I traveled the weekend of October 28 – 30 to visit Marc Emery in the “Medium Security” prison he’s being held at in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Marc gets out in July 2014 with his good time credit.
Other than my connecting flight from North Carolina to Jackson Mississippi having a turbine generator (or something like that) dislodge, make us lose electricity, and forced the plane to turn back to NC 45 minutes into the flight (and driving me to have a silent crying panic attack on the plane thinking we were all doomed to a horrible death), the trip there was non-eventful. I did notice that the South is much more friendly and people strike up conversations with one another on a whim, unlike in the Northeast, where if you did that you’d come off as a crazy person and people would start to shy away from you immediately.
I tried to smile at people as often as possible – in the Northeast I come off as insane sometimes, but in the South I had a much better reception to my constant smiling (which is my coping mechanism for being nervous, anxious or uncomfortable) and I got to talk to a lot of folks about my trip and what it is like in Mississippi. For all my Rhode Island friends: they sell single cans and bottles of beer on ice in all the gas stations and drug-stores down there! Wowie was I excited to buy a single beer ‘just because’ we don’t have that in RI (You have to get your alcohol at a “package store” in RI).
For those who have never been to a Federal Prison [myself included], it is quite an experience. In fact, it is an experience that every American should have. If every American experienced what I experienced – that is, what the families of these incarcerated men experience for months, weeks, years, a lifetime – I think we’d be a country less eager to criminalize everything.
The first thing I noticed is how desperately poor and desolate Yazoo City is. There’s no economy. Fast Food restaurants, gas stations, warehouses, some Hotels, the Army National Guard Base, and the Federal Correctional Institution were the only apparent sources of commerce/jobs I saw while driving around.
I stayed at a Hampton Inn about a 10 minute drive from the prison. It looked new so I asked the woman at the desk, “Is this a new hotel?” She answered “Yes ma’am, been here about one year now.”
I woke up at 6:30am Saturday morning, and was in the lobby eating breakfast by 7:15am. There was another family there, an older grandmother-looking woman and what looked to be her adult son and her infant grandson. They too were eating breakfast.
I got to the prison by 7:50am (after getting lost and turning around about 5-6 times here and there). There was about one foot of fog hovering in the grass that morning. I remember having to scrape the windshield of the rental car with my driver’s license (no scraper!) before leaving.
So I entered the prison and they said right away “you may as well go home, there’s a fog watch so you ain’t going to see nobody today” My heart sank. I’d come all this way, saw my life flash before my eyes on the plane ride, didn’t get to sleep till midnight, up at 6am, no, no, I am NOT going HOME! I just stood there dumbfounded and stared at the white-shirt guard for a moment. I wasn’t going to move, and then his walkie activated and they said something about the “fog-watch” and he asked over the walkie “what am I supposed to do with the visitors, just hold them till the fog-watch is lifted?” (I’m thinking, “that’d be nice instead of telling me to LEAVE!”) So he got an “affirmative” and gave me the form to complete in the visitors’ holding room. I filled it out, gave it back, got called back out, had to put my cell-phone in my car, filled out a NEW form, handed that form in, then lost my “place” in “line” from visitor #3 to visitor #12. It was 8:30am now, and there were about 20-25 of us waiting in the visitors’ holding room. That’s when I noticed the same family I saw at the hotel that morning standing in the visitors’ room. “Oh, okay, so even the hotel was built to feed off the Prison Industrial Complex” I thought to myself. This is a PRISON TOWN, nothing more.
Waiting in the cement and metal room, with nothing but two toilets and a water-bubbler, was agony. There were hard plastic chairs, all connected in rows and no TV, no radio, and no phones allowed, so it’s mindless waiting and waiting and waiting. It felt like a whole day in there. My butt hurt, I was achy, oh goodness, I just want to see my friend!! Even worse-off were the parents trying to entertain their little ones for so long in such a boring, harsh place. Thank goodness I was alone.
After 2½ hours, we finally got the notice from a guard that they were re-counting all the inmates and we should be able to start visiting by about 10:45am. We didn’t get in until about 11:15am. I was searched, they made me go outside with two guards and they searched my rental car, I was groped, stamped with glow in the dark ink, stood in a line, waited some more, held my wrist under a black-light to the guard behind the glass, stood in line some more, went through a large open courtyard with double fences and razor wire everywhere, then finally into a little room under a cat-walk type structure in the courtyard into a large open room with vending machines and chairs connected in rows. The prisoners started to come in groups of five into the visiting room! I was finally going to see Marc after eight long years!
I visited with Marc for about four hours Saturday, thanks to the “Fog-Watch” and for six hours Sunday (no fog thank goodness!) We talked about a lot of different things. I’m pretty sure he’s schooled on Rhode Island politics more than most Rhode Islanders at this point. He kept saying my accent reminded him of Louis from Family Guy and I thought that was really funny! Then I asked him if he liked South Park and he said “why do they make all the Canadians barrels? And they have funny little heads that go “da da da da, buddy” and he imitated the “flapping heads” with his hands. I thought that was hilarious! Oh we laughed about so many things!
I talked to some of the other women visiting their boyfriends and husbands and sons in the prison. Some come regularly, every weekend. Some only come when they can afford the trip out to Yazoo City. Some were there for the first time like me. The second morning at the hotel I saw the family with the little ten-month-old baby who were obviously going to visit again, and there was also a man in his 50’s and what looked like his adult son. I’m a people watcher; I like to sit and watch other people and just tune in to the different conversations going on and such. I thought to myself, “They look very serious and somber. What are the odds they show up at the prison later this morning?” Sure enough, those two men were also at the prison shortly after 8:00am on Sunday. The only guests staying at my hotel were there to see their loved ones in prison. Why else would anyone go to Yazoo City?!
Even the littlest things we take for granted on the outside are appreciated in that Prison. We are allowed to bring in quarters for the vending machines in the visiting room, and that’s the only thing we’re allowed to have on our person. So I had about $15 in quarters and around lunch time Marc wanted to eat, so we go over to the vending machines. The inmates aren’t allowed to put their hands near the vending machine, use the microwave, nothing. I had to do everything for him. They are SO concerned with the possibility of visitors smuggling contraband to the inmates that all these ridiculous rules exist to thwart that possibility. The real smuggling is from guards themselves and we all know it! It’s so unfair. Anyway, so we put in about $4 worth of quarters for this crappy barbecue chicken sandwich thing, and it looked like it was going to get stuck! Then, TWO sandwiches popped out! You should have seen Marc’s face! It was akin to winning the lottery or something! Again, the things we take for granted are incredibly valuable and appreciated in prison. He was so excited about that “free” sandwich we got. He must have brought it up two more times after it happened. It made me sad. This is someone that was a vegetarian on the outside, and he’s forced to eat meat (crappy processed meat mind you) on the inside or he’d get no protein whatsoever. It’s evil. The whole Prison Industrial Complex is EVIL.
The best part for me was when he said afterwards in a Corrlinks email that he had completely forgotten he was in a prison for those hours we were together. He said it was more like two friends catching up after many years at a café or something. I honestly considered that my ‘Mission Accomplished!’
The whole experience was the saddest, most desperate thing I have seen firsthand in a very long time. I cried watching fathers cuddling their infant sons, children hugging their dads and not wanting to let go (we were only allowed 30 seconds to hug at the beginning and at the end of the visits), mothers crying, spouses holding back tears as they embrace and cherish the short time together. These are normal, regular folks, just like you and me and your moms and dads and brothers and sisters and boyfriends, and husbands.
They are victims of the war on drugs, the war on the poor, the war on minorities. I was one of only two or three other white people there. Like Marc said in his most recent blog, nearly 80% of the prisoner population is black, the next largest population is Hispanic and then there is a small percentage of whites. This was proportionately represented in the demographics of the visitors as well.
The New Jim Crow (read that book – it’s written by Michelle Alexander) is the new prison industrial complex – the police state we are allowing our politicians and federal government to impose on our society. We are not a free society. We are not free. Do one thing wrong, make one wrong choice, no matter how unjust the law is, and you will be punished. You will be enslaved. You will be forced to serve your life behind bars. Your life WILL be ruined, and that of your family and your children. Marc told me a statistic: he said that children of a parent or parents in prison have a 70% chance of being imprisoned themselves. If that is not a perpetual form of slavery for minorities and the poor, then I don’t know what is.
I want to go see Marc again soon. It was a hell of a trip, but worth every ache and pain. It opened my eyes, it gave me an incredible amount of empathy for Jodie, for the residents of that prison town, everyone involved. It was something we should all have to go through, if only because now I have even more of a desire to right these wrongs, change these bad laws, get these sadistic, greedy, evil politicians that push for tougher crime laws on non-violent drug offenders out of office and out of politics for good. The government is supposed to protect our rights to life, liberty and happiness, not do everything in its power to take those rights away from us.