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On Friday, I went to prison. I didn’t have to wear orange, which is good because orange makes me look like a dehydrated pumpkin. It’s really not my color. I also blacked out. I know what you’re thinking…but not that kind of black out. Let me explain…
I spent a day at the New Jersey State Prison. It’s one of the oldest lock-ups in the United States, and has the maximum level of security in all the Garden State.
I’m fortunate enough to have some of the biggest badass professors in the history of badass professors. One in particular, my law prof, has some connections with the NJ “correctional facilities” and managed to get us in for the day. We were 1 of 2 tour groups that’s been allowed in all year.
And now, I’m going to let you all in.
In class, punishment always ends up becoming a focal point of discussion. As in, how should criminals be punished for the crimes they commit? Does the current justice system work justly? Should different “levels” of punishment indicate the severity of crimes and serve as deterrents for would-be criminals? Or should Hammurabi’s code of old come into play, where “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” means that what you do unto others is what comes right back at you. What about capital punishment? Should that even be a thing at all?
These questions are hard to answer. And they get even harder when you become personally involved in a case, be it through personal victimization or that of a loved one. So, this experience was definitely an interesting one for me, for a plethora of reasons.
I saw the life of pent-up permanence that convicted murderers, high profile gang members, and top-dog drug dealers learn to call normality. 95% of the inmates at the NJ State Prison have a sentence of 50 years or more. Many are there for life. Some, for life and then some. I didn’t even know that you could receive multiple life sentences (as if one isn’t severe enough).
Upon entering the prison, our tiny group of ten was ID’d and given badges for entry. We all hit the metal detectors, which even the correctional officers need to pass on a daily basis. I wasn’t allowed to wear a normal bra that day, as the underwire would set off the detector. That’s how strict these things are, ladies and gents. Most of my group set off the warning beep and had to be manually searched. But me and my sticky boobs…we were clear.
And a side note: you’ll notice not an unusual lack of photos here. I mean, If I wasn’t even allowed to wear a bra, you think they let me bring in a camera?! No way José.
After passing through detection, we made our way to a boardroom, where we were greeted by the two prison superintendents and three correctional officers who gave us the low-down on the prison, its history, the inmates, and what we were about to witness.
Then, the tour began.
We started off headed towards the North compound, where the baddest of the bad are held. But we weren’t allowed anywhere near inmates here; instead, we saw the tiny yellow rooms where prisoners can meet with an attorney. We saw sliver windows that look like giant mail slots where inmates who aren’t allowed physical contact can still communicate occasionally with a visitor. We saw the rows of telephones in the sky that correctional officers regulate for those with that privilege. And then we moved to another gate.
The funny thing was, to get from any point to another throughout the prison, there are gates to get through. And by gates, I mean those stereotypically represented prison cell gates that keep every criminal from the outside world. Odd, since my tour group and the crew of correctional officers had no record to garner such punishment.
But it added perspective.
Under normal circumstances, many inmates are allowed to freely move within the prison (Very OITNB). Our presence, however, meant ongoing radio communications to cease all inmate movement as we passed through; we would wait behind a locked gate as one area was literally cleared of prisoners by having them escorted behind another locked gate. Once they’re locked in, we’re out.
It was almost like being at a zoo, but face paint was replaced with teardrops, photo booths were placed with mug shots, and cotton candy was replaced with cream of everything.
We were shown all areas of prison life, from the various living arrangements, to the barber shop and law library, where certain inmates have the chance to become makeshift paralegals for other inmates. Based on the size of the waiting list, I’d say a prison paralegal is the thing to be.
Finally, we made it to the West compound, where prisoners with special needs are held. There, a window decent in size overlooks “the yard,” where people have anywhere from an hour a day to an hour a week for time outside with their given unit. There’s a basketball court, a pull-up bar, and a pile of weights for optional training. And when time is up, inmates single-file their way back. No one gets out, seeing as three loops of razor wires and barbed metals line every penitentiary wall. Where would exist castle towers are instead metal towers of white – the only truly fortified location since correctional officers are unarmed. Those towers have the real weapons, and they watch from above like the Big Brother of jail. The yard is searched after every batch of inmates leaves to ensure no balls laced with drugs were tossed over, or no homemade shanks were strategically placed under tables or chairs for later use.
As we waited behind the window for the yard to change, some inmates started looking up at us and making motion; it’s their method of communicating, apparently, with other inmates from around the prison – a whole new sign language.
Also as we waited, my stomach started growling. I ate breakfast at 6:30 that morning, as our bus boarded at 7 am, and it was now 11:30 with nothing in between. I know, I know…such a first world problem, especially given our circumstances that day. I don’t know about you, but I’m a girl who needs my snacks and good ol’ H2O to keep it up throughout the day.
I’ve passed out before, so I know the telltale signs that a blackout is about to happen.
As my thoughts went straight to my stomach, I shifted over to lean against a wall; my head was starting to feel it. As I started to bend down into a quasi-wall sit, the blackout hit, and I felt my hearing start to block up and shut out as my vision got progressively non-existent. I managed to lean over to my professor and say “I’m about to pass out” as he grabbed my arm and walked me to a seat. Someone grabbed a cup of water, our three correctional guard escorts surrounded me, and next thing I knew no less than 15 officers were up and around me yelling, “Call 911!” I felt like I just started a riot for prison break-out given the crew that responded to my code call-in.
In my professor’s 20 years of doing this trip, this was his first time seeing someone actually get “coded.” (You know, like “Code blue in the right wing, go go go!”).
I would be the dingbat to pass out in prison.
Water quickly got me to my senses, enough to tell everyone that this has happened to me before and I swear I’m just really really really hungry. A snack and some orange juice would suffice thankyoukindly.
Nope. “Too late, an ambulance is on its way, you need to go to the hospital.”
Well OK then, that escalated quickly. This is said as a gurney and wheelchair are flying into the room, and I’m sufficiently overwhelmed.
I insisted that I really just needed some snacks, this has happened before, no I’m not diabetic, my mom is a nurse, I know what’s happening to me, I just need a freakin’ granola bar and juice pouch. So as I was I stressing out about that, I’m about to be escorted out of prison in an emergency medical getup surrounded by correctional officers…now, I’m straightup hangry.
With a little bit of water I was already un-nauseous and no longer dizzy, so I was just chillin’ out as I got wheeled down to the front gate to wait for paramedics. Then questioning from the prison medic, who apparently couldn’t do anything for me but call for the hospital. Professor handed me gummy worms. Yes. Gummy Worms. I was munching away, already feeling a million times better and 100% less faint. Questioning from a nurse. Questioning from officers.
Professor dropped me a Kind bar as two parademics wheeled in; at this point, my entire class is down in the lobby, too, so I’m sure my paleness from fainting was replaced by a solid blush from sheer embarrassment.
I answered their questions fine, refused to get in the ambulance, and called it a day.
We bussed back to campus, all of us sound asleep, and the professor took us out to eat. Because by that time, we were all a bunch of hangry prisonbreaks.
And that’s my story about the time I blacked out in prison.
Have you ever toured a correctional facility? What do you think about the current methods of punishment? Have you ever passed out in prison?
Pleasepleaseplease tell me I’m not the only one.