On Visiting a Prison

I first saw a jail–and its inhabitants–as a child. Our family car had been broken into and some of its contents stolen, so we drove to a police station to file a report. While seated in the waiting room outside the police officer’s den, I could see what must have been a holding cell, occupied by a rather surly and disgruntled lot. The room looked grimy; its walls unwashed; its inhabitants resigned to their fates as they sat on hard benches or squatted on the concrete floor. I had heard about criminals; now, apparently, I could see them with my own eyes. They looked rather ordinary, rather less dramatic than their cinematic or literary versions. Their criminal acts behind them, they now seemed deflated and dejected.

I was reminded of that first encounter with a penitentiary when, a few years ago, I visited one of Taiwan’s largest maximum-security prisons. I accompanied an academic colleague whose wife, a criminologist, worked with the correctional authorities; we were offered a semi-guided tour of the facilities by some very helpful staff.

My abiding memories of that visit are dominated by a rather curious sensation: though I was clearly in no danger of being detained and imprisoned, I still felt chilled and alarmed by my surroundings, apprehensive somehow, absurdly enough, that I would be seized on some pretext or the other by one of the prison’s security guards, thrown into a cell, and with the key thrown away, left to rot till eternity. My proximity to this zone of detention and confinement was enough to cause this imagined fear.

The prisoners themselves seemed reconciled to their fate: most of them were serving very long sentences for a variety of crimes and were perhaps now used to the rhythms of their daily existence. Some seemed more hard-bitten–perhaps because of their gang tattoos or muscular development–than the others; yet others, older and wizened, were incongruous members of a demographic normally associated with youth.

Besides conversations with prison staff, and a visit to a prisoner work program center, we were treated to a visit to some standard cells for the jail’s inhabitants. These rooms were compact, their spaces tightly organized into individual sleeping and storage areas; at the time of our inspection, their residents were elsewhere.  Each cell held several prisoners; so in each one, a mini-society with its own pecking order and hierarchies was presumably created and sustained.

As I walked around their interiors,  I tried to imagine what life inside these cells was like. I couldn’t succeed in that endeavor, of course; my daily experiences and my past were too different from those who lived here to permit any such imaginative contact. I could only dimly sense the sense of confinement, the monotony, the relentless imposition of an external discipline. Because the cells had just recently been washed, there was a dampness to my surroundings that seemed appropriate; it spoke of a chill, a clammyness that seemed to pervade the walls and floors.

I found my conversations with prison staff genuinely useful, but I couldn’t wait for them to end. When we finally left the prison, walking out from its iron gates, out into the bright sunshine, back to our parked car, I felt relieved and just a little lighter and warmer.  We would now drive back to the local university, back to a space that felt much safer.

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