There is a person from my past in prison rightfully convicted of murder. The details are horrific and he is where he belongs. The way I make sense out of things I don’t understand is to learn everything I can. Because of this I have pockets of knowledge a mile deep and an inch wide. I thrive on consistency and when something curves in a new direction I want to know why. So when this guy went to prison, and I knew there was no way he was getting out, I wrote to him and asked my questions.
How did we get from point A to point B? How do we go from a friend you lunch with to someone on the news for a grizzly murder? What signs did I miss? These were the things I needed to know.
I began writing letters for me and my journey of understanding. If he got pleasure out of our correspondence that was a byproduct, not my goal. Thinking of sending letters to the guy I used to hang out with seemed fine, thinking of sending them to a guy who murdered they almost seem too kind. It’s very complicated and all I could do is what felt right for me and my journey of understanding.
I got long and detailed answers from him but I always knew that writing wasn’t going to be enough. I’ve had nightmares that he showed up at my kids birthday parties. I’ve had nightmares that I went to visit him but I was forced to stay in prison for the night. There have been ones where he was allowed out of prison to come to our college reunion. In real life I’ve seen his doppelgänger at a kids birthday party, walking down the street, in a crowd and it has sucked my breath away. I needed to SEE him and know that this was real.
After writing to him for eleven years he moved to a prison that was closer to where I live. My friend Emily and I knew we would eventually visit. It was inevitable. It was easy to save it for later when it was almost a six hour drive away but when it became a day trip we both knew the visit was more imminent.
We were already on his visiting list. Me and Emily registered and became “friends” in the system. We decided on one of the available dates and she booked it for us.
It felt like we were in line for a rollercoaster. It seemed like a good idea to go.
As a rule follower the rules for getting into the visit felt more daunting than the visit itself:
No underwire bras.
Must wear a bra.
No jewelry that will set off the alarm.
(Can I bring a watch? No Apple Watches but I can’t find my regular watch. My mind was going crazy!)
If the rules aren’t followed you cannot come in. Your visit can be terminated at any time. Be on time.
What if I accidentally broke a rule and they turned me away?
We arrived and made our way in. We signed in and got a key to our locker to keep our ID and keys. We got a debit card for the vending machines in the visiting room. We purchased photo tickets like a carnival, 3 photos for $4.75. Our hands were checked for residue of (bombs? gunpowder?) and we went through the metal detector. We got a UV stamp they use when we leave to make sure we have not switched places with anyone.
We were at the front of the line for the rollercoaster. Any minute it would be our turn. We were surrounded by people who had ridden it before and they weren’t nervous.
They called our inmate’s last name. We took our paperwork and followed the guards.
I was strapped in this rollercoaster and it was about to move. No turning back now.
We followed the Corrections Officer. One door unlocked and we went through. We walked down a hallway to another locked door. I wanted to both laugh and cry at the same time. This door opened into a small vestibule. The door clicked shut behind us and another door opened. We were to find our prisoner.
In that moment I felt a mixture of panic and relief. I literally had nightmares about this moment but at the same time it was something I knew I needed to do.
The content of the visit was not super exciting or notable. We chatted about people we knew, updated each other on our lives, and reminisced. We learned some prison lingo, but mostly the conversation was not anything anyone outside of our college group would be interested in hearing.
During the conversation my mind was still trying to synthesize the guy I knew before the crime, the guy I was sitting with, and the guy who murdered. How can you sit and have a silly conversation with a guy who shot someone intentionally? How can you look at his arms and know the ones that just gave you a hug are the same ones that lugged a dead body, wrapped it up, and left it in the woods hoping it wouldn’t be found? Is it fair to the person he murdered and their family that he feels joy? Is it okay for me to visit if it brings him joy and excitement? Is it okay that it was a pleasant time and I feel like I gained something from going there?
It made me realize how complicated these situations can be. He was wrong, I give him ZERO wiggle room on that. I believe that, at the time, he felt like murder was his best option. Through this experience I have learned a lot about the prison system and about how I best cope with traumatic situations. In my “glass half full” perspective I guess I just need to take what I can learn and keep moving forward doing what feels right.