Friday, February 16, 2007

Do Not Pass Go

I’d hoped to bring you a photo from my Thursday morning excursion, but when the heavy metal gate clanged shut behind me, my snapshot camera lay sleeping in the car. Damn. Jeff and I had already driven ninety minutes, schlepped armfuls of gear across a long gravel parking lot and made small talk with the large woman stuffed in the guard shack. Even then I knew I’d forgotten something, but until the turtle-necked figure led us down that tunnel of barbed-wire, I didn’t know what. Only when the rolling chain-link slammed home behind me did I remember my battered digital back in Unit 4. ’Too late now’, I thought as thick necks swiveled in our direction. Three steps later we were made, with every convict in the yard eyeballin’ the news crew.

I been to prison before. Never to stay, mind you - but the camera on my shoulder has landed me behind bars a time or two. Jeff however, had never been to the Big House. Now that he’d dragged me along on his inaugural visit, I was determined to make him squirm. I even thought about half-tripping him from behind as we squeezed past a long line of half-glaring, fully curious inmates. I didn’t, of course. I like Jeff. Plus, he was holding my best light-stand. No way I was gonna send that scattering across the cold hard concrete. Not with a couple a hundred incarcerated felons clockin' my every move. Apparently it was laundry day, as everyone of the jump-suited fellas clutched white sheets and a rough regulation-gray blanket. An empty smile on my face, I looked from face to face and tried out various nods. Some nodded back. Some didn't. But everyone watched.

Were it not for its 900 full-time residents milling about the place, the medium-security prison might look like a school. But there were no finger-paintings hanging in the low brick building’s windows and junior highs don’t drape their sidewalks in concertina wire. That’s why I kept my own weapon powered-down and slung low. Later, I’d record as many exterior shots as possible: silhouetted barb-wire, prison shoes scuffing concrete, fish-eyed vistas of penned-up men. First, though we had to get our interviews. And that’s why we made our way towards K-Block - the Sex Offenders Unit. When Mr. Turtleneck waved his ID, the door opened and we all stepped through. At first I couldn’t see in the dim light, but before my eyes could adjust, the smell of man-sweat and moth balls triggered a few boot camp flashbacks. That all faded away though, as I blinked away the sun's rays to see twenty or so Guests of the State glowering back.

Hoo Boy...

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