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Locking myself in

November 17, 2013

I suppose that if a person is an employee of a prison, what this post is about is just an unremarkable daily occurrence. But for me, this was one of several thought-provoking, self-testing experiences I had yesterday:

I locked myself into Pendleton.

When I arrived at the prison yesterday, I found out that my usual contact was away for some vacation time. Yet, I would be permitted to meet with the men in Shakespeare at Pendleton. … I just had to go ahead in.

I’ve been visiting prisons since 2007, so I’ve long since passed the time of being nervous about entering a prison. But, in all of these years, I’ve never entered a prison alone, unescorted from the front entrance. If you were to count the doorways from Pendleton’s front entrance to the room where I am meeting with the men, there are twelve. At every prison I’ve been in, including Pendleton, I’ve been escorted from no later than the second doorway. If you go from there, you will encounter inmates who are on various work details, basically minding their own business and doing their jobs. But I’ve never gone among them alone.

My first thought was, “Am I going to remember all of the details about where I am supposed to show my i.d. and when I’m supposed to push an entry buzzer?” Though the process is not very complicated, it is regimented, and I am not a person inclined to remember to show the infrared handstamp here and my i.d. there. As it turns out, I did remember what I am supposed to do, when, and where.

But the more interesting moment, for me, came when I entered the first of two cages–I go in through one iron-barred gate, close it, go out another, close it, and keep going on my way. I have always been with a prison official escort through all of this before. But now, I had to close the door on myself. I had to lock myself into the prison. Four times, at least.

I don’t really know what to call the emotion I felt yesterday when I had to do this. I wouldn’t call it fear. I wouldn’t call it extraordinary–at least because the same is done on a daily basis by many people. But every time I closed a door/gate, every time I heard the clang of its locking, I felt as if I was going deeper into something consequential. (I realize that this post may come across as bullcrap to anyone who does this every day. For the moment, I am talking about where I was emotionally and spiritually yesterday.) When that door closes, I cannot let myself out, and I am not with someone who can get “them” (whomever we want to identify “them” as) to let me out. If I get out, they let me out, but they’ve never let me out on my own before.

I don’t know what to call this. I have locked myself in, in, into a prison. At a point, at a moment of time, it was a deliberate choice to do so–I locked myself in. I did that. Somehow, for some reason, that felt like it made all of the difference in the world to me. It felt as if I’ve crossed … what words do I want for this? … into the place where we will be? into the community of men I’ve chosen to associate with? into all of our flawed and desperate beauty? into … myself?


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