Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Memories of Prison

Sandra Parshall

The Maryland House of Correction in Jessup is closed at last. The 129-year-old building is empty of inmates, and its long history of riots, attacks on correctional officers, escapes and violence among prisoners has come to an end.

Years ago, when I was a young reporter on the Baltimore Evening Sun, I visited Maryland prisons to report on health care for inmates. I had been inside a prison before -- the federal facility for women in Alderson, West Virginia, made famous recently by Martha Stewart’s brief residence there. I realized that not all prisons were like Alderson, with its lovely campus in the mountains, pleasant buildings, and semi-private rooms, but I was completely unprepared for the reality of places like the HOC at Jessup.

I knew that I would be leaving whenever I wanted to, but the sound of doors clanging shut behind me, locking me in, brought on a rush of panic. When I was escorted past a row of locked cells where inmates were segregated from the general prison population, I felt like a visitor at a particularly grim zoo. A couple of the men caught my eye through the bars of their cell doors, and I had to look away because I felt ashamed and embarrassed that they were being shown off for my benefit.

Jessup was the dreariest of the institutions I visited, but the penitentiary in Baltimore made an equally deep impression. I can still see the tier upon tier of cells, and the only color I remember is gray, although I doubt the walls were actually painted that color. My strongest memory is of the noise, an overwhelming drone punctuated by shouts and the clank of metal on metal as doors opened and closed. I would have gone out of my mind from the racket alone if I’d stayed there more than a couple of hours.

I was allowed to speak to individual inmates, question them and record their complaints about medical care in the prison. The men were polite, respectful, and voiced their opinions in reasonable tones. One young man apparently hadn’t seen a female in a while, and he asked personal questions about my life, but I never felt threatened. When I began receiving letters from him shortly after my visit, I was sorry I had to wound his feelings by telling him I couldn’t visit or write to him.

At the prison near Hagerstown, where I ate lunch in the cafeteria with inmates, I perceived the atmosphere as markedly different. The noise level was low, the buildings appeared well-maintained, and the setting was beautiful. I thought this was a “good” prison. Yet it has also been the scene of violence and riots, and charges of brutality have been made against the guards. I was there for part of one day. I saw what I was allowed to see. In other prisons, despair couldn’t be hidden. I felt it before I walked through the doors, and I saw it all around me when I was inside. In Hagerstown, for some reason, I was blind to it, yet the history of the place proves it was ever-present.

Our nation’s prisons are overflowing with inmates, and the closing of one antiquated, unsafe facility in Maryland isn’t the hopeful sign it might appear to be. All of the Jessup prisoners had to go somewhere. Hundreds were transferred to distant parts of the state or to prisons in other states, without notification to their families beforehand. Now separation from family will add a new layer of frustration and loneliness to the inmates’ lives.

I’m not a Pollyanna who wants all the prison doors flung open and the inmates set free. I want dangerous criminals locked up, and I am appalled when anyone receives a light sentence for killing or maiming another person. So how am I to reconcile my desire for justice with the terrible sadness I feel when I think of people shut up in massive, dismal institutions where enforced idleness and loneliness destroy what’s left of their humanity? Why is our society incapable of addressing the underlying causes of crime? How long will we go on building more and more super-max prisons and believing that if we lock up our problems we have solved them?


Anonymous said...

Sandra, this is a very moving post. You sound as frustrated as I feel about so many things that have to do with social change. I just seems as if we are losing on all fronts to see any kind of meaningful improvement, not only for prisoners, for the homeless, the hungry, social justice, etc.

Anonymous said...

What Sharon said--in spades.