It’s a few weeks before Christmas in December 2010, and the place is the Classification Office at a facility called the New River “O” Unit. The name makes it sound bucolic, like it’s an environmental retreat where conservationists explore ways to preserve Florida’s wetlands and rural areas. That couldn’t be further from the truth, though.
There are no rivers that I’ve seen near New River, which is in the tiny town of Raiford in Bradford County, right near the quaint town of Starke — perhaps best known for being the home to several Florida prisons.
New River “O” is one of them. Built in the 1960s, the New River Correctional Institute O-Unit is utilized as a work camp, housing minimum and medium custody inmates. It’s surrounded by miles and miles of farmland. It’s a place I’ve been to so many times over the past year that I’ve lost count by now, but it never felt more bizarre to be sitting in the Classification Office than last December. Observing a state prison decorate for the holidays is surreal.
There was a Christmas tree in the middle of the room, with gifts under it — empty boxes, no doubt. Outside the Classification Office is an American flag that flies in a patriotic manner. And on the bulletin board inside the office is a notice about the “Prison Rape Prevention Act.”
“Improving the safety of all inmates,” is the motto on that poster. “Prevention of rape is a top priority,” it states. Another notice on the bulletin board cautions inmates about their behavior when a girlfriend or wife comes to visit — specifically, it states the penalties against “lewd and lascivious exhibitions in the presence of a public employee” — correctional officers, I presume.
Santa on the wall, a cute Christmas tree close by …. and warnings about rape and lewd behavior. Outside are huge fences topped with razor-sharp barbed wire. Talk about an inappropriate place for holiday cheer.
There may be few more unique experiences than having a good friend who is incarcerated. New River allows visits on weekends and holidays. The doors open to visitors at 8:45 a.m., and they’re sent home by 3 p.m. Raiford is exactly two hours and 45 minutes from Orlando, so on weekend days when I go up there, I rise at 5 a.m., head out the door by 6, and arrive there at 8:45. The only good thing I can say about the drive is that traffic is light at that time of the day, and I have the road to myself. I wish the same were true on the way home, when I often find myself sitting in a parking lot-like maze on Interstate 75.
New River is a correctional institute for men, and I’m one of the few males who show up at the prison for a visit who isn’t the father, brother or uncle of an inmate. In fact, 90 percent of the time I’ve gone there, I’m the only man waiting in line outside the front office. But I’m definitely not alone out there. As a men’s prison, New River attracts a huge number of women visitors — and not many, I suspect, get a hug inside by an inmate who says “Hi, mom.” These women are in their 20s, and they’re not missionaries from the local church here to save souls, either.
Standing in line in jeans and a t-shirt behind an army of young women is one weird experience. For one thing, some of the women show up with babies — a sad sight, watching their efforts to reunite the incarcerated dad with a son or daughter they can’t touch, talk to, or help raise during the weekdays.
There are some women who show up in clothes so skimpy, shorts raised so high, and a blouse cut so low, that the correctional officers send them away for dressing too provocatively. The women rush to the nearest Wal-Mart, buy new clothes, and come back. They’re nothing if not determined. I wonder what magic spell the male inmates have cast on them to attract such great loyalty.
What really surprises me is how many of these women pile on tons of makeup — so much that you’d think they fell into a vat of the stuff — and load up on earrings, necklaces and other jewelry. Before you can get onto the prison grounds, you have to walk through a scanner. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten buzzed going through it, but the women usually have to go through four or five times because of all that jewelry they load on.
Why do they do it? The men they’re coming to visit are dressed in blue prison jump suits. There are no conjugal visits allowed here — in fact, the rules state that couples can kiss and hug at the very start of the visit, and again when they’re about to leave, but none of that is allowed in-between. I’ve seen some hard nosed male correctional officers pull an inmate aside and chastize them for hugging their girlfriend or wife too often. So I wonder why these women try to look their best in a setting like this.
I’ve been to New River so many times that the staff know me by name. After going through the scanner, I’m greeted by a male officer, who gives me a pat down to make sure I’m not bringing in any contraband — visitors are only allowed to bring in their visitor badge, the key to their car, and any cash they have up to $50. This officer is a huge guy; he towers over me as he asks me to turn around and raise my arms for the pat down. He also happens to be one of the nicest, friendly guys you could meet. If your image of prison guards is straight out of “Cool Hand Luke,” you’re way off.
We chat in a friendly way as he frisks me, which takes mere seconds, and then I head out onto the prison grounds. The pathway to the Classification Office is separated by yet another sky-high fence, and beyond it is the section where the inmates live. I watch them in their blue outfits as they mill around the property. Most are young, fresh faced kids who look lost in there. It’s a sad sight.
Visitors can meet with their incarcerated friend inside the Classification Office, which is lined with long tables. There are women correctional officers who work in there, and I know them well by now. They’re friendly, easy going, and chatty. They gossip about what’s going on there at the prison. It’s like we’re a little family that gets together every weekend.
The Classification Office has two bathrooms, one for men, the other for women. There are no doors on the toilet stalls for privacy, and no toilet seats, either. The inmates have to use the bathrooms located outside.
There’s a soda machine inside, and another one filled with junk food. There’s an inmate who works on weekends as a photographer. For $2 a photo, visitors can buy up to five photos a day and pose with their loved one. Whoever thinks prison isn’t a money making operation is wrong. You should see those women, all decked out in their best clothes, who pose lovingly with their inmate for those photos. Big smiles, warm hugs … a souvenir of his time in prison.
You can also spend time with your inmate outside, in a covered picnic area that looks like it belongs in a state park. There’s a canteen on the grounds that sells cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, ice cream bars, potato chips, buffalo wings, and other “goodies.” I’ve always found the food sold there to be less than deplorable, but at least it’s relatively cheap, although I always raise an eyebrow when I see something like a Jalapeno burger being sold for $4 — not many inmate families, I suspect, can afford too many of those.
And yet the inmates, my friend included, line up at that canteen and look forward to getting that food — because the meals they’re served inside the prison is far worse, I’m told. They seem particularly disgusted at the large amount of meals made from textured vegetable protein. I don’t see the problem myself, since I know Vegan restaurants in Orlando that charge top dollar for meals made with the stuff. But I do know there’s a rumor going around the prison that textured vegetable protein is also used to make some canned dog food. So … the inmates don’t like the notion of being fed dog food. I can’t quite blame them for that one.
I’ve gone up to New River with my inmate friend’s girlfriend, young son, and sometimes his parents. Other times I’ve gone up there alone. He and I sit at a picnic table, and we talk, play Scrabble, and sometimes argue. It all seems so …. ordinary, like two co-workers on their lunch break. If it wasn’t for the barbed wire fence and the blue prison outfits, it probably wouldn’t feel like a prison at all.
Except for one thing. If you ever go up to visit a friend who is incarcerated, try not to go there with happy stories about the fun things you’re doing on the outside. Prison is a place where you get stripped of all freedoms, where you have a long list of rules to conform to, where you’re under the thumb of strict authority figures, where humiliation is a regular experience. It’s a demoralizing place. The inmate can be prone to wild mood swings. Breezy conversations about the fun stuff I’m doing during the week suddenly seem in bad taste. You sit quietly, and listen. You feel depressed at what you hear, and secretly relieved that you’re not experiencing it yourself. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from going to New River, it’s that I’m almost certainly not prison material. I’d crumble by the second day.
My friends back home shrug when I tell them about the visit. “He has no one to blame but himself,” they insist, but I’ve never felt that way. Why do I go up there? Partly it’s about wanting to help a friend that you care about, who’s going through a rough experience that you yourself could never have endured.
But it’s also something deeper than that. I feel haunted by what I’ve considered an overly harsh sentence for a probation violation, and I can’t get out of my head the words and actions of an overzealous state prosecutor who opted to take a sledgehammer to a flea. If you don’t have a friend or loved one who is in prison, you’re likely to side with the prosecutor and think, no second chances.
But I sit there and observe all the money spent on housing and feeding and providing medical care to young kids who screwed up and now are paying a steep price. These inmates don’t look, act or feel like hardened criminals who pose a long-term threat to society. None of them seem beyond rehabilitation. I watch them sitting there with their girlfriends, radiant smiles on their faces, as they gently reach over and touch her hand. I can tell how exciting that moment is for them.
I also watch them hold their babies in their arms, and complain that they’ve never had an opportunity to give their child a bath. I wouldn’t write any of these guys off just yet.
When they get released, it won’t be easy. They’re now convicted felons. They’ve lost certain rights that those of us without criminal records take for granted. These felons can’t vote — and a lot of us don’t bother to. These felons can’t serve on a jury — and I know people who cringe at the thought of doing jury duty.
Most of all, these inmates will be asked “Are you a convicted felon” on job application forms and rental applications. A lot of doors will close to them. They also face huge court costs and restitution tabs with a limited ability to pay. What an idiotic system.
So I sit there at the picnic table, talking to my friend about what he’s missing on the outside, and he tells me what he’s experiencing. Sometimes it sounds boring and monotonous, sometimes very unpleasant, sometimes horrific. My friend is a very tough guy, so I no longer worry as much about his personal safety. When he first went into prison, I worried about it constantly.
So despite the Jalapeno burgers calling out to me from canteen, I’ll be happy when I never dine again at New River “O”.
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