Some good news arrived on the morning of my departure from North Carolina for my holiday trip. Governor Bev Purdue vetoed the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. This means that prisoners on death row in North Carolina will still be able to file appeals of their sentences on the grounds that the death penalty is applied in a racist fashion. To read an earlier post on this blog about the Racial Justice Act, click here. Thank you, Governor Purdue, for upholding this landmark law which makes a significant step toward addressing the legacies of racism and lynching in our Southern state.
Carrying this Christmas present in my heart, I flew to Texas to visit my parents for the holidays. I spent a full day to flying from North Carolina to my mother’s hometown. The next day my mom and I went into her office and worked until 2 PM before we drove the eight hours to the small west Texas town where my father’s prison sits surrounded by cotton fields and endless sky. We arrived after 10 PM and pulled up to the local Holiday Inn. Since the parking lot was only a third full, we assumed that they had plenty of available rooms. As luck would have it, a pipe had burst in the hotel, flooding several rooms. Since another section of the hotel was being renovated, less than half of the rooms in the hotel were habitable, and all of those were booked. We got back in the car and drove down the road to another hotel called the Baymont Inn. We got a room, but when we put our key card in the door, we realized that the room was dead bolted from the inside. The teenager at the desk had given us the key to an already occupied room. We probably startled a sleeping person, perhaps another prisoner’s family member or a weary workman who had spent all day laboring in the nearby oil fields. We went back down to the front desk, got the key to a different room, and finally managed to settle in for the night, exhausted and grateful for sleep.
I couldn’t help thinking throughout our travels and frustrations of how many families would be journeying down country roads to the places where we hide our prisons from public view. Some of them will find shelter through a charity organization, like the Good Samaritan Hospitality House in Colorado City, Texas, which provides free lodging for families visiting loved ones in nearby prisons. Other families will spend a night or two in their cars on the side of the road because they have no other place to stay on their way to and from the prison. A great many of the adults in these families will, like my mother, have worked a full week and begun their sojourns with no rest. The children may have started off toward the prison directly from school, as we used to do when I was younger. Their journeys home will have to be just as hurried so that they can avoid the expense and difficulty of finding lodging for an extra night.
We arrived at the prison on Saturday morning and were told there would be a forty-five minute wait to get into the visiting room because all of the visiting tables were already occupied. We had the good fortune of arriving at an opportune moment when two of the only three chairs in the gate house at the prison’s entrance were available. The families ahead of us on the waiting list to get into the visiting room were sitting in their cars in the cold until they saw other families leaving the prison, vacating the much-desired tables where each family could for a moment celebrate the holidays. Because this particular prison recently instituted a rule that no long visits–or special visits, as they are called–would be allowed on holiday weekends, the weekend prior to Christmas is now experiencing the overcrowding that used to occur on the holiday itself. We all adjusted our travel schedules to make sure we would be allowed to visit for eight hours rather than the scant two permitted on short visits. The families who had waited in their cars had to be searched twice on their way into the prison–once upon arrival when they came into the gate house to get on the waiting list to enter the prison and again when they returned from their cars to the gatehouse so that they could begin their visits. All of us had been searched by a guard at the entrance to the parking lot when we drove into the prison, so some visitors had actually endured three searches by the time they saw their loved ones in the visiting room. Prisoners, of course, face searches far more invasive; they are strip searched as they enter and leave the visiting room.
Despite the challenges we face on the way in and out of visits, our time together as a family is the best and most cherished present we receive each Christmas. The insensitive comments made by guards, the stiffness in our joints from so many hours of sitting on airplanes and in cars, the fears that some new terror might have worn away yet another aspect of our loved one’s physical or mental health since we last saw one another–all fades away in the warmth and joy created by the simple act of gathering our family around a table for a few precious hours. May every family find the peace and love amongst them this holiday season. My family’s Christmas came a week early this year.