I spent a night once in a minimum security prison 47 years ago after being arrested in Berkeley as part of the People’s Park controversy. I was eventually exonerated of all charges along with the other 481 students, faculty, and press who were taken to the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center in Pleasanton, California (it was hardly “pleasant!”).
That was an experience I’ll never forget –brutal, traumatic, and terrifying. That’s a story for another time.
The second time was this past week when I visited a young man at Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary in San Pedro Harbor. He grew up in my congregation and is serving 2 years on a felony conviction. He admitted his crime, believes he deserves what he got, is deeply repentant, and is making the most of his time until his release this coming summer.
He and I became pen-pals earlier this year and eventually I asked if he’d like a visit. He was moved that I’d want to see him, as were his parents and grandparents.
Prison is prison. This young man’s mother gave me instructions when I went to see him – wear no belt, no watch, no wallet, no jewelry, no khaki clothing. All I needed was my driver’s license and car key, his ID number and my car tag plate number.
I arrived at 10:30 am, signed in, and waited in a bare-bones cement room until called. I was the only white person there. Everyone else was female, Hispanic, black, Middle Eastern, and/or Muslim visiting family, boyfriends, or friends.
There are 900 men incarcerated at Terminal Island. His prison friends include a brilliant Pakistani Yale MBA graduate who had worked as a Controller for a major American city and got caught by the FBI on bribery and profits skimming charges. Others were there for a variety of reasons, but the prison ethic is not to ask others what they did unless they choose to share their crime with friends.
When I passed through security I was stunned by the amount of barbed wire surrounding every potential escape route. We passed through 3 security doors and as I entered the visitors’ room I saw about 40 inmates dressed in khaki shirts and pants and wearing heavy functional shoes. They sat in plastic chairs marked with a red stripe. Visitors sat opposite them. I brought a baggy filled with quarters so I could buy him candy, food, or a drink from one of the dozen or so machines. The inmates were not permitted to get up from their chairs and buy anything themselves. We visitors did that for them. My young friend asked for a Diet Coke.
His days are tightly controlled and ritualized. He awakes, works out, eats breakfast, teaches 3 hours of algebra to two groups of inmates, has lunch, runs the track (he’s in great shape), sits on his bed in his dorm room with 60 other inmates, writes letters, and reads page-turning fiction so as to pass the time and escape from his reality into an imaginary world outside the prison walls. Then there’s dinner, more reading and writing letters.
He claimed he was no longer frightened on the inside. He had learned how to get along. He did what the guards told him to do, and he followed the rules – period!
We spent 90 minutes together talking about everything – life before his arrest, alcoholism, AA, family, his crime, trial, his life on the inside, books, politics, women, and the election. He pointed out men who were serving for decades, and he confessed how grateful he was that he was given such a relatively light sentence. His friends asked him never to complain to them, for they all had it far worse.
I’ve known him since he was a boy, officiated at his bar mitzvah, and taught him in Confirmation class. He is smart, good-looking, articulate, friendly, thoughtful, and loving – but he committed a serious crime. He knows it, owns what he did, accepted his punishment, and now he’s paying the price.
He will always be a “felon.” Nevertheless, he’s hopeful about building a better future for himself, and he has plans to get back on his feet, get a job, and eventually start a hi-tech business. He is smart enough to succeed, but he will need to maintain focus and rely on the support and good will of others. I hope he succeeds.
The lights blinked at 12:50 PM warning visitors that unless we left immediately we’d be stuck there for two more hours while a change in shifts takes place among the guards.
As I left, we hugged and I wished him well.
My young friend has learned plenty in this nightmare he created for himself; but he is looking forward, thinking positively, still remorseful for what he did and how badly he hurt people, but looking on the bright side of his life.
Though I had not seen him in 10 years, I visited because his knowing that his Rabbi cares about him is important for his rehabilitation and reentry into life outside of prison. I also went for his parents, brother, and grandparents about whom I care deeply, who have suffered the shame of what their beloved son, brother, and grandson did.
Being on the inside of a prison is one experience everyone ought to have – but as a visitor.
Note: I received permission from this young man’s family to tell this story.