BY: Jobi Cates, Founder & Executive Director, Restore Justice
She was probably in her 80s; clear, dark skin, perfectly coiffed hair. Peach colored dress. Quick with a smile. A younger woman, a daughter, maybe, was helping her along.
Everyone in line with the lady-in-peach, including me, was shifting nervously, making small-talk, anxious to get through the security process to reunite. Each of us came to visit someone in this maximum security prison. Sons, brothers, grandpas, friends, cousins, boyfriends, husbands.
The lady-in-peach, her maybe-a-daughter, and their loved one lit up when they saw one another in the visiting room. (I love looking around when I first enter, love to see people hug and smile and hold each others’ faces and hands. Children scooped up and squeezed. It’s a happy moment, happier than you’d imagine.)
When I needed to end my visit, I spoke with the desk Sergeant to see if a guard could come and get me. The Sergeant kindly told me she had been asking for a guard to come for some time, and she looked anxious. Twenty-five minutes earlier, she had called for someone to come and take the lady-in-peach to the restroom. It seemed her call had been ignored.
The visiting room at this facility has no restroom. A prison that holds more than 3,000 men, and there is only one toilet for all visitors, located in a remote visitor center. To use it, you must be escorted through three locked doors, a stretch outside, and one more locked door. Buzzers. Pauses. Lines.
Another ten minutes pass before a guard finally comes to take us out. I turned to smile at the lady-in-peach, and she looked into my eyes, hers red rimmed, and started to run toward the door, an acrid smell in her wake.
She had become incontinent while waiting.
I followed her out, feeling every second it takes to get back to the one toilet available to visitors.
In the visitor center, across from the restroom, there is a large group of guards, lounging, laughing, and talking amongst themselves. Normal. They are either unaware or indifferent to the humiliation of the lady-in-peach.
A week later, I’m still thinking of the lady-in-peach and her loved ones in that visiting room. I’m still thinking about the indignities heaped upon anyone who comes in contact with our prison system. I’m wondering if anything any of us do to try to fix this system of punishment, to transform it, could ever be enough to raise us up from how far down we’ve fallen.
Mostly, I like to think I am a reasonable, professional advocate, working for positive policy reforms in the criminal justice system. I believe incremental changes make a difference. I work in a positive, constructive manner, writing issue briefs, educating policy-makers, hosting events.
But today, thinking about the lady-in-peach, I’m just another one of the fallen. Tripped, stumbling, somehow keeping my eyes open while it all keeps lumbering on. And I’m screaming.