The Prison Visitation Room
Frequent visitors to the prison, such as lawyers, families, the lady with the DNA results, and volunteer counselors like me know that we have to sit facing the front of the visitation room. This makes the prisoners sit toward the rear wall so they’re not distracted by their friends, or enemies, who enter and exit from the remote-controlled door that leads to the cell blocks.
However, this seating arrangement doesn’t always command the attention of the inmate because many of them look nervously over their shoulders every minute or so. I asked one “client” of mine (we call them that to de-emphasize the stigma of incarceration) why he does that.
He explained that it comes from the streets, where there is much danger to look out for when selling drugs. There are uniformed and undercover cops, zealous probation officers, rival, vengeful dealers, customers who would steal your drugs and money, and irate baby moms. I always feel sorry for the guys who were in this predicament, not because I root for them to be successful criminals, but because their lives and way of thinking at that time had left them no alternative.
Now, in the visitation room, my client has volunteered to sit with me to examine and change his thinking in order to make better life decisions. I believe him when he says he doesn’t ever want to come back to prison. He’s through with that life, he adds, more to remind himself than to convince me of his sincerity.
My mission is to guide him through a six-step process of cognitive exercises detailed in a manual developed by inmates and psychologists. As I explain to my friends on the outside, it’s like cognitive-behavioral therapy lite. Instead of responding destructively to a situation that requires a positive outcome, you first logically define the elements of the circumstances. Then, possibilities to attain the best result are developed and evaluated. If the informed, rational decision doesn’t work out as expected, you learn from the attempt and start the process again.
In fact, part of this course is based on the Taguchi method, which is used by some corporations to avoid management screw-ups. I explain this to my client, to put his emotional mayhem on a similar plane as someone with freedom and apparent success in society. I emphasize that it applies to everyone and that I wish someone had pulled me aside when I was younger so I didn’t run amok on automatic.
The inmate looks at me blankly, then over his shoulder to scan the room. They are all inscrutable after this introduction to the manual. Maybe he doesn’t buy it because it’s patronizing. Maybe his level of trust and self-esteem is so low from incarceration that he can’t accept being the same, in some ways, as someone who hasn’t come from his world where options to be safe and prosperous don’t exist.
As I reveal some details of my distant, regretful past, my client turns back to look me in the eye. This suggests a greater acceptance but whether or not he likes me doesn’t matter. What’s most important is that he works at the sequence of mental exercises.
Now is the time to elicit the deeper emotional courage demanded by our cognitive process. I ask him how he feels about having been a drug dealer. Again, he twists to check the front of the room. I try to draw him back. Do you feel guilty, or ashamed? I ask.
He shifts to face the rear wall and lowers his head to hide tears.
He whispers, “Shame. Ruined lives.”
But, immediately, he turns to look over his shoulder.
About the Author: Roy Isen is a recently retired TV news cameraman and is a member of the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio.