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Visitation

"Take off your shoes, please. Show me your left hand, and give me your driver's license. You'll get it back when you leave." On a rainy night in February, a group of us are entering prison on a mission. Our dream is to remodel the facility's visitation room into a place where children will enjoy, rather than avoid, visiting their fathers. But first the correction officers need to look in our shoes for weapons and stain our hands with invisible ink that shows up on cell-block scanners.

"Stand over there. No talking. Go one at a time through that door." In groups of five, escorted by a corrections officer, we enter the prison yard.

Our volunteer group of 25 men and women includes a lawyer, a pizza-dough maker, two nurses, a refrigerator repairman and a corporation executive, and ranges in age from 18 to 58. We met three weeks earlier at a transformational workshop in Chapel Hill.

We call ourselves the Legacy Group, invoking the maxim of Spinoza that "everything great is just as difficult to realize as it is rare." By completing a difficult project--and certainly a child-friendly room in this grim prison looks tough--we stand to free ourselves of doubts and limitations. "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate," said Nelson Mandela. "Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

Our goal is to help break the cycle of one-parent families, where fathers are isolated in prison, and often live to see their own children incarcerated. We have given ourselves three months to build a place of joy in a facility of menace.

The Low Security Correctional Institution (LSCI) sprawls across 10 acres of grassy land in Butner, about 20 minutes north of Durham. Built by the federal government in 1992 to hold 800 female prisoners, it now houses more than 1,300 men. Because LSCI was built for women, there's not a single urinal in the prison.

The majority of inmates are young African Americans, usually from urban areas. In the '90s, when the Dow Jones topped 11,000, a third of the black men in America were either in prison, on probation or parole.

"If present rates of incarceration continue, by 2010 more black men will be in prison than in high school," the prison chaplain tells us. And indeed the squat, concrete-block buildings at LSCI look like a modern high school, if you ignore the razor-wire fences surrounding the groups, like a giant slinky with stainless-steel thorns, and the fact that all sidewalks and corridors end in locked gates.

We walk through the prison yard, which is bleached white in the winter night by spotlights on a spindly forest of aluminum poles. Even if it were dark, we could follow the corrections officer by his sound--a clump of keys, several as big as a knife, clanks at his side. By the time we reach the visitation room, three steel doors and a security station stand between us and freedom. As the last lock clunks into place, we go in.

The visitation room is an oblong, gray space about the size of a high-school lunchroom. All the surfaces are hard. When filled with visitors, the room is very noisy--inmates can go back to their cells hoarse. One long side of the visitation room is a glass wall that offers a view of a courtyard.

Tables and chairs for about 200 people fill the room, but tonight these tables, and most of the chairs, are pushed to the walls. In the center of the room, 30 inmates sit in a circle.

My role is to facilitate a group discussion with the inmates about what the visitation room will become, but I am anxious. From television and the newspapers, I imagine prison is a brutal, violent place. But these inmates, now sitting with the rest of us, look like people at a faculty meeting--except they're all wearing khaki. "Violence in prison is a fraction of the violence I lived with on the streets," an inmate later told me.

With no hesitation, the inmates tell us what their children need. "Our kids can be in here for six hours on a Saturday afternoon, and without something to do, they go out of their gourds," one man says. They discuss books they'd like to share with their children, games to play, music. "With children you have to have a medium to talk," says another inmate. Federal prison budgets don't include toys.

By 10 p.m., we've worked out a concept to create a playground in the visitation-room courtyard, with playhouses and climbing structures, and for the inside we plan comfy seating areas for families, like a living room, and a toy and game library for the kids.

"There's nothing in our prison sentence that says to separate families," an inmate declares. After the meeting, we walk out through the prison yard, get our driver's licenses back, and get home at 1 a.m., realizing that we've chosen a startlingly difficult project. For starters, it takes an hour to get to the prison, and another hour to go 300 feet from the prison door to the visitation room. Every decision is laden with rules and prison procedures. "But this project is perfect for us," a team member says. "It forces us to work together."

At 7 the next morning, I'm back at the prison to review our concept with the warden. The warden is 6 feet 4 inches tall. When his head turns, his body also turns like a searchlight to look at the sketch I've drawn. He approves the toy and game library and the family seating areas, but wants to modify the playground. "No playhouse or climbing structures," he dictates. "Security problems." Nevertheless he blesses our project.

Over the next few weeks our group enrolls more than 50 people--librarians, shop owners, carpenters, doctors--to donate toys, books, leafy plants and carpets. Kate Freiman, a psychologist at LSCI and a member of our team, collects ladders, paintbrushes and tarps from the prison workshop. "None of the inmates got here by being good," she tells us, "but maybe people in the worst situation can still find ways of doing good."

At 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon in late February, 16 of us show up in the prison parking lot with cans of paint, children's books in Spanish and plants. Six hours later, we've painted the walls in bright green, yellow and blue, and started a children's mural.

A 200-pound inmate with arms like mahogany pillars paints a snake on the mural. He sways to Master P on his Walkman. Painting next to him, 19-year-old Melissa, a student at Duke, sings along. "Man, you know all of Master P!" the inmate snorts. It turns out the two lived a few miles from each other in Durham before he was incarcerated.

In the courtyard, inmates plant azaleas and jasmine vines donated by a Raleigh nursery. "Man, we keep up the prison grounds all the time, but this we're doing for the children!" says one man. There's a lot of discussion about how to keep the smoking area away from children. Another group paints a hopscotch game on the pavement. "We'll paint another coat during the week, boss. This is where we're going to be at anyway." Few of the inmates tell us why they're in prison. Mostly we don't ask.

Late in April, we hold a dedication ceremony for the visitation room. An inmate sings a song he has composed:

Hanging plants, colorful carpets, on the walls

We even had sound proofing installed.

Tarzan and friends for the kids while they play

So when they come, it will be a better day.

We all are one, we all had fun,

We have shown unity.

Another inmate says, "I can't change my predicament, but maybe I can change myself. Instead of rolling in the bottom of a pit in the dirt, I can use the dirt to make a ladder." We eat cake and hug.

Two Saturdays ago I went back to the visitation room to see how it worked. Families chatted in the seating areas we created, kids played with their fathers on the playground. But the sand play tables we installed, wildly popular with the children, were gone. The corrections officers found them too messy, and hard to clean up. Corrections officers are also custodians: Inmates are not allowed to touch trash because controlled substances or "connections" can be made.

"Maybe you made the visitation too friendly, too nice," an inmate kidded me. "Now we can't scare the kids who visit about prison."

"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way," wrote Viktor Frankl about his concentration camp experience.

"Behind the walls of LSCI we saw the walls come down between people," a Legacy volunteer said. "Inmates and volunteers overcame their doubts and fear. They became free."

As I walked down the hill from the visitation room at dusk, I saw a mockingbird perched on the highest coil of razor wire above the prison gate. "When they first put up the razor wire, birds get caught in it and die," the inmates told me. "But later the birds learn to live with it." I claimed my driver's license and went through the steel doors that clanged shut. Out in the parking lot I could hear the mockingbird singing. EndBlock

  • What happens when you try to create a place of joy in a prison?

More by Frank Harmon

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