Welcome to Camp Fed (Part Two of a Three-Part Series)

Visiting by family and friends at federal institutions is strongly encouraged by the Board of Prisons “to maintain the morale of the inmate and to develop closer relationships between the inmate and family members.” Despite this policy, however, the rules and the manner in which they are applied frequently discourages visitation primarily because the rules often make no sense. For example, inmates and their loved ones are not supposed to show any affection beyond the initial greeting and goodbyes. How silly for a husband and wife who have been married for over thirty years being forced to behave like chaperoned teenagers on their first date.

Visiting hours are from 8 am to 2 pm. That is a long time to eat grub from vending machines that offer little in the way of wholesome food; any thought of hot coffee or a hot meal during this time period is a pipe dream, and the machines are virtually empty on the morning of day two (Sunday) of a two-day visit schedule. And, would I like the franchise on these machines! A lousy, cold ham and cheese sandwich is $3.75. Bottles of Coca-Cola are $1.75, and often the vending machines steal enough from their customers that the owners of those machines ought to be serving time for fraud and theft.

The rules seem designed to reduce grown women to children: “don’t touch the vending machines;” “don’t handle money to purchase items from the vending machines;” “don’t talk to fellow inmates in the visiting area;” “don’t wave to your family after they have signed out and are departing the premises;” “don’t talk with vendors when they make deliveries.” And these women are generally subjected to strip searches after each visit. All of this seems aimed at dehumanizing human beings. Instead of “correcting” them and making them more social, these rules seem to harden and make them more anti-social. It is difficult to understand the rationale for most of the rules in what is classified as a “low security” facility.

The husband of one inmate was shot to death when someone demanded the keys to his car while he was out shopping. The answer to his wife’s request for permission to attend his funeral was “no.” Why? Because the circumstances of the shooting “looked suspicious.” What difference should it make? Her husband was dead, regardless of the circumstances, and she should have been allowed to attend his funeral.

The husband of another woman had flown from the Far East – a 14-hour flight – to visit. After renting a car and driving from the airport to the “camp,” it was approximately 1 pm. Well, as stated above, visiting hours are from 8 am to 2 pm, but for some inexplicable reason, he was not allowed to spend the remaining hour visiting his wife.

Another visitor had flown in from Las Vegas wearing a hat. He checked in at a local motel and was driven to the facility in the motel shuttle. Little did he know it was against the rules to bring a hat into the visiting room. So, he had to walk in the rain across the street some 100-plus yards to check his hat into a locker.

One can understand rules, even if they appear to be foolish, that prohibit the entry of items into a “camp.” But, what possible reason could there be for prohibiting visitors from taking items purchased in a visiting area vending machine out of the facility? On my visit, I had purchased a bottle of water and a bottle of Dr. Pepper. I had drunk about a third of the former and one small swallow of the latter but I was informed it was a violation of the rules to leave the facility with my bottles of water and soda because they had been opened. Huh?

Upon reading this, I am certain that many will say, “These are criminals who deserve what they are getting. They deserve to pay.” Once upon a time, I was similarly inclined. But, as citizens, we pay for this irrational and backward approach to criminal justice. We pay dearly to support the prison system and we pay by not having those who are confined performing productive tasks. Moreover, as I watched 24-year-old mothers visit with their little children, and grandmothers visit with their sons, daughters and grandchildren, I thought how hollow the call for “family values” sounds when we look the other way rather than correct this tragedy of human beings going to waste because of an irrational, expensive and backward approach to criminal justice. Even worse, I am convinced beyond any doubt that a substantial number of the women wasting time at this “camp” have been wrongly convicted because the system has now been perfected to convict people rather than to mete out justice.

These facilities belong to us – the American people – and those who work there work for us. What they do in the form of their often-ridiculous rules, they do with our tacit approval. If they abuse or dehumanize people, they do so on our behalf - the American public; and we should be ashamed of ourselves for tolerating this.

To be continued…