“Two men looked through prison bars. One saw mud; the other, stars.” – George, prisoner at Parchman State Penitentiary
The following guidelines may surprise you. These are tried and true rules. Books have been written about them. These rules may seem to make you appear cold-hearted, just when you want to make friends. However, honest prisoners may not like you being all that friendly. They may be tired of do-gooders! Think of a prison as a hospital, and every patient is contagious (dangerous) and depressed.
Always side with the guards. Prisoners will mislead you, play for your sympathy, and expect you to agree with or tolerate their running down the officers in the facility. Cons can get you into big trouble if you even laugh at their contemptuous jokes about guards. Find a guard and learn the rules. A good facility won’t let you in without having taught you the rules. Disobey those rules at your grave peril! For example, if you get asked if they may shut the door to block the noise from the hall; no matter what they say, you better go check with a guard to see if it’s all right. It is quite liable not to be all right. Therefore, the tighter you are with the guards, the safer you will be. But for goodness’ sake, don’t be so friendly with the guards that you make them suspicious about you! Remember, they have inmates trying to play them all day long. Even if you are only at a city or county jail, be extremely careful to know and obey every rule.
Be on guard against being played by the cons. The nicer they are to you, the more watchful you ought to be. Be polite, but keep your distance. Think of yourself as a professional, and especially when you are tempted to relax.
Here are some examples of rules for visitors. You can expect to be scanned and searched as you enter. At Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Mississippi, you turn over your car keys and your belt; remove your shoes to let the soles be examined; and get a physical frisking. You don’t get in at all unless you have someone in the administration vouch for you. You are warned not to give so much as a pencil or piece of paper or stick of gum to an inmate, and certainly not money. No touching beyond shaking hands. No back slapping, for example. At Parchman State Penitentiary, the guards will warn you to keep a prisoner’s hands always in view.
Be on guard about what may seem like their asking simple ice-breaking questions. “What’s your last name? Where do you live? What’s your phone number? What do you do for a living? What’s your wife’s name, your children’s names? What kind of car or truck do you have? Will you write me?” Now – let me ask you – do you really want them knowing all this about you when they get out of prison?
Realize that they are desperate for you to write to the parole board recommending their release. The friendlier they are, the more they want to become your pal, the more likely they are to be angling for anything from a letter to the parole board to smuggling something. Suppose you agree to bring a pack of gum for them next time you visit. You bring them the gum, and then they want you to bring in a pack of cigarettes, or cookies, or postage stamps. They keep this up until they talk you into bringing in something the prison has forbidden. Now they can threaten you: “Bring me some xyz, or else I’ll turn you in to the prison for bringing me contraband.” For this reason, you sure better know the rules. If you have the slightest doubt, check with a guard; it might save you worlds of trouble. It is for this kind of thing that the rule was made: no giving anything to a prisoner.
Be extremely hesitant to promise to do something the prisoner can’t do for himself. Suppose he asks you to call his child, his precious little girl, and tell her daddy is thinking of her. Then suppose that the administration has taken away the privilege of contacting the child because old dad molested her, and she’s scared to death of him. Now you have enabled a creep to hurt his little daughter, broken a prison order, and gotten yourself thrown out forever. What did you do wrong? You forgot to run everything by a guard before doing anything for a con.
Expect stool pigeons. These are prisoners who have a deal with the administration to report rule breaking. At Stillwater Federal Prison in Minnesota, one of these stool pigeons reported that I smiled slightly when a group of prisoners were laughing about a guard they said couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. A stoolie will report the least little nuance in hopes of gaining favor with the administration. So watch yourself!
Tend to accept guard behavior that appears way too aggressive. For example, here comes a group of twenty guard walking down the hall. All prisoners are lined up against the wall, their feet inside a white painted line on the floor keeping prisoners at attention. The twenty guards are singing loudly, and the concrete block construction of the hall makes the echo so loud you can’t hear yourself think. The guards are singing something very intimidating to the prisoners. Why do they do this? Because an intimidated prisoner is a safer prisoner than a surly prisoner, that’s why.
All is not as it seems. I have seen a guard yell at the top of his lungs at a prisoner who stepped over a line on the floor; then, having cowed the prisoner into literally shaking, in front of forty or so other prisoners watching, that same guard turned around and leaned close to his victim. He asked in a low whisper something like, “Have you heard from your mother? How’s she doing?”
Finally, underneath all the apparent hard-heartedness, please remember that you are witnessing real suffering. Along with all the pent-up anger, trying to use you, or unreasonable requests is a person who is lonely, scared, anxious, and grieving. Your speaking to him may be all that sustains him through the next week. There are ways to show caring besides being overtly friendly. You can ask him how you can pray for him. You can pray for him before you go. Realize that this is a hard ministry. There aren’t many people, even professonals, who want to get involved. Therefore, it is even more important, if you feel the call, to touch the souls that no one else wants to touch! Sometime in the future, my prayer is that you may hear these words spoken to you:
“I was in prison, and you visited me.” – Jesus