Disclaimer: I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence.
“You have arrived at your destination,” my GPS stated; however, I was still on a long stretch of highway with mostly desert around me. But to my right I could see the grey, concrete buildings surrounded by barbed wire. “How do I get from here (on the highway) to there (the prison),” I wondered. I took the next exit and just drove towards the buildings… next thing I knew I was driving parallel to the buildings in the opposite direction. Now I was starting to get stressed out, as I usually do when driving in an unfamiliar place. So I pulled over to get my bearings, turned the car around, and tried another way. That’s when I saw the sign, “Arizona State Prison – Complex Lewis,” I finally arrived. I slowed down and rolled the window down to talk to the guard, showed him my ID, and was directed to park.
It was 8:30AM and I was a little late – entry times are between 8:00 and 10:00AM or after 12:00PM. I parked, took my clear, Ziploc bag with some quarters (you need money for the vending machines), my ID, and my chapstick (hidden in the cleavage) with me to security.
Side note: I didn’t have anything bad in the chapstick but technically you’re not allowed to bring it in. I just have an unhealthy chapstick addiction and there was no way I could go 8 hours without having it with me, so I brought it in anyway.
I filled out the forms and started towards security. Barely 10 feet away from the security desk the guard stopped me.
“Sorry, you can’t come in wearing that, no spandex allowed.”
My heart sank. I had been in such a rush I forgot to pack my back up outfit. The rules on what to wear are strict: nothing above the knee, no spandex (apparently), shirt up to your collar bone, nothing orange, grey or khaki, and many others. Arizona is hot, especially in the summer, so I thought I was being smart wearing work out pants and a t-shirt. I would be comfortable and not sweating in jeans. I asked before coming if these pants were allowed – I was cautious because I wondered if the tightness would be an issue, and I was told they would be fine. Now, standing at the gate, I was told I couldn’t come in.
After a deep breath to calm down I asked where the closest Walmart was or some store that I could go get something cheap to wear. That’s when the guard informed me it was about 35-40 miles away – I had already driven an hour to get there and now I was told I would basically have to drive back before finding a store to buy some cheap pants. No. I had to find another way. Besides, if I drove all the way to the store and back I would miss the first entry times, and then have to wait until the afternoon. I was starting to panic and felt like there was no choice but to go back, but as I walked towards the parking lot I found myself asking a random lady if she had any extra pants in her car.
Now, I’m only about 5’1”, with no ass whatsoever and this was an African American lady who had at least 6 inches on me, a great ass, and fun fact, she had some awesome Elsa inspired hair. So even though I had some serious doubts about any clothing of hers fitting me, I was desperate. She told me she had some jeggings that she had worn inside the prison before, so she knew they were allowed. She handed them to me and I thanked her as I ran to my car to quickly change. Surprisingly, they fit me! Was this, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants?” Maybe. So I jumped out of the car to try to get through security again.
I walk up to the guard for the second time and he asks, “Is that a FitBit?”
I smiled and said, “YEAH!”
His response? “You can’t wear that in there.”
I turned around and ran back to the car, tossed the FitBit inside and headed to the guards for the third time. In an attempt to make a joke I approached saying, “Third time’s a charm, right?” He didn’t seem amused.
The next bump in the road was that I didn’t realize I had to take my shoes off. This guy must have thought I was an idiot, but finally I was let through the metal detector and what do you know, I beeped. The borrowed jeggings (which, by the way, were probably just as tight as the spandex) had some bling down the side that made the detector go off. After a female guard came over and wanded me, I finally reached step two of security…
The drug dogs. You stand on two painted yellow feet on the ground with your back against a chain link fence and face industrial sized fans as a German Shepherd walks back and forth. Once I was cleared there, I walked through a metal revolving door and was told to get on the bus.
If you’ve ever watched Orange is the New Black, it was one of the white buses they drive around prison… driven by a prisoner. I felt like I was in my own episode and was waiting to see Piper show up. But then again this was a men’s prison.
I got on the bus and told the driver (an inmate) that I was going to Morey Unit and sat down. The first thing I noticed was this guy’s eyes – they were the most incredible blue eyes I think I’ve ever seen, he was also covered in tattoos (full sleeves, neck, face, you name it). It was just me and this prisoner on the bus. As I sat there I wondered, “Do I talk to him? Maybe not because this is his ‘job’ and I shouldn’t socialize. But I don’t want him to think I’m not talking to him because he’s a prisoner or something.” So what do I do? Talk to him of course.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Dakota… this your first time here?”
“Yeah, is it that obvious?” – Guess I’m not supposed to chat with him.
“Who are you visiting?”
“Oh, that sounds familiar.”
At this point some other people started to get on the bus and they were giving me some strange looks, so I thought it was best to stop my little chitchat with Dakota.
Dakota, on the other hand, decided to continue, “So, I’m getting out of here soon, in about 2 months.”
“Cool…” as I then wondered what got him in here in the first place.
We finally started driving through the compound and stopped at Morey Unit. The other passengers and I all got off at this stop. We stood outside more barbed wire and a massive metal door – it must have been at least five inches thick. We waited, and waited… and waited. Do we ring a doorbell or something?
The other people waiting included a girl about my age and her young son, and a mother and another girl my age. They said eventually the guards would open the door and then we’d go in. Suddenly the door clicked and slid to the right. We walked in and a guard took our IDs (for the third time) and our paperwork before we were directed into the visitor room.
The visitor room was set up with vending machines, the Correctional Officer’s (CO) desk and the bathrooms (visitor and inmate) to my right and a little microwave station, bookshelf, and games to my left. In the middle were square tables with chairs around them. I tried to talk to the girl my age, the one with the son. She said it takes a while for them to get the inmates. Her son kept asking when he would see his daddy.
I tried to get comfortable but I just couldn’t sit still. After almost two years I was finally going to meet my pen pal turned friend. I sat in the chair facing the vending machines, then got up again and asked the CO to unlock the visitor bathroom for me. When I came back out he told me I couldn’t sit in the chair I had originally sat in because all of the prisoners have to be facing the vending machines, which is also facing the CO. It felt like time had stopped. I just kept waiting until finally the door opened…