The first time I made the hour and a half drive from Detroit, to a correctional facility to meet with new clients, I felt nauseous. As my car barreled down the highway, going from city and suburbs, to cornfields and confederate flags, my stomach churned. I’m sure part of it was the motion sickness caused by the never-ending winding road, and part of it was nerves, but more of it was the onset of a sudden illness borne of irony.
I always found it disturbing—the term “correctional facility.” The phrase seems to absolve the “powers that be” from any responsibility in creating our current social ills. Like, what exactly are we correcting? Is it the centuries of systemic oppression steeped in white supremacy? Is it the classism, racism, and bias and bigotry that still persist? Is it the war on drugs that decimated Black communities through the penal system, that is now deemed a compassionate Caucasian opioid crisis? Is it the lack of mental health access; the economic and educational deprivation? Is it the hunger and fear, homelessness and hopelessness that plagues urban areas? Or is it just the “anti-social behavior”?
The idea of calling the prison industrial complex, “corrections,” would almost be laughable if it wasn’t such a travesty. You see, you can correct an error—or a mistake. But to “correct” something that was systemically created on purpose and allowed to persist for centuries—correcting that requires atonement. It requires rehabilitation. It requires “just mercy.” And right now—with bail and jails, and prisons and parolees, missing mamas and daddies—we’re not correcting a thing.
Thus, labeling our current system “corrections” is like erasing an F grade on the top of your paper and changing it to an A, while all the answers are still wrong. It’s like putting a bandaid on a gunshot wound. It’s like popping aspirin when you need a root canal. If we want to correct anything, it certainly can’t start with Black men and women being ripped from their families and held in chains. I’d posit that’s how we got here in the first place.
On this fateful day, despite my vehement opposition to the term “corrections,” going into these facilities is part of my job. I leave my phone in my vehicle, take one last gulp from my water bottle, and enter the front door of the prison. After signing in at the desk and checking in with the officer on duty for an attorney visit, I glance up above his head. There on the wall, arranged in a neat little pyramid, are framed headshots with gleaming white smiles: the prison warden, the head of the department of corrections, and the governor. A proud shrine of sorts, as if to remind visitors where they are and who is in charge.
My thoughts are interrupted as I am told to take a seat, until my clients are brought from their respective cell blocks and are ready to meet with me. After about 20 minutes, I am summoned from the waiting area to another entryway where I will go through security. After a large steel door slowly rolls open, I put my portfolio with my notepad and bar card in a bin and walk through the metal detector. I am then asked to lift my tongue, and show my inner cheeks, so that an officer can look inside my mouth to ensure I’m not bringing in contraband. I am reminded of the way my ancestors were inspected on auctions blocks. Such a search must trigger trauma on a cellular level.
As my screening continues, I am patted down, first under my arms and then between my legs. The the fullness of my hair which is pulled into a curly afro puff, and the poking of the underwire of my bra, gives the officer a visible pause before she moves on. I am then instructed to remove my shoes and socks and hand them to another officer for them to be shaken out. This officer then asks to see the bottoms of my bare feet, to again ensure I am not a smuggler.
After the conclusion of this onerous and invasive process, I am finally allowed to enter a designated portion of the facility. Much to my surprise, I am given a panic button, and instructed on how to use it. I do, in fact, feel panicked, but not for the reasons one might expect. The panicking I feel is more of a stifling claustrophobia. You can know exactly what prisons are for, but until you have been inside one, it is impossible to truly process that people spend years of their lives behind thick brick walls, inhaling the same recycled, stale air. It is like perpetually taking shallow breaths, while trying your best to breathe deeply.
I hear the wrangling of steel chains as my first client enters—a Black man in a jumpsuit sits before me. We discuss his legal matters and he thanks me profusely for my assistance before shuffling out of the room the same way he came. I meet with another. And another. And another. Some are old men, who have done decades; some are young men, who have done years. Some have diagnosed mental illness, some have learning disabilities, some cannot read and write. Some have never had a driver’s license, never finished high school, never had the opportunity to have children—that is how long they have been in a cage. This visit, like every other visit to come, will remind me why I do this work. But for now, I can do nothing but sit in the awe of my former naivete. I can only wonder how many beautiful souls, gracious souls, remorseful souls, rehabilitated souls, and actually innocent souls, are rotting and also somehow rising from this concrete fortress.
When folks in this country seek to justify the horrors of incarceration and prison conditions, many people think of Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. But most of the men I meet notably have names more like Denzel and Antoine or Marquis and Malcolm, and have stories more like "they would've killed my family if I snitched," or "I was young and dumb," or "that was all I knew back then, but I'm a much different person now," or "I hope they can forgive me."
As my client meetings come to a close, I exit the room, and then go back through security to leave the prison. When I reach the open door at the entrance, I unconsciously gasp for air—the freshness of it startles me. You don’t really realize how sacred the crisp air feels until you can’t inhale it. Until you are restricted from breathing it in, even for a few hours. It baffles me that for some, this is a lifetime.
As I make my way back towards the city, I reflect on my experience and my eyes well with tears. I weep because so many people will say these clients are getting what they deserve, having never met a single one of them or heard their stories. I weep because one of my clients didn’t know what Google was and has never used a cell phone. I weep because some of these men are paroling home soon, overjoyed at the possibility of meeting their grandkids for the first time. I weep because some of them have no home to parole to. I weep because of the knowledge of the obstacles and hardships they will face, the stigma and stereotypes they’ll encounter even after paying their "debt to society." I weep because those labeled criminals are too often the victims that no one ever protected. I weep because I’m trying to help but my work feels like a rain drop in the ocean. I weep because so many of these clients look like my cousins, my uncles, my friends. For the first time, I am grateful that the drive back to the city is so long—it gives me time to process it and then pull myself together.
When I get back to my office, a stack of files rest on my desk, ready to be sifted through. Post-release clients with upcoming court dates and matters galore. As I flip through these files, my phone dings and it’s a Facebook message. A friend from middle school has a brother who just got locked up and she wants to know if I can help. “Any of your time at all would be so appreciated,” she writes. I sit my phone down, close my eyes, and rub my temples.
As I prepare to respond to her message, I remember in that moment that I never responded to my own cousin who had messaged me from prison the night before asking me if I’d heard any updates on legislation that might affect his own life sentence. He was 19 when he went to prison, and has been there for more than 25 years; almost my whole life. I feel guilty as I know he’s had to purchase (yes, purchase) "virtual stamps" just to send me an email through the JPay system and is probably eagerly awaiting my delayed reply. I feel more guilty that I have no update to give him besides my “thoughts and prayers” wrapped up as hope.
When I finally leave the office, cases prepped for court the next day, I try to go back into the world as normal, but the thoughts from my day nag at me. If ignorance is bliss, then this type of knowing is truly agony.
A friend texts me to grab drinks, but as I sip my cocktails, I find it impossible to truly unplug. She is going on and on about the new guy she is dating, but my mind keeps wandering back to the stale air where people are waiting. Waiting for a court date. Waiting for a visit from family. Waiting for a parole date. Waiting to die. Waiting for mercy.
But my friend just wants to know if I’m listening to her story.
“Erin, are you okay? You seem so distracted.”
I wonder whether I’m distracted or distraught.
Perhaps both are correct responses to the inherent incorrectness of "corrections."
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