Over the past week and a half I had the opportunity to get out of the office for a bit and tour the men’s and women’s state prisons of New Hampshire. As an AmeriCorps Victim Assistance Program (AVAP) member, I am part of a corps of men and women who are placed throughout the state to provide victim services through many different avenues. One of those avenues is through the Department of Corrections (DOC) parole office, where a fellow AVAP member provides her service and thus was able to coordinate the tours for us through the connections she has made there. Tours of the facilities are not generally given to the general public (usually restricted to members of law enforcement, judges, and maybe the occasional criminal justice or law school students), so it was a privilege to be able to get very thorough tours from individuals who have been working with the DOC for many years.
Last Friday started it off with a tour of the men’s prison in Concord. It is a rather large facility consisting of buildings old and new. It holds the state’s felons, and convicted criminals serving a few months to lifetime sentences are housed there. We were able to see almost every aspect of the prison life, from the intake process to the education facilities to the work shops (license plate, furniture, automotive, wood works) to hobbies and crafts to the health center. We were informed of the different security levels and able to see what each (with the exception of maximum security) looked like for the felons. What a difference it was from the lower level security living quarters to the high. On the low ends you’d see gardens and courtyards and murals created and maintained by the prisoners. On the high end you saw pretty much what you imagine when you think of prison: stark brick walls and heavy jail cell doors.
Personally, the most important part of the tour for me was the reminder of that the prisoners there are still people. Working in victim services it is hard for me to find any ounce of empathy for prisoners and prisoner’s rights. It’s easy to get lost in the sea of animosity towards these terrible people who are the cause of the streams of tears coming from myclients’ eyes. Being there helped remind me that they are people too, with loved ones and family members and lives that existed before their crimes. While this realization was one I needed reminding of, it certainly did not absolve them of their atrocities in my mind, but it helped me believe that maybe if corrections continues to move in the direction of rehabilitation rather than purely persecutory confinement, maybe, just maybe, there is hope for a better future.
As we walked through the coridors and across the yard from building to building, we generally tried to avoid the inmates. I think as a group of young women there was a heightened level of guardedness in our demeanor. As we entered into a building, an inmate had just exited, but held the door open for us as we went through. Those who proceeded in before me averted eye contact with him, and honestly I was going to too. But instead I sheepishly (and very quickly) met his eyes and simply said “thank you”. “You’re welcome” he replied. It was a small and mostly meaningless exchange, but it impacted me. I was proud of myself for not being my usual bashful self and minding my manners in thanking him, and recognizing him as another human being and not just dismissing his presence because he was a criminal. I have no clue as to what crime may have landed him there, but it didn’t matter. Whether he’s a “lifer” or not, he’ll be treated differently for the rest of his life for what he did (and probably rightfully so). But in that moment, I didn’t feel the need to contribute to that.
This past Wednesday marked the day of the Women’s Prison tour. The women’s prison is a much smaller facility, but as most prisons seem to be these days, is overcrowded. We were fortunate to have the warden giving us the tour, a woman who has been working in Corrections for over 20 years (and has some pretty crazy stories to boot!). She took us through the prison as it would be navigated by an inmate (intake to health assessment to dormitories). She explained what the process looks like, the rules and disciplinary actions, the privileges and security levels. She explained the ways in which dealing with women prisoners are different from men. As an in general, they are much more high maintenance. Because women in our society thrive off relationships, women require much more time and care to deal with in order to maintain the peace. Additionally, she told us stories of having to be careful which women were placed with which, as it was common for there to be a shared ex husband or even a shared current boyfriend. We were also informed of what a pregnancy would look like for an inmate: they receive care throughout the pregnancy, are brought to a hospital for delivery, and only allowed to stay with the newborn until the hospital releases her. The baby is then put in custody of family, or put up for adoption or put into foster care; the choice is the mother’s. However, the health services for the prison will not perform abortions. This is a protection for them more than anything else; they don’t want the women or their families claiming that they were forced to abort.
What stuck with me most was the vast discrepency between the facilites for the men and for the women. Now I’m not someone who is much thrilled by prisoners living any sort of cushy lifestyle on my tax dollars (as liberal as I may be), but I found it ironic how women so often get the short end of the stick in society, a theme carried over into the prison setting as well.
All in all it was a great and eye opening experience. If you’re ever able to, I definitely encourage those in the field to take a tour of your state prison, even your county jail. If nothing else, it’ll scare you into never breaking the law. ;)