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, which 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 had sat apart and said she usually keeps to herself told us the guards were behaving disrespectfully that day, by making the people wait outside while they appeared to be doing nothing. I came to understand once we were inside, while watching the other people as we sat talking with Jalil, how precious that time was to them, and that this time was dispensed entirely at the discretion of the guards.When the guards called Jalil’s name (actually, 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—even though other women had been allowed in wearing identical clothing. I wondered if it was 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, 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, by how many people were smiling. “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.”