Thursday, May 19, 2016

On the road -- Day 2: Eating yogurt with a spork

   The rain is beating against the window of my hotel room overlooking US 59. It's so damp and chilly that I turned the heat on. Not what I would have expected for Texas weather during the month of May. But then, it's been an unusually cold and rainy spring back home in PA too.  Just can't seem to escape the rain.

   As a couple people who have been to Polunsky Unit promised, the personnel were all very friendly when I visited today. The visitation room is kept spotlessly clean. The floor was shining. However, the dilapidated fixtures, worn or peeling paint, and generally Spartan institutional decor contribute to an overwhelmingly depressing atmosphere. The visiting booths look like something out of a 1950's TV crime drama.The telephone connection was staticky and I sometimes had difficulty understanding Troy (not his real name) when he spoke. The bathroom, although kept very clean, is in serious need of renovation. At the very least, prison admin should consider replacing the door. Sitting on the toilet you can read the sad, desperate musings etched into the surface on the interior side by family and friends.

    I found it hard to see that Troy was handcuffed as he was being led into the visiting booth. I gave him a big smile and a two-handed wave, and even the guard smiled along with him as he removed the cuffs. He reached for a telephone receiver on his side of the window, and I reached for one on my side. The first few minutes were awkward. While we have spoken before, (during periods when he was on bench warrant in another county and could call me -- no telephone privileges at Polunsky), that was awhile ago. I was touched that his first words were to ask about one of my family members who was recently ill. I was entitled to a "special" four-hour visit (as opposed to a usual two-hour visit), because of the distance I had come.  We chatted --and at times laughed-- about this and that for the first couple of hours, and then he asked if I wanted to eat.  Sure, I said. Troy had really been looking forward to this culinary treat, lunch from the famous visiting room vending machines. Says something about the daily grub he gets, I suppose.

    The procedure for purchasing food for the inmates is cumbersome to say the least. You take your friend's order. Then you call over the guard.  She comes with a brown paper lunch bag on which she has noted the number of your booth and follows you from machine to machine as you make each purchase. You deposit your quarters, make your selection, and the item is delivered. Or, in the case of a  refrigerated item such as a salad or sandwich, you slide open a little door.  But you are forbidden to touch the item. The guard retrieves it and places it into the paper bag. The process is repeated until all desired items have been purchased. Finally, the guard delivers the bag to the inmate. Just like ordering take-out, right?  When you buy a salad, it comes with a napkin and little plastic spork. Same for yogurt, as I discovered when I purchased some Yoplait for myself. Consuming a creamy comestible with a spork has a most unnatural feel. It's almost as though the entire experience has been calculated to be as unnatural as possible. Even as a visitor you feel you're being punished.

      Troy ate his lunch with great relish as we continued our conversation. Seeing him enjoy his food gave me at least the illusion that I was doing something for him. However, I know that he is totally vulnerable and at the mercy of the system, his only hope the unrelenting efforts of the pro bono attorneys. May the Spirit guide their work.

     Well, at least the great unknown has been dispelled. When I return tomorrow I'll be more familiar with security procedures and visitation culture. Maybe I'll even master the fine art of eating yogurt with a spork.

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