Freedom Behind Bars, Part 1
- Tuesday, July 17, 2001
I never thought one of my best friends would end up in prison. His name is Carl Boone. But to the state, he's just #203030. Between you and me, I'm pretty glad he was incarcerated. We probably would have never met otherwise.
Carl is one of those people who you are immediately drawn to in a room full of people. The sparkle and depth of character that emanate from his eyes, combined with a smile that stretches for miles, make it no wonder why Carl was always popular in school, and even now, looked up to by his fellow inmates. The questions he asks are thought-provoking, only to be matched by his graceful ability to listen intently. He conveys a completely non-threatening, accepting attitude to others, in contrast to his intimidating muscular build.
The first time I met Carl was on a Friday night in November of 1997. My church was invited out to the Middle Tennessee Reception Center to put on a couple of concerts for the inmates. After being searched, hand-stamped and led through a series of detectors and iron gates, the band and singers entered into the gym where we were to perform.
A small handful of inmates, including Carl, were on hand to assist us with the set-up and tear-down of our equipment. I'll never forget what he said to me that night. "I've only been a Christian since I've been in prison," he told me. "And I would love to learn how to prepare myself to be a Christian in the free world. Would you be willing to come visit me and help me understand more about that?"
What? What is this man asking of me? What kind of commitment, or burden, is this stranger asking me to take on?
Honestly, it wasn't difficult to decide whether or not to come visit Carl, although my initial concerns about the difficulty of the task and whether or not I actually had the ability to carry it through seemed to weigh on me. Concern for myself aside (regardless of its validity), responding to my awareness of a great need seemed to be most important at this time.
I had two options. I could sign up as an "official visitor" of Carl Boone and be entered into the computer and only be able to visit at designated times on the weekend. This is what family members and friends of inmates get to do. I could also come in as a religious visitor. This would require scheduling any visits with the Prison Chaplain. I chose the first option because it seemed easier than having to rely on the Chaplain approving the visit and providing the necessary paperwork that would allow me to get in. I also liked the idea of seeing the interaction between other inmates and their visitors, getting a richer understanding of where some of these guys have come from and what they're going through now.
Every Saturday morning I would stand in line with girlfriends, wives, brothers, sisters, babies, young children, parents and grandparents -- all waiting to get past check-point to see their loved one. Some would be crying. Kids would be squirming. Blank expressions on many. Many parents appeared nervous, especially the ones that looked new, as if their son was just recently brought in. I can only imagine that they are not quite sure what to say once they see their son, hoping that he is being treated decently. Knowing still, that this IS prison.
Seeing your son come through the door wearing prison blues has got to break a mother's heart. Trying to hide the tears, the mother smiles at the sight of her son. They embrace. Most of the dads remain fairly stoic and detached. They shake hands.
I think I can understand that kind of pain. At this point, though, I can't understand the people who seem old hat at this, as if this is just part of life. It's like they are just going to visit their kid who's away at camp for the summer, taking him a box of freshly baked cookies, a trio of new comic books, and some fresh underwear. While you can't take anything into the prison during a visit, these parents have to settle for bringing in stories of what happened the past week.
Conversations during visits at MTRC take place at round lunchroom style tables, two on each side, lined up in neatly managed rows. Guards stand surprisingly casual nearby to make sure limitations on physical expressions of affection aren't exceeded. In my opinion, "No platting of hair" is the funniest rule that hangs on the wall. It all seems to be about making sure the prisoners continually know that someone is in charge of them.
Time is passed by playing cards (a few decks are available at the guard desk in exchange for your driver's license), and eating snacks from the vending machines against the far wall.
Carl is quite an eater. Each week he'd tunnel his way through a cheeseburger, orange juice, and warmed-up honey bun. I'd get a diet coke and help out by splitting a bag of microwave popcorn with him. I decided to go in without an agenda, except to get to know him.
He describes prison as hell on earth. "The meanest, baddest, cruelest, and lowest forms of life are thought to be in prison. When the world cleanses itself of its waste, it is put in prison. When society finds a person they can't deal with anymore, or when that person is a menace to his fellow human beings, that person is put in prison." I can't imagine that the person behind this gleaming smile and gentle spirit could ever do anything to get himself put into prison.
As weeks progress, faces become more familiar to me, and me to them. Former strangers hold eye contact a little longer, and return hellos across the room with a wave or head nod.
At the same time, Carl's heart becomes more and more familiar to me. He tells me what he did to get put into prison. He tells me about his first marriage and his two sons that he longs to see someday. He tells me about how he used to have no regard for other people and only thought of himself. He tells me about the person that he used to be. But now we talk about the person that he wants to be, and battle through the times when those two seem to duel with each other.
Click here to read Part 2 of Freedom Behind Bars.
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