PHOTO: Dark Room Riot, FCI Sheridan
This feeling in my gut is hard to describe. Driving through the luscious green valleys of Oregon’s wine country, I almost forget where I’m headed. It’s an idyllic scene, straight out of a dusty American novel. Rolling hills, winding roads and endless fields of farmland.
Then it hits me… like a ton of bricks… a ton of stark white cinder blocks.
I have arrived at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Sheridan, home to hundreds of federal prisoners. The prison is halfway between Portland and the Oregon coast in a rural town off Highway 18. I’m often tempted to keep on driving, right past the guard towers and deprivation, until I reach the tranquility of the ocean shore less than 40 miles beyond.
Even after driving four and a half hours to get here, I am very grateful. Many families drive for days to see their loved ones. The costs are so prohibitive that some turn to carpools and sharing motels. For me, this visit is a welcome chance to reconnect with a close friend. For the families that surround me, it is the glue that keeps their shattered lives from falling apart.
These visits bring hope and a sense of calm during a time when reality is often unbearable. Most important are the hugs and warm embraces being exchanged between husband and wife, father and son, brother and sister, friends and lovers. I can feel the tide of emotion as it floods the room. Though physical contact is limited to 30 seconds at the beginning and end of each visit, the love that flows during these brief moments cannot be quelled.
Everyone here is sacrificing individual freedom to earn the privilege to visit this place. First up is the approval process. With serious consequences on the table for any false statement, I cautiously fill out a battery of questions, divulging everything from my social security number to how and when I met Chris Williams.
I agree to a criminal background check to ensure that I won’t “present a management problem for the institution.” Deep down, I quietly sweat this step, knowing that I have prior cannabis convictions. After what seems like an eternity, I am given the green light for visits. Now, it’s time to study the rules.
No shorts or sleeveless shirts. Hemlines on dresses must fall below the knees. No hats of any kind. Money for drinks and snacks is limited to $20 and must be in coins, carried in a clear plastic purse or ziplock bag no bigger than five by seven inches. The only other items allowed are a single car key and photo ID.
The moment I drive onto the grounds of FCI Sheridan, a large warning sign reminds me that all persons and property, including vehicles, are subject to search. Yes, even a strip search should the guards deem it necessary.
“A large warning sign reminds me that all persons and property are subject to search, even a strip search should the guards deem it necessary.”
I drive past a security booth and begin to assess my surroundings. Towards the back of the property is a medium-security lockup where visitors must pass through metal detectors, sending their shoes and accessories through an x-ray machine. Closer to the front is what looks like a super-max facility, with razor wire woven through every inch of chain link fence. For an added shock to the system, this is where prisoners are sent upon arrival and it is where they go when problems arise, be it medical or disciplinary. The impenetrable fortress also serves as a constant reminder for the guys at the minimum-security camp next door; one wrong move and they get put “behind the fence.”
As I pull into the parking lot of the camp, I find myself thankful once again. I try not to imagine what life would be like if Chris had to spend five years in a prison more restrictive than where he is now. Then, I take stock of the drug reformers who don’t have to imagine because they are living it. Jerry Duval, Aaron Sandusky, Eddy Lepp, Luke Scarmazzo, Virgil Grant, Marc Emery, the list goes on — all assigned to higher security prisons than the one I’m visiting now.
There’s a batch of forms and assorted pens on the built-in counter next to the doorway. As I fill out the paperwork, I notice a flimsy divider nearby that partially blocks a bank of windows. On the other side of the glass are dozens of eager prisoners milling about, waiting for their names to be called over the loudspeaker, notifying them of a visitor’s arrival.
I return my gaze to the questionnaire at hand. Along with a long list of prohibited items comes a warning about the five-year prison term I face for having any contraband. I reluctantly sign away my rights and hand the form to a guard along with my ID.
This place reminds me of a cafeteria, bathrooms and vending machines line one wall and windows line the other. The view of the parking lot is underwhelming, to put it mildly. There are about 50 tables scattered about with chairs squarely placed on two sides to discourage intimate contact. I select a spot on the opposite end of the room, close to a courtyard that is permanently shuttered.
I watch as one prisoner after another walks in from a door near the guard desk. The happy reunions that I witness fuel the excitement for my own visit. Chris is the next one to enter the room. My grin spreads from ear to ear. He looks healthy and happy, which is more than I can expect under the circumstances.
We start the morning with a cup of coffee; Chris likes his black and extra strong. The vending machines are out of bounds for prisoners, so I’ve quickly figured out his personal tastes while guessing which food and beverages to buy.
We talk about everything and nothing at the same time.
Within the first hour or two, the guards call “count time.” The prisoners are herded into the hallway where they’re officially accounted for, one of five times daily that this ritual is performed. The process takes about 20 minutes, so I line up for the restroom with other women who are visiting. We chit chat to pass the time, but leave meaningful friendships just out of reach. None of us wants to think of this awful place any more than we do already.
Chris is sitting back down by the time I return. We decide to play cards and he grows amused by my frustration after beating me time and again. Half our visit has passed and it is now lunchtime. I buy Chris a sandwich and an iced tea. A meal in the visiting room of a federal prison isn’t particularly appetizing for me, so I grab a bag of chips instead.
After lunch, we decide to play Scrabble. Chris doesn’t know it yet, but I specifically chose this game so I can get even for the whooping I took at cards. There are no writing materials to keep score with, so we eventually lose track of the points. By the time we finish one game, it is nearly 3:00 p.m. and our visit is almost over.
We cram as much conversation into that last few minutes as we possibly can, but there is never enough time to say everything we want. “Visiting is over,” bellows the guard. “Visitors, come get your ID’s. Everyone else, line up by the wall.”
Chris and I say our goodbyes and give each other a big hug. As I walk out of the prison with the other visitors, most of us force ourselves to hold back the tears, knowing we are in full view of our loved ones as they wait to be sent back to their cells.
I take a few moments to collect my thoughts and start my car for the long drive home. I am reminded of that feeling in my gut this morning, as FCI Sheridan loomed in the distance. Now, as the prison appears in my rearview mirror, I am keenly aware that this feeling is worse than the one before. I imagine it’s what a soldier encounters on the battlefield, as they leave a fallen comrade behind.
There have been many casualties in this War on Drugs. I struggle enormously every time I am forced to desert Chris Williams and the other prisoners of the Drug War at FCI Sheridan. The day we can truly celebrate the end of prohibition is the day our prisoners come home. Until then, I will keep on fighting with every fiber of my being.