be illegal, since we are not to wear blue clothing, the color of the inmate t-shirts and denim jeans. If so, I will be told to go back to my truck to leave my socks behind. My hair in a loose-flowing ponytail is held up high with my ornate beaded heart shaped clip. I usually wear a tightly-wrapped non-descript red braid but today am pushing up against a rule that says I must be dressed in a way that is unmemorable.
No toenail polish, almost no jewelry, no scent, no denim. Nothing that could be used as a weapon. I am supposed to ‘ugly up’ when I come here, but today I am sick of it all and today is a special occasion. I know many visitors today are expected to be wearing Full Regalia.
BZZZZZZZCLUNKCKLUNK signals to me that I can now grab the second gate.
With both hands I pull open the second gate and step into a beautiful garden. Dark brass statues like those at the National Gallery of Art stand at attention, on guard but welcoming: a huge crow, a wolfdog and a rabbit. Delicately manicured grass leads up to huge flowers blooming in brilliant colors that invite me to find a bench to sit on and stay.
I walk down the sidewalk that takes me through the garden toward the front door of the hulking white building that spreads across the acre of land I am standing on. More than a mile of razor topped fencing surrounds the property which backs up against a dense, dark forest.
Behind me, to the north, past the locked double gates is the winding service road that leadsthrough the woods up to the prison, and way beyond that is the international airport. Past the forest to the west is an enormous, camp-turned-permanent-village for homeless people and their dogs and cats. The village is built on old Dump land, a former recycling center, and I can see their home-made windmill through the trees. At the edge of the forest, to the east, is the prison sweat lodge, a 'church in the trees' for the native guys inside. To the south, two miles away through the forest, is the freeway that takes me home.
I heard a rumor once that no one is allowed to take pictures that include any part of the fence, but did not hear any mention of that in the volunteer training I took twice during the years I have volunteered in this men's prison. Four years ago, I was asked to join the Board of Directors of a prison-to-community transition program, one that focuses on training the men to train each other in community organizing leadership skills. I am an experienced community organizer, an addictions counselor, and a community educator. Not much scares me anymore and I am not too naive. I love to teach. So I ended up here in this prison today, with an invitation from the guys inside to attend their yearly Pow Wow.
Usually I walk directly to the building to a window just above my head. I push a metal button on a metal speaker box, unclip the photo ID prison volunteer badge from over my heart, and hold it up to the high window for inspection. Just like at Emerald City, I always think.
Today, I walk up to a long folding table where two people sit and wait for me. The table is set up across the sidewalk that leads to the front widow and front door.The man is tall, and he wears dark sunglasses and dark clothing. He has on a clean crisp white ball cap and white sneakers.
The man is very efficient. With kindness in his voice, he asks my name, my organization and checks me off a list he has on the table in front of him.
The woman is quiet. She has grey hair curled softly around her face and she wears pretty colors. She smiles at me while the man hands me two documents I must sign.
The first is a photo release that states that I know that photos will be taken throughout the day and I have no objection to their future use, even if I am mistakenly identified in a photo as a prison inmate.
“How could I be mistaken for a man in prison?” I think, laughing inside as I sign. There is also something in this document about the risk of food poisoning, but I don’t read it all.
Then next document I sign states I realize that this is a prison and that if the men riot, I know I will not be rescued…something like that. I know there are real bad guys here inside. I also know that since Baby Rapers and Women Beaters are seen as the bottom feeders of the prison hierarchy, even the really bad guys know to treat women volunteers and visitors with respect or here will be violent consequences from the staff or the other men. Maybe both. For the past few years, I have been teaching leadership skills to convicts who have decided they want transformation, hopefully to never return to violence, criminality or prison. I am always treated with respect.
Hours later, during the Pow Wow, I tell ‘our guys’ about this particular document I had to sign about not being rescued during a riot. They all belly-laugh since this is only a low-risk ‘kindergarten prison,’ wherre most men come to transfer out at the end of their sentences. Joking, nine men who I know quickly and spontaneously surround me as we stand out on the Yard, their arms up and out, some half-crouched, one falling to his knees, arms outstretched, all with their backs to me in mock defense, mock-yelling, ‘We’ll defend you, our sister! HA!!’ And I believe they would.
I hand the kindly man my signed documents and ask them both, “What organizations are you volunteers for?’”
She is the chaplain’s wife, it turns out. He is surprised I do not know: He tells me, “I am an inmate.”
We laugh and shake hands as I tell him “Wow, you are so professional, I thought you were the guy in charge!” Now I notice that under the table he is wearing dark denim stamped with the bright orange words that identify him. He hands me a Pow Wow program and tells me I may now go up to the window next to the front door and talk to the Officer there.
As I walk over to her, I see this Officer is one I have never seen before. She is small and seems like a tight coil ready to spring, dark skin, eyes and hair, Hispanic or Native. She wears a perfect uniform, with perfect starching and perfect ironed seams. She is also wearing a half-hidden brown wood and clay bead Native necklace around her neck. She is so formal in everything else, I figure she is wearing the necklace as her way of being part of this special day.
She checks me out, looks up and down my body, and asks if I have anything in my pockets: weapons, money, or contraband cell phone. She is VERY serious.
“No, No and no, “ I answer. I do not laugh. I pass her inspection.
She gives a quick small wave to another Officer passing by inside the front door and then a taller Female Officer joins us. Her uniform looks a little more worn, like she always has trouble keeping her shirt tucked in. Her face is round and her light brown hair hangs limply to her chin. They wear holsters with guns on their hips.
Usually I sign in at the podium inside the prison door and walk myself across the open floor to Classroom Four, since the ID badge I wear allows me to freely walk the hall by myself. Today, though, I find as I walk in to the long open hallway, I am flanked on both sides by these tough, uniformed women who clearly plan to escort me to the far side of the building. Today I am going all the way through the building and out onto the Yard outside.
The short one says, “I can’t wait for the fantastic Pow Wow food today! Sometimes we have a guy incarcerated here who happens to be a great cook and we gain a lot of weight. I got a big belly from that last guy who worked the kitchen. Too bad for us that he was let out.” They chatter on about the food and the incarcerated cooks. They talk. They look. They look at me as if they expect me to join their camaraderie.
The short one says this and the tall one says that and they stare at me and we walk and I am feel really weird walking with them, listening to them. I start to feel more like Queen for the Day than Questionable Visitor. They talk back and forth like this on and on and on as we walk and I suddenly have a wild vision that I should be wearing high heels, a crown and a sash that says Queen for a Day.
I realize the officers – Highly Trained Professional Corrections Officers - not Guards - are trying to ‘bond ‘ with me.
I have a brief thought: it is odd that the women are referred to as ‘Female Officers’ rather than just ‘Officers.’
I am surprised that I feel suspicious of their good intentions. Still, I can’t wait to get away from them on the outside Yard. I want to hang with the guys I know here who treat me like a real person they know, not a rarity.
I see a vision of myself running away from the two Female Officers, throwing off the imaginary heels, sash and crown, running faster and faster down the hall in bare feet as I crouch and shapeshift into a big cat, and then explode out onto The Yard running on all fours before they can draw their guns.
“Yeah, I got so fat, but was sorry to see him leave cause he was such a good cook. I always look forward to these Pow Wows. I hear the inmate cooks made buffalo burgers, deer meat, and salmon today. Hope we get some!” the tall Female Officer says as I come back to this weird reality.
I randomly notice her eyes are a pale watery green.
I listen and quietly think to myself: Inmate. Convict. Ex-con. Most of the guys I know here dislike the ‘passive’ term of inmate, preferring the words ‘convict’ or ‘ex-con’ even in their transformation to Citizen. The guys I know really hate the new politically-correct- in-Oregon term “FIP” – Formerly Incarcerated Person.
I often hear: The newer youngsters flooding the Oregon prisons who got caught up in ‘Measure Eleven’ crimes are not ’real’ career criminals, usually don’t know respectful prison culture and so the Convict Code is disappearing.
‘Convict’ supposedly carries the transferable values of Loyalty, Honor, Respect, Politeness and Being Straight-up. The old Convict Code actually was a set of agreements that used to help keep some order on the Yard in the old days. They were strickly and violently enforced, and a man did not dare to go against the Code more than once. Surprisingly, these very same Convict Code agreements help guys transform into Citizens if they chose to leave criminality behind after they are released.
I look to the end of the hallway. I can now see out the door to the Yard. I see a few hundred people, men in orange-stamped blue denim and volunteers in full Native regalia or in casual clothes. Families, a few grandmothers and Aunties, beautiful young wives, parents. I see armed guards - I mean Highly Trained Professional Corrections Officers- in the crowd. They stand on alert with their holstered guns and walkie talkies,as still as the bronze statues at the front gate. I see some small children, tiny visitors. I wonder how much they understand when they come to visit Daddy.
I see the new Prison Superintendant and she is standing near the elders and the canopy that covers the Pow Wow Drum. I am surprised to learn she has beautiful tatoos stretching from her ankles up her calves on both legs. Her tats are colorful, not done in the standard prison blue ink the guys are often covered with. I remember I have heard she is a very nice, very tough person who is also quite excited about the work we do with ‘our guys’ inside her prison.
Everyone is on the far side of the Yard under canopies. As we reach the prison door and then walk outside on to the Yard, the Female Officers are suddenly gone .
I stand there - alone on the Yard of the men’s prison.
I do not know where the Female Officers went. Probably toward the grills, I think. I smell meat smoking over charcoal. The Pow Wow has already started.
Deep in my chest, I feel the big Pow Wow drum pound out the Heartbeat of the earth. A huge jetliner swings low over the prison, ready to land at the airport, and the endless roar from its engines competes with the Drum. I wait for the medicine man to walk over to smudge me with smoke so I may step onto the blessed grounds of the prson Yard. My spirit lifts as I see people I know. I am relieved to see Wade, one of ‘our guys’ I know, grab the medicine man to come over to smudge me. They leave the Pow Wow group together to come over to greet me and escort me in.
Many hours later, when I walk the long hall to leave, I see the tall Officer again. She pops her head out of the staff room to say to me, “The leftover Pow Wow food will be great! Think there is any deer meat left?”