The highlight of my J(ail)-Term has definitely got to be this prison visit. We started our journey as early as 8 a.m. as the drive to Wisconsin took awhile. Once we arrived, the officers led us to the security check zone, where we had to show our IDs (in my case my passport) and pass ourselves and belongings through security checks. Our class got divided into two groups -- each of us got an officer who was going to be our escort for the tour around prison. The prison, he told us, held about 500 inmates ranging from ages 18 to 72.
I was amazed by the very moment we stepped out of the security zone. Firstly, I did not expect a community-like surrounding of a prison. The prison looks almost like a college campus! I was surprised at how freely the inmates could walk around outdoors, and the presence of a courtyard -- a huge one. The buildings of the prisons were properly designed and taken care of; they had this brick aesthetic to it -- nothing dull and of plain concrete walls. I was also amazed at how friendly the officers and prisoners were to each other although later there were some of the officers who did not get along with the inmates.
The recreational facilities in Prairie du Chien were unexpected. They had a football field, a basketball court, and a gym! Our escort officer told us that the inmates would sometimes have competitions in the basketball courts sometimes too. The next place we visited was a common room where the inmates made things to sell to the community. Most of the products were of knitwear. What intrigued me was the atmosphere of the common room, where the inmates were enjoying each other’s company while keeping themselves busy -- and it’s almost impossible to look at them like they’re any different from us. We also got to visit other facilities such as the dental care room, and the prison church! This was something I did not imagine a prison would have; in fact the church had instruments like drums and guitars which I assume the inmates could take up if they were interested. Moving on, we were escorted to the vocational part of prison. There was a room specially for inmates to train their brick-making skills for the future upon their release, and it’s something they can do during their free time. A specialized trainer was assigned to help the inmates in brick-making. We were also escorted to the solitary confinement part of the jail but were not allowed to take a tour around the cells.
One thing I liked best about the prison was that communal surroundings of it. The inmates could freely spend time with each other in the social lounge watching TV, and their rooms were not these one-by-one cells I’d imagine. It was a huge room with bunk beds arranged next to each other. The cafeteria of the prison was also different from what I expected -- because I thought the inmates would get their food through the boxes on their doors (which I think only applies to those in solitary confinement). I could picture the inmates having meals together, chitchatting, and not waste their days in the cell.
At the end of the tour, all of us were led to a community room where we were going to have a conversation with the inmates themselves! There were about 15 of them in the panel sitting in a row in front of us. That chat with them felt like they were not any different from us, the things they think and talk about; like wanting to get feast themselves with hamburgers upon their release which I find completely human, completely like us. It was interesting to know what they do to spend their days in prison too because with the different facilities they have in that prison; the inmates could either work, workout, read in the library, etc. Honestly, after getting to know them better, they weren’t so much of “the others” like how the media portrayed them to be. They all had different stories to why they committed crime. I think for the most part, I find the conversations we had with the inmates connected most to what we’ve learned in class -- that is not everyone deserves an extreme and extensive punitive system. It isn’t anything genetic or cultural that has forced them into committing crime. They did not have a choice and couldn’t control nor understand their emotions. They were simply unfortunate because they were caught taking a wrong turn, which isn’t something anyone can easily understand due to the stereotypes and stigmas people have of felons. These inmates have families and parents they hope they wouldn’t disappoint in the future upon their release. They would definitely want to choose a better life and make better decisions if given the privilege and choices. Hearing the inmates’ testimonies has strengthened what we’ve learned in class and read in books more because we know what we’ve studied is accurate; also because their stories were as heartfelt as those in the videos we’ve watched in class.
At last, we bid our goodbyes to the inmates when the session was over. We were escorted back to the security check zone to get our belongings and headed back home to Luther. This has been one of the most eye-opening experiences by far throughout my time here in the U.S.