Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Green is the new black, a visit to the Women's Prison Camp in Coleman

I figure at some time in your life someone you know or care about winds up in prison. If you're lucky it's not you.  So last weekend I hiked up to Coleman FL, to visit a relative who unfortunately got herself caught in a Medicare fraud dragnet and found herself doing a long stint in the pokey. 

Now she is family so I feel weird about her absence. Having someone close to you in the hoosegow is definitely weird.  It feels like they had a small death. I mean you go through all the usual grieving because they've gone away. However, they're still in your life through phone calls, internet and family gossip. Also, you're a bit angry that they got caught up in some kind of criminal activity. However you want to forgive, and give the benefit of the doubt as well. 

So I went up to the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman Florida. Weirdly, I knew where it was because I have some clients in Leesburg and Bunnell. When I passed the complex the first time I was pretty sure I'd never drive by there again. It is one of the largest correctional facilities in the U.S. and it reminds me of a corporate park, with razor wire.  My relative is in the women's "camp" which is a minimum security prison. There are no guards, just a few rent-a-cop security types.  Prisoners can walk away if they want, but the cost would be double their sentence doing "hard time" in a state prison.  

So we arrived and I filled out the form and waited outside for an hour. The security guard was a jerk, barking orders at the visitors. No one wearing tight clothes or sandals were allowed in.  Why? No idea. The guard would come out every so often and wave people in to the complex. He was happy to scowl. We were searched and metal detected before we were allowed into the visiting room. Which was stupid, since I could have just walked around and gone in an unlocked side door.  

Turns out the whole complex is like a large community college. Prisoners run the system mostly and there are a few administrative folks and a warden.  There is a factory that makes office furniture, inmates assemble, sell and deliver the merchandise all over the country. They are paid five dollars a day. With that money they buy internet, phone time and personal effects.  They wear smart olive green uniforms and scurry
across the campus with purpose. When they are not scurrying, they can work out, join a sport team, sew or watch TV.   The workout clothes are the grey shirts and shorts like we wore in gym class in high school
Like this, but not as boots, not heels.

My relative waited for us in the large visitor room. Children scampered in and out of the play room. Lots of hugs, some tears. Prisoners were busily chatting up their families for gossip and news.  Most of the ladies were young, under 40.  Many were very attractive. The majority were Hispanic and African American. Mostly from Miami.  

I did feel a lot of hopefulness. The prisoners, the families, the young lovers were all smiling holding hands. They talked about their work at the office furniture factory, the different activities at the camp. We were introduced to bunk mates. Then it was time to go. Which was fine, it's a long way from Miami. However, since most of the prisoners I saw and met were from here, it wasn't.