This past Saturday, my older brother and I visited our youngest brother at his current abode, a state prison facility near Bryan, Texas. He’s serving out what is hopefully the last few months of a sentence for driving under the influence. This was only the second time I had ever seen the inside of a prison. As we waited outside the automated gate in the razor wire topped fence, my mind wandered back to that first time many years ago.
I was probably a junior or senior in high school at the time. I was a member of a young men’s group that set up a visit to a state prison in Huntsville. The unit we toured was limited to convicts up to the age of twenty-one. This wasn’t one of those “scared straight” sort of programs. We weren’t “troubled” kids, but I guess our adult supervisors thought it would be good for us to see what the consequences of misbehavior could be. I suppose it was effective. So many years later, I still have quite clear memories of that tour conducted by the warden of the unit. The group entered through gates in two very high parallel fences. He pointed out the armed guard towers at the corners of the rectangular enclosure, as well as the dangerous looking large dogs (Doberman Pinchers, I believe) that lived in the space between the two fences. When one of us asked the inevitable question about escape attempts, the warden seemed to get quite a kick out of describing how would-be escapees usually were found clinging to the branches of a tree in the nearby woods, chased there by the released dogs. Once inside the facility, we toured some of the areas where inmates spent their days: the mess hall, exercise area, and locked hallways. As you might expect, these were not in use at the time. We were barely allowed to glimpse any actual prisoners. When the tour was complete, we all breathed a silent sigh of relief that we didn’t have to spend our lives in such an awful place. Mission accomplished for our adult leaders.
Yesterday, some 45 or so years later, my brother and I went through the security checks and were seated in a large visitation room at a table with two chairs on one side and one on the other. Our younger brother was escorted into the room through a metal door and seated across from us. As we talked and caught him up on family goings-on, I couldn’t help but look around and consider how different this place was from the high security prison I had toured as a teenager. Unlike the severe lockup of the other unit, this was basically a holding facility for guys who were at least close to being considered for release. My brother talked a lot about the difference between this and the prison he had recently left. As you might expect, this place, though still depressing and austere, was much less violent.
As I sat and listened to him, I couldn’t help but look around the crowded room. Every table was occupied on one side by a man wearing a white cotton shirt and pants. The place was very noisy; you couldn’t make out any actual conversations. But, unlike my previous prison tour, I saw real people rather than just bars and guns. On one side of us a prisoner lightly held his wife’s fingers across their table. Their eyes never wandered from each other. Behind my brother you could barely see the bald head of a tiny baby held in the muscular arm of a huge inmate. He was holding a bottle of milk stuffed in the baby’s mouth as he smiled and talked to the lady across from him. Trying not to appear nosy, I glanced around the full room and saw a lot of other private scenes like that. One prisoner talked animatedly to a younger version of himself–his little brother, I assumed. Quarters clattered almost constantly into the vending machines along one wall. We weren’t allowed to bring in a wallet, but could have coins. Like the other visitors we bought a soft drink for our inmate brother. In fact, he gratefully guzzled two Dr. Peppers. Normally, he’s only allowed one can drink every three weeks.
The feeling here was so different from the high security prison I had walked through so long ago. In spite of the hardships of living packed into a dorm with up to 60 other inmates, there was actually HOPE in this place. When my attention drifted back to my brother across the table, I realized he was talking about his recent efforts to secure a place in a half-way house if and when he was paroled. Like some of the others in the room, he too may get another chance at reconstructing his life later this year. It’s not a sure thing, but there is hope.
Norm Brown is the author of the suspense novel Carpet Ride, published by Secondwind Publishing, LLC.