On Fridays, I take the 8:46 Metro North train to Ossining. After a 20-minute steep uphill climb, there they are- the towers and the barbed wire of the medium security state correctional facility, Sing Sing.
The first Friday did not happen long ago. I got lost and walked around the prison grounds. Finally I looked up to the guards in the tower and attempted to shout up to them. They ignored me. I remember thinking: I hope they don’t shoot me. Around me were several men cutting grass and picking up litter. A van pulled up, and an oversized guard opens the driver’s side door and hangs half way out of the car. Before he said anything, I told him I was lost and just looking for the visitor’s entrance. He told me I had to go back around to basically where I started. He fell back into his seat, slammed the door and sat and stared as I walked back in the direction I came.
After I walked through the parking lot, I encountered a blonde and serious female guard standing at the entrance to a barbed wire chainlink high fence. She said nothing – just pointed to the visitor entrance, just to the right of a grander main entrance. Note to myself: ask unsmiling guard at the gate who goes up the grand staircase to the main important-looking door.
The intake for visitors is rigid.The walls are covered with precise rules written by people who have seen it all. The dress code could easily be posted outside of a mosque. There isn’t much paper work. A half-size paper form that asked for name, address, relationship (I put down “friend”), prisoner and his number,
Behind the counter that goes all along the far wall are small deep lockers. The only thing I was allowed to bring aside from the clothes on my back was a watch, wedding band, one credit card, one ID, money not exceeding $20 and prescription glasses. The guards actually tested the glasses. The rest of my stuff, I had to give up. I packed light-reporter essentials-voice recorder, pens, pencils, news pad, batteries, phone, headphones, wallet, keys, nuts, and a bandana. The guard put it in a locker, and gave me the key. I waited another hour, and watched more people come into the visitor’s entrance. An elderly woman visiting her son. She carefully went through two paper grocery bags. There was a loaf bread, granola bars, deodorant. An empty-handed young couple sat down next to us. Older men with blank faces. The room filled up as I waited. No one smiled. No one talked.
All the guards we had encountered were very serious, unsmiling, rigid in posture, humorless and a look that might make a child cry. I later found out that we had to wait a total of two hours before we could see Lance Sessoms in the visitor room. because we got in after “the count.” Note to myself, ask what the “count” entails.
I asked the guard about my gold bracelets on my left hand. With an unfavorable look, he told me it was up to the guards at the entrance to the visitor’s room.
They led us outside and through another door where we lined up. I have the guard my half-sized form along with an ID. I electronically signed an agreement that they didn’t give me the opportunity to read. I assumed it just meant I was at their will and I accepted it. A female guard whose look took always seemed to communicate SHUT UP, took my picture. I moved aside, and waited to go through the metal detector. The guard told us to pull out all our pockets, take off our shoes and belts.
When it was my turn to go through the metal dectecting door frame whites of my pockets exposed and hanging out, the guard stationed there told me I had to take my solid gold bracelets off- the family heirlooms passed down through many generations of women in my family in the old country. I never met the grandmother who last wore them. Her family removed the bracelets just before the coffin was nailed shut. I slipped them on when I was much younger and now they can’t be slipped off. A guard suggested olive oil, and I felt like he would know something about getting things off prisoners’ bodies.
The guards let me through and warned me that they wouldn’t let me in again with those bracelets. The guard at the metal detector and the one at the last door before reaching the visitor’s room were jovial and even joked with me.
Once inside the visitor’s room, there is a high counter where I had to raise my hand to show them my paperwork. There was another female guard with a back-off look. She assigned us a table, sixth row-15th table.
The visitor’s room is more than double a school auditorium. On the right side are rows of chairs. On the left are tables with four chairs each. Aside from the guard at the counter, there was only one guard in the back in front of the vending machines. There is a red perimeter line that inmates cannot pass. At the vending machines they must wait behind the red lines. They are not permitted to touch money, so they can’t use the vending machines.
It was all strangely normal to see families and couples like it was a family reunion. As I waited for Lance, I watched an elderly couple sit in silence with their incarcerated son. The young couple in the waiting room were siblings sitting with their incarcerate brother at an adjacent table. One couple swayed in front of the ice cream vending machine-he held her from behind with his arms around her waist and his face in her neck.