Prison Bars and Glass Dividers: Why We Have to Keep Talking About Mass Incarceration

by Jodie Geddes

The first time I visited Rikers Island I was shook. I feared the bars of the facility more than I did the sound of gunshots ringing out at the crack of dawn. I heard the metal gates close behind me and watched the guards smile at each other while proceeding to shuffle us through the detectors. I was reminded of high school. I stopped wearing a belt in the ninth grade. I didn't appreciate the hassle of stripping myself in the middle of the hallway. Always feeling like a suspect. There is something dry in the way they stare at you. The women asked me if I came to see a significant other and I responded with a cold smirk. I was afraid to make friends with identification number holders, baby mothers and a possible girlfriend. The guards spoke about the fistfights that sometimes colored the old and chipping paint of the waiting room.

It was Christmas. I woke up early that morning to beat the regulars. I hoped the same correction officers were there, like in previous visits. I was wearing a dress and wasn't ready to be violated. I always felt silenced in the presence of such authority. I knew what the system required of me and yet each time the guard asked me to grab between my bra and pull my pants away from my body I grew anxious, with fear in each step. I wondered what his face would look like. I knew that we would later be divided by more than visiting hours. He walked from behind the door, looked at me with joy and I wanted to cry. My best friend didn’t prepare me for this. He didn’t prepare me for the tears. He only prepared me for the bus ride. The commute. Not the reality. For some of us this is the norm.

His voice shook like an unintentional whisper. The booth didn't have a phone like you see in movies, he yelled when speaking to me. I placed my ear against the divider. I couldn't listen and look at him at the same time. Sometimes I would respond “yes” and nod my head so that he wouldn't have to repeat himself. I heard the screams of family members yelling at loved ones, the pain in their voices. I saw the weight reflected in their eyes as theirs cut with mines. I wondered when this friendship would become too heavy to bear.

He was moved upstate.

There were no long lines this time. I didn’t look over my shoulder for the baby mothers and girlfriends. The space resembled an oversized daycare with all-inclusive games and vending machines. I didn't have much money but wanted to do everything I could to support his family. I swiped my debit card while watching his feet sway back and forth over a line. Inmates aren’t allowed to hold money. I stacked up burgers and boneless chicken wings, Swedish fish and a root bear. He asked me if I was eating. I didn’t. Later I caved and bought a Snapple. I didn’t look at the prices. I knew what this could do to my conscience.

In Race Matters, Cornel West discusses the legacy of white supremacy within a multiracial democracy. He points to the divide between black communities and the larger construction of being American. West also highlights some of the harms caused by this division. In his words:
The new inclusion of people of color within the professional slices of American society occurred alongside the expansion of unaccountable corporate power in the economy and government and the unleashing of arbitrary police power in poor communities of color, especially black, brown, and red. The result is black-middle class achievements that constitute black progress alongside devastated black working and poor communities that yield unprecedented increases in prison populations and overlooked victims of police abuse.
The language of democracy implies that each person has equal opportunity and access to resources, while overlooking the economic, political, and social climate of their experiences. Successful black professionals are symbols of black progress, thus, we as an American society become numb to the realities of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex.

The system of identity and respectability politics does not strip itself clean from the prison industrial complex. Black men, women and their families are constantly policed by the health care, housing, and school system. There is a process of monitoring behavior to maintain the status quo; in some way an alternate reality is created with remnants of the outside world.

Count was almost over.

I walked into the room and was seated facing a clock. I watched the minutes pass by. My back was turned towards the door. I looked up periodically to see if he was coming. It would be the first time our bodies collided in almost four years. I hadn’t felt his arms wrap around my torso, smelled his essence. It was like meeting someone for the first time. We hesitated at first, I’m sure no one could tell.

Before families leave they return any items that teeter over the weight limit for packages. We asked a few questions regarding contrabands and they tell us its better to order from some book. Better for who? I think to myself. I’m hesitant about expecting much from our justice system. We share memories during the ride home and discuss a present without bars. This is what hope looks like, there’s no other option. I dread going to see him. My body empties itself. He fills me up with everything he can give.

We left without him.

This journey has never been about finding gold at the end of the rainbow, ringing the cracked bell or even the taxidermic butterfly. I didn’t anticipate the unfolding that would take place. I wanted him to remember the primary colors of the rainbow. He made a way for me to see more. Inhale deep after the rain. I want him to beat the wave, surf.

Photo: Shutterstock

Jodie Geddes is a master’s student studying restorative justice. She is also a poet and dabbles in film.

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