Visit to Attica State Prison aka “Correctional Facility”

Winter photo of the entrance to Attica State Prison. Three flags are at half mast. The asphalt drive is wet.  A light frosting of snow lies on the grass, bushes and cars.
Post is from Wikimedia Commons: Jayu from Harrisburg, PA, U.S.A.

My husband and I are perhaps the only couple I know who would work a trip to Attica Correctional Facility into a romantic weekend getaway. But we did. I’ll be writing more about our visit with Jalil Muntaqim this week. Jalil—like Leonard Peltier, Martin Luther King, and members of other minority empowerment and antiwar groups—was the target of J. Edgar Hoover’s vivious COINTELPRO campaign that came to light in the 1970s.

But I thought for now I’d just jot down a few impressions of our visit to Attica, which looks something like a castle with its turrets, parapets and ramparts. Michael and I got there around 10:30, bringing with us our drivers licenses and the car key—the only items visitors are allowed to take inside the prison. We filled out information slips with rubbery pens about 3” long—made so they could not be weaponized, I guess. But when we got inside with the actual prisoners they laid out pencils for us to use, so I could have gotten all stabby with those menacing lead points, if I had wanted to.)

We sat in the outside waiting room with families who were talking with each other in subdued conversations. A nurse who said she usually keeps to herself told us the guards were behaving disrespectfully that day.  They were making the people wait outside the gate, while they schmoozed and laughed with each other. Once we were inside and I watched families, friends, and loved ones talking and cuddling with prisoners, I understood how precious that time was to them, and that this time was dispensed entirely at the whims of the guards.

This is the outfit I was wearing when I was deemed too alluring for Attica, oversized baggy pants, a two-part attached long-sleeve yellow shirt, and a fleece vest, which is open in the picture.
This is the outfit I, a woman in my forties, was wearing when I was deemed too alluring for Attica.

When the guards called Jalil’s name (the name before he became a Muslim, “Anthony Bottom,”), Michael and I came forward to be processed. A female guard informed me that my shirt was too revealing, and I would have to go to a dollar store and buy something else. I said I could zip up the vest I was wearing, but she told me I could not be trusted to do that while I was in the visiting room. Fortunately, since we had planned to go to a bed and breakfast afterwards, Michael had an extra shirt in his car.

I took the car keys, turned to the others in the waiting room and said, “Guess I’m too slutty for Attica,” and walked out. Later, one young woman who had burst out laughing when I said this, was told her fashionably ripped jeans and striped sweater were too tight. As it happens, the nurse we talked to earlier was wearing the same shirt, showing much more cleavage and they let her in. I wondered if they were punishing the other woman because she laughed. I also wondered what sort of business the dollar store did selling clothes to people who arrived wearing the wrong ones, and what people did who came to see family members on the bus from New York City, who didn’t have a car to make the quick three mile trip to the dollar store to appease the arbiters of suitable prison visitor attire.

By the time we actually got to the visiting room, and Jalil was released to come meet with us, it was 12:30—two hours after we had arrived. At one point, Michael went to the vending machines to buy some lunch and Jalil asked me what I saw when I looked around at the other tables. I told him I was surprised by how much love I saw in the smiling people around us. “I mean,” I said, “I’m sure there’s also a lot of family dysfunction, here, too.” He laughed. “You think?” he said. “Yeah,” I said, “but they’re still here. They want to be together. Some of these people have been physically holding on to each other for hours.”

“Yeah,” he said. “These families have sacrificed a lot to be here.”

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