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by Riley Smith

It is a 75-minute drive to visit him. It used to just be a short bus ride. The drive takes you through the city proper, past the suburbs, into the country, and back out again. It is pretty quiet and uneventful. Sometimes a podcast plays through the speakers. Sometimes another person accompanies you. The scenery and the noise are enough of a distraction that you almost forget where you are going. 


It isn’t all that obvious, really. The last landmark is a school. Then there is nothing. Then the facility appears, almost as if by magic - a dark magic. Signs along the fences make claims that this is a correctional facility. As if anything behind those walls makes correct the mistakes or decisions of those inside. As if those with the badge and the paycheck and the blessing by society to reprimand these souls by any means necessary are doing the correct thing by clocking in every day. As if you can correct a human being trying to survive in a wholly incorrect world.


It is always raining when you go to visit. The universe knows this is a sad affair. You park your car, take a deep breath, and triple check that there is nothing on your person. You are wearing your special outfit just for visitations. It is the only one you own that follows all the contradictory rules. Not too baggy nor too tight. No metal. No buttons, belts, laces, chains, heels, graphic designs. Fitting that the outfit is as grey as the sky outside and the walls inside and the clothes he wears everyday. 


You take a number to hold your place in line behind the other family, friends, lovers, lawyers, and journalists coming for a visit. You fill out the form with your information that must match the information on your original application. The room you wait in is blue and grey and features two overpriced vending machines being frequented by energetic little ones impatiently waiting to visit their parents. You listen to girlfriends and grandmothers chat to pass the time. 


You get called to be searched. The guard decides if you are presentable and unsuspicious. The guards are sometimes friendly, which makes you want to scream. How can you exchange pleasantries with someone so cheerful who is complicit in the torture of your friend? But you have to. One wrong move and you could lose your privileges, or worse, he could be hurt as punishment for your behavior. So as they check every part of you - belt loops, sock rims, pockets, cheeks, feet - you smile and nod along. Then it is over, and you are given permission to enter. 


Three gates are all that separate you and him. But that is not the whole truth. These three towering, barbed wire gates, and a guard in a bad mood, and limited visiting hours, and an application process, and the criminal justice system that thought his advocacy too powerful and therefore criminal - there might as well be an ocean between you two. You get to the visitor’s room, and then you wait again.


The worst part is the waiting. So much waiting. You had to wait until March for them to allow him to add you to his visitors list. You had to wait eight weeks for them to confirm you were a “good” citizen. You had to wait for your employer to give you a weekend day off. You had to wait for the weekend to make the drive. You had to wait for them to call your number. You had to wait an extra hour for them to change over the entire facility’s staff because they didn’t process visitors fast enough before the end of their shift. You had to wait for them to search you.  And now, you have to wait for him. You don’t know exactly what happens on the other side of that door. He has not told you, and you are too polite to ask. You can only guess that it is much more invasive than what you had to do. All so he can see you. All so you can see him. All so you can share expressions, physical contact, and space again.


He arrives, finally, and his face glows when he sees you. You hug - but not for too long, the guards are watching. He looks older, thinner, more resigned - yet he’s so happy to see you, and you are so happy to see him. For the next two hours, you are invested in conversation. The lights are yellow and the walls are beige and he and his brothers are grey, but the families are playing and the lovers are whispering and you and he are laughing and everyone is so wrapped up in each other’s company that you almost forget where you are. 


Inevitably someone will touch for too long or lean too far forward or cross their legs and a guard’s voice will pierce the otherwise pleasant air to remind everyone that being in company with each other is a privilege. Mid conversation your friend will be ripped away by the guard whistle so that he and his brothers can form a line of grey along the wall, so that the prison can ensure all of its victims are still there, so that there is a clear difference between them and you as if to try to remind you exactly who you are in company with. 


Always too soon it is time to leave. One final hug, hastily making plans to write, to call, to come again soon enough. It’s never soon enough. You leave, always glancing behind you to see him one more time.


You have yet to be denied entry, to be talked down to, to be restricted in any way. But there is no guarantee. The uncertainty and the impermanence of your situation and your favor with the facility, of his future and his treatment, of laws written and enforced by those who swore to protect people but instead protect profit, leave you in constant fear. This facility is a monument to a system built to shift blame to the individual and throw people away so society did not have to face its own failures. We demolish communities in order to build more walls. We say we want an end to crime and to suffering, and our solution is to put all of the crime and suffering out of the public eye and inside walls and gates.


You exit those three gates at the end of the day and go back into the world. Back to your bed and your spouse and your pets and your vegetarian dishes and your books and your job and your friends and your life. He goes back to a dark cell, to extreme temperatures, to rampant untreated disease, to guards looking for a reason to keep him there forever, to threats of solitary, to poisoned water, to a bed so bad for his disabled back he prefers to sleep on the concrete floor.


This is called justice. 

About the Author

Riley Smith is a poet, a performer, and a social worker. First and foremost, they are an activist. They write about topics such as environmental justice, LGBTQIA+ identity, and prison abolition. Their writing can be found on Medium. They currently live in Boston, MA, with their spouse and their furry companion.

Publication history:
self publications at
PULPMAG, 8/26/19:, 7/31/18:

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