I had never visited a prison before we went to go see Lele.
I had no idea what to expect. I knew what I’d seen on television was bullshit, and that was it. I was nervous. What if she thought it was weird that these people who she barely knows were all crowding in to visit her, what if she didn’t like us? Worse, what if they didn’t even let us in? I wasn’t sure I had enough of the right forms of ID, if they would even care, if they could just make up some reason to keep us away from her.
It was nine in the morning and already hot with the kind of heavy, swampy heat unique to the Midwest, but the car was air conditioned and Illinois is beautiful. We drank iced coffee and talked about what visiting her might be like, and made jokes about people we all knew and listened to ska. Halfway there we stopped for gas and changed into the shirts Erica had made and asked a man to take a picture of us in front of a corn field. We are all smiling in the picture, even though we were going to visit a young woman locked in a cage for an act of pure heroism. It’s weird how you can smile like that, even in the face of something so wrong and inhumane. I hid my brass knuckles under a pile of tangled braces in the back pocket of Brit’s seat. We hoped they wouldn’t search the car.
The town where Logan Correctional Facility is located is as small and shitty as you’d expect a prison town in southern Illinois to be. At a gas station not far from the prison, we stopped to put other clothes on over our t-shirts. Too much support for Alisha might be seen as too subversive, we weren’t sure.
In most shitty Midwestern towns, a group of tattooed punks walking into any establishment will garner a lot of quiet attention. You can feel people’s eyes burning holes in your head, the automatic distrust for those clearly foreign to the area. It wasn’t like this here, nobody gave us a second glance, it was, I guess, obvious why we were there. They saw people like us all the time.
Once we all looked as respectable as possible, we drove through more cornfields to the prison itself. The buildings were low and brick. The parking lot was made of broken asphalt. It was almost like any poorly-funded state-owned structure until you saw the signs warning you to drop to the ground in the event of gunfire, the parking spots designated for the warden, for correctional officers of the month and year.
The signs directing visitors were confusing; Probably, I thought, deliberately so, but whether it was a sin of omission or a sin of commission there was no way of knowing. We made it into the air conditioned lobby, none of us sure what to do. We filled out forms while the heavily pregnant woman behind the desk gave us vague looks of some kind of mostly-apathetic disgust. I ran back and forth between the car and the office twice, fetching information we needed, dropping off unnecessary identification, removing the bandana that covered the hair I hadn’t had time to wash.
If the woman at the front desk had been vaguely apathetic in her disgust, the men in the guard house were jovial about it. As we walked in one of them was complaining about his expensive weekend, laughing with his colleague. They asked about jewelry and looked at us all like they found their jobs amusing. I ground my teeth to powder trying to keep my mouth shut, trying not to back sass any of them, trying to contain my rage at the fact that they existed, that they were participating in the system that was designed to keep their own people down.
“Fucking class traitors,” Brit would mutter to me later when we were leaving.
You know it in your head, but until you see the guards at prisons you don’t realize how true it is, how they all hold their faces like I do, like my family does, like poor people do, because they were of us until they chose to hold the boots of the rulers down on their own people’s heads.
A woman escorted us to through the fence to the visitors’ center. She was all smiles as she warned us not to expect air conditioning. None of us were smiling.
“This is nicer than in Texas,” Brit said, “all the grass is dead there.”
The grass wasn’t dead at Logan. It was green and neatly trimmed and there were trees, as if that would be enough to make us all forget that people we care about aren’t free.
To say it was hot in the visitors’ center would be an understatement. We were sent over to a table in the corner with chairs arranged around it, their legs in a puddle of water dripping from an ancient and useless window unit that likely, even in its best years would not have been able to make a dent in the oppressive heat. My hair was wet with sweat before Lele even arrived, and I mopped my face with Erica’s extra shirt while we waited, my hands shaking from caffeine or nervousness or both, I wasn’t sure.
And then we looked over and she was there, at the other end of the room, being told by the guard where to go, that we were waiting for her.
The first thing I noticed about her is how tall she is. I’d read her rap sheet, but height, weight, hair color, those were never the things I noticed, too upset by her wrongful conviction, her sentences, the dehumanization that comes with all mugshots. I’m used to being the tallest woman in a room, but when I hugged her we were face to face.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, “you’re tall too!”
The second thing I noticed is that she is so beautiful. Not just physically, though she absolutely is, but immediately upon seeing her it is so clear how strong she is, how kind. There is no way of putting it but to fall into tired cliches and say that her very soul shines out of her striking pale eyes.
I am never very good at meeting new people. I am anxious and too concerned with being liked, but Lele has that rare quality that sets you at ease immediately. Even in that sweaty visitors’ center, across from the dirty, broken children’s toys spread out on mats in the opposite corner, surrounded by other people and their bittersweet reunions we could almost have just been a bunch of people in a living room. She told us about her roommate, how they’re best friends, how they do everything together. She showed us where they gave each other matching stick n poke tattoos on the backs of their necks, and I showed her all the stick n pokes I’ve done on myself. She told us about the clothing they made in their cells, finding ways to celebrate and nourish their femme-ness even in a place that puts all women in matching white polos and sweatpants. She oohed and ahhed over the three of us femmes’ nails while Aaron went to get her food from the machines, telling us how she and her roommate were going to get some paint and lacquer from the shop soon to make their own nail polish.
“I have everything a girl could want in here,” she said, “well, except for high heels. I miss high heels.”
At her sentencing they hadn’t even given her a pair, concerned that her already tall stature plus the added height of heels would make her look too much, too tall, too much woman, too much of a whore, as if she should be ashamed.
It was sometimes hard to believe that this was happening, that this was real, that we were all hanging out together, laughing about shared clients, listening to her stories of the ingenious, and honestly delicious-sounding recipes cooked up with commissary food, hearing her tell us about the other inmates, and the way they can see the men incarcerated in Lincoln from the yard sometimes, “if we’re lucky.” We told her about Slutwalk, how I was going to make a speech just about her, about her case, about how issues of consent affect us as sex workers just as much, if not more, than they do civilian women.
“When I get out,” she said, “I want to do what you guys do,” and if I was able to cry openly, that would’ve been what did it.
Our visit was too short, we’d just wrapped up a game of clue, cobbled together with makeshift pieces, when the guard at the front of the visitors’ center announced that our visit would be cut a half hour short. Visitors have to leave in shifts because the guards can’t be bothered to walk groups out individually, and we didn’t know how long we would have to wait if we were to go with the next group.
We hugged and promised to come back soon, as soon as we could. She had to wait until we were gone to be taken back to her cell, and as we walked to the guard house to get the car keys back and have our clothing inventoried again, I looked back to see her waving at us.
It wasn’t until we were in the car driving away that the reality hit me, how wrong it was that we had to leave her there, the fact that she wasn’t sitting in between me and Erica in the back seat, going home to her family where she belongs, how wrong it is that that amazing, brave, resilient young woman was, at 23, locked in a cage and not out making poor choices like we all did at that age.
It was hard to write this reflection, hard to remember everything outside of the feelings that seeing her, hugging her, talking to her, seeing how well she is doing (all things considered) inspired. It was hard to think about leaving her again. Prisons are terrible, prisons are immoral, and prisons are for burning but like the class treachery of the guards, it’s one thing to know it in your head and another to see someone you care about incarcerated and reduced to a number and a uniform and stripped, as far as the state is concerned, of their humanity.
If you want to support Alisha (commissary, visits, legal needs) & help us and her family continue to visit please contribute here: https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/alisha-walker-survived-and-punished–2