The road to Augusta Correctional Center winds through farms and fields, over streams. We pass Buffalo Gap, the Cowpasture River, Goshen Pass. We turn onto Estaline Road, an address which sounds more fitting for a country estate than a prison.
Then, in the foothills of mountains where trees are brushed with yellow and red, not yet blazing, the golden rolls of hay in the fields give way to rolls of razor wire surrounding the looming, sprawling concrete of the Correctional Center.
Visitors are already lined up at the door, where handmade signs are taped. Allowed: photo ID, car keys, coins for visiting room vending machines. Another, Watches must be left in cars.
When my turn comes to complete the visitor form, I leave blank “relationship with inmate,” not certain what to say, how to explain it in such a small space. When I give the form to the guard at the desk, she tells me brusquely that every line must be filled out. “How are you related?” she asks, as if I don’t understand the words.
“Friend of the family,” I say. I don’t say, “A friend of his adoptive father, the one he killed with an axe while he slept.” Or, “I worked with his father, a gentle man who could see the good in anyone.” There isn’t space to say, “I knew the inmate twenty-three years ago, when he was thirteen and I worked with him in a program for runaway kids, when he gave me sketches he had made of houses with curtains at the windows, smoke curling from the chimneys, homes he must have known only in his imagination.”
My friend and I have our IDs checked, go through the metal detector, are patted down and stamped with an invisible star that will show up only with infrared light. Then we go through a series of three locked doors. The steel doors clang behind us, one at a time, and we cross the courtyard to the next building. The woman behind the Plexiglass window checks our invisible stars, then our photo IDs, in case we became someone else between two of the locked doors. After three more locked doors and a short walk down a stark corridor, we arrive at the visiting room with rows of low plastic tables surrounded by small plastic chairs. It feels like visiting an elementary school, except this is not a children’s space.
At each of the two dozen tables sits a man in jeans and a blue shirt. Some of the neatly-groomed men have a single visitor sitting with them; others have a group. In another setting, in other costumes, the men might have been insurance salesmen or a baseball team. But they are all criminals. This is a Level 3 correctional facility. They are all serving extended sentences for rape, murder, armed robbery, or other serious crimes.
At many of the tables are clustered what look to be family members, parents whose aspirations for their sons did not include rape or murder. And wives who might have hoped for more from their children’s father than a few moments visitation in a crowded room every now and then when everything can be worked out to make the trip to this hard-to-reach location. At some of the tables, children squirm on their chairs and drink sodas. They eat chips and peanut butter crackers from the vending machines that line one wall. Unsmiling guards circle the room and walk among the crowded tables. Mounted cameras monitor the scene from every angle.
First we wait for a table, as if we’re at a popular restaurant on a weekend night. Then we get our table, and wait for Jesse. Finally, the secure door opens, and a tall man enters. When I last saw Jesse, he was a tow-headed, blue-eyed pre-pubescent, but something about the way this man moves, the intensity of his eyes, makes me believe that he could be Jesse. He looks our way and waves. When he gets to the table, he shakes our hands and says he remembers me from when he was involved with a program I worked for. I’m not sure I want him to remember me and had decided that I wouldn’t mention it, but part of me is glad that he does. It somehow makes him seem more human, and, of course, it feels good to be remembered after so many years.
In response to a letter Jesse had written to the Friends Meeting, his father’s religious community, two of us from that group who had known his father volunteered to come and learn more about the concerns he alluded to in the letter. During his trial, people from that group had been active in encouraging the court not to consider the death penalty, so Jesse thought someone from the group might be willing to listen to him. There is little choice; listening is all we can do.
For the next hour he doesn’t pause, scarcely seems to breathe, as he talks about all of the injustices he has endured while in prison, the snitches and set-ups, the double crosses and cover-ups. There are hidden knives and commodes sabotaged with toothbrushes, attempts on his life by others and by his own hand when he swallowed razor blades. There are surveillance cameras so powerful they can see every word on the letter he’s reading from all the way across the prison yard. There is unwarranted time in “the hole,” an unexpected and unexplained transfer to a different correctional center. The plots and subplots are so complicated that I get confused.
The room is so loud that we lean in to hear him, scarcely six inches apart. It seems surreal to be so close to him, looking into the clear blue eyes of the man who had murdered my friend, looking at hands that might have been an artist’s hands if they hadn’t been a killer’s. I briefly imagine them holding the axe.
Tattoos creep out from under the buttoned cuffs of his blue shirt. At the corner of his left eye is a tattooed tear drop. I’ve heard that a tear drop tattoo is a sign that you’ve killed and had no remorse, and I wonder if Jesse has ever shed a tear for killing such a kind and gentle man.
After his exhaustive and exhausting tale of prison injustices, and after hearing from us that we have no magic solutions to offer, Jesse talks about John.
He pauses, the longest silence in the time we’ve been there. Then he says, “Sometimes I think I killed John to get rid of the vision of me that existed only in his mind. He was the only one who thought I was worth something. I guess I couldn’t deal with that.” He says it in a matter-of-fact tone that suggests it makes perfect sense to kill someone whose vision of you doesn’t align with your own, as if it’s possible to explain so life-changing a decision so simply. Does he even care that he destroyed another person and his potential?
An announcement over the P.A. indicates our time is up. There is so much more I might say, might ask, but, even if there were more time, I’m not sure I would say any of it. I might ask if he believes there is anything of worth left in him. In killing John, did he succeed in destroying the vision? I wonder what he thinks he can make of his life, now that he’s cut off so many possibilities.
When we leave, before Jesse is escorted back to his cell block, he looks across the room, waves, and smiles. It looks like the smile of a 13-year-old whose future could have been so different. Or it might be the smile of an almost-forty-year-old man who knows his first parole hearing will be coming up in a few years, a man who knows he will need allies. And what if it’s both? What do I do with that? He turns away, and then he’s gone, the thick steel door slamming behind him.
We reverse our route through all the locked doors. Outside, I blink as my eyes adjust to the golden fall light. I take a deep breath of the crisp air, trying to replace the oxygen sucked from my soul. As we drive away from the Correctional Center, I can still hear the echo in my memory of steel doors slamming, one after the other.
Mary Alice Hostetter recently retired from a career in teaching and human services. She lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in Streetlight and DreamSeeker magazines. A piece is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: When the last steel door of the prison clanged shut behind me, I knew that I needed to write about this surreal experience in an effort to try to make sense of it. The piece took shape very quickly after that.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: As obvious as it may sound, I have found “Write what you know” to be very worthy advice and I try to keep it in mind as I choose what to write. “Be fearless in your writing” is advice which I also find a worthy, if sometimes elusive, goal.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: My writing, especially non-fiction, starts off as a circling process, a bit like a crow looking for some shiny object to carry back to its nest. When I have found the image or topic, I excavate it, digging all around it, writing everything I can remember or imagine, the images or scenes that connect to it, the memories it taps into. When I have written as much as I can remember or imagine, I pare it down, shape, and polish it
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: The organization of my books is a very fluid process, controlled by limited space, with a nod to color, size, and where the book was last used or might next be used again. Surprisingly, and miraculously, I can almost always find what I’m looking for.