First Visit At Decatur

I’ve said it before, but really, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been to see someone in prison, you never get used to it. It never becomes routines. It never gets “easier.” Not that you’d want it to get that way, but it not ever being that way reminds you of how fucking wrong a place like prison is. It’s a place dreamt up of the most un-human stuff. You can prepare for the screenings, the attitude of the guards, the inane rules and the strict dress code all you want and still it will find a way to knock you on your ass when you arrive to visit a loved one.

This Sunday (March 12th) was my first time visiting anyone at Decatur Correctional. I didn’t really know what to expect considering folks had told us it was “very different” from Logan, where Alisha was previously held. What struck me immediately was that the prison was wedged right between a trailer park and an apartment complex amongst gas stations and people. Our trips to Logan sent us out in the middle of nowhere– dropped in a field. It felt weird seeing people (likely COs) live right next to this abomination.

Here we needed 2 forms of ID, here the clothes we had visited Alisha in last time weren’t good enough, here they counted the number of bobby pins in your hair. But unlike Logan here at Decatur they didn’t make you shake your bra out and there were lockers for your extras, you couldn’t wear a jacket/cardigan/sweater inside the visitation room, and apparently there exist the possibility of photos with your loved one but no one could explain that policy…

We had to leave to go find a Target to buy a new article of clothing for Cate because her shirt didn’t cover her ass and her pants were deemed “too tight.”

These assholes.

She wore these same pants to our last visit. So she bought a dress and kept the tags–we’d go back to return it later.

The screening did seem to take less time and we were finally ushered into a visitation room that looked way less like a health hazard than had the one we’d been going to previously. I was anxious, my stomach was in knots. I had spoken to Alisha just a few days ago and she wasn’t digging the transition to this place at all.

Within minutes we were hugging and laughing with our friend. This was definitely one of our longer visits (because at Decatur, unlike Logan you could remain or leave when you wanted to within hours as opposed to the guards making you end a visit early because they felt like “calling line”) lasting well over four hours.

First, the snacks.

Alisha wanted ice cream, we debated the vending machine options and settled on a vanilla fudge cone, and later a Häagen-Dazs bar. There was also strawberry pop, one of those Special K strawberry cheesecake bars, Cheesits, and some sort of “meat” item masquerading as a philly cheese steak. We dragged the prison’s profitable use of vending machines, the gross over-pricing and lack of fruits and vegetables or like, I dunno, more good junk food.

We also discussed my vegetarianism (which Alisha found confusing and yet hilarious), growing up on farms and what family she does and does not speak to. We all shared our stories of how we found our chosen family and how we came to terms with our blood kin.

Then her work inside.

Alisha gives thanks for working in the kitchen and “teaching some fools about seasonings.” She’s able to be more creative in this kitchen and it’s helping her pass the time, but her labor is nowhere near fairly compensated, and the long hours (12 hour shifts sometimes) standing on concrete leave her feet and ankles swollen and sore, her back hurting.

Passing the time has been slow-going here. She’s bored and has fewer creative outlets because of how strict “conduct policy” is here. No paints, no tattooing, no clothing alteration, no dating. If you get snitched on, ratted out, or just wrongfully reported on as some kinda revenge–you’re in the hole.

She has been reading more. She finished Memoirs of a Geisha, and part of Men Explain Things to Me, but she got pissed at men and had to put it down, it was “too real.” She tried to get into Slaughterhouse Five, made it a little ways in and got upset again. She said she’s gonna switch gears and tackle Assata Shakur’s autobiography next.   

And lord the practical jokes this woman plays….she had us in tears from laughing so hard at her pranks.

Then the heartbreak.

We talked relationships and breakups. LeLe was reeling and you could hear the feeling of betrayal, confusion and hurt when she spoke about her ex. We talked abuse and forgiveness, why we fall back into these patterns and how to prioritize ourselves; basically how to survive having big hearts. We held hands, touched shoulders, and shook our heads.

Then ho life and work outside.

We swapped client stories and listened to Alisha recall some of the most epic shit that had transpired when she was working as an escort. Obviously I won’t recount those stories here but suffice to say we were all demanding she start writing a damn book. We talked about movement organizing, how (strange/terrible) work has been since the Backpage closure, and what we felt like we needed to work safely: decriminalization. We talked about this at length. Alisha was impatient with ideas, “Let me outta here so I can get to work!” This extended brainstorming session lead us to talking about our mental health and what support and wellness could/should look like.

I’m always in awe of how uncompromising she remains in the face of inhumanity. I learn a lot from Alisha every time we talk on the phone, exchange letters and meet. Learning from survivors is something we should be doing, collectively, a hell of a lot more. I’m not gonna mince words, I hate visiting prisons. I hate that my friend is in prison. I hate that your friends or family might be in prisons. I fucking hate prisons. We’ve got to imagine a better way- a better world without all this harm and punishment. I think LeLe is gonna be one to teach us how to get free.


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