First, I want to say that I'm not posting any of my photos. They are REALLY strict about photos, how they're taken, who is taking them, etc. If you read my blog a few days ago, you know I am one to follow the rules, and when you're talking prison rules, this is NOT the time to start being a rebel. They are SUPER serious there ~ imagine that. Honestly, I was more scared of the guards than of the inmates that I met. I got the shots that I needed, and even managed to snap a few dramatic ones for my own personal stash, but I will never be sharing them here. Sorry. Trust me, there is a lot of dramatic material to photograph in a place like that.
It was a great experience and I'm so glad that I went.
I went with my friend Heather, and we were both glad that we didn't have to go alone. When we got there, we got checked in and went through security, and we were then met by our guide (a really cool woman) who runs the "community outreach" programs in the prison. She took us back to her offices, where inmates who have earned their way to a very nice job, work on creating the educational toys and products that will eventually be back in Cincinnati and in the hands of underprivileged school kids.
My first impression was one of surprise. I guess I've just watched too much of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile and was expecting the place to be dark, dirty, and depressing. It was NOTHING like what I had pictured in my mind. It was bright white...almost blinding bright, and impeccably clean.....truly spotless ~ the kind of clean that my house could only dream about! And it really wasn't depressing either. I guess the brightness makes sense, it's hard to hide or get into trouble under brilliant white lights. While prison is NOT a good place, I found the mood to be lively and active. People were moving all over the place...it was very busy and crowded, like Walmart on a Saturday afternoon. I learned that the majority of inmates have jobs (and it's up to them if they want to have a job or not) and those that have jobs seem to take their jobs quite seriously, whether it be in community outreach, as a plumber, or working in the print shop.
The men that I spoke with in the community outreach room today had a tremendous amount of pride in their work. These men were older men, probably in their 50's, and they were all serving life sentences. It's my guess that these men had been incarcerated for close to 30 years, if not more and had long come to terms with their fate. They knew that while they might never be able to help people outside of the walls, this was something that they could do to help others in need, and they truly took that opportunity to heart. I was so impressed by that. I was also impressed by how smart and talented so many of the inmates were. Many have earned GEDs and college degrees while serving their time. In the art room, there were fantastic works of art and many of the walls had very well done murals. I met two men who crocheted the most gorgeous blankets, hats, and baby clothes ~ that was truly remarkable! I'm serious, these guys were REALLY GOOD.... Their finished projects will be sent to local shelters and hospitals, and they're getting ready to kick off a big project where they crochet American flag blankets to send to disabled Iraqi war veterans. It's sad to me that these guys hadn't discovered their talents or put those brains to work for good before they ended up behind bars.
Another great program in the community outreach area is called "Circle Tail". Circle Tail (from their website) is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization located 30 miles northeast of downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. The organization was established in 1997. Circle Tail's mission is to provide high quality assistance dogs to people with mobility, hearing, neurologic or psychiatric disabilities and promote the human-canine bond in the community by providing dog adoptions, obedience training, behavior management and boarding services. Regular citizens can also adopt and foster dogs through Circle Tail. Part of their program is partnering with the state prison system. The Inmate/Canine Educational Training Program helps provide dogs for adoption and assistance dogs to individuals with disabilities. Circle Tail now works with the Lebanon, London, Ohio Reformatory for Women, and Ross Correctional Institutes in Ohio. Circle Tail trainers provide regular instruction to the inmates in caring for and training the puppies / dogs. The inmates are responsible for all of the puppies'/ dogs' physical and emotional needs. They oversee their social development, feeding, grooming, and exercise programs, and instruct them in good house manners and basic and advanced obedience. Some inmates also have the opportunity to train the dogs in advanced service skills. The inmates are with the puppies/ dogs at all times except during meals and the puppies/ dogs sleep in crates in the inmates' quarters.The inmates participate in regularly scheduled educational programs and instructional sessions with Circle Tail trainers and correctional facility program coordinators.
I got to meet all of the LECI Circle Tail dogs and their inmate trainers, and as a dog lover, I couldn't be more impressed. Other than show dogs, these were the best trained and most obedient dogs I've ever seen, and it was clear that their trainers truly loved them. They work with the dogs 12 hours/day and the dogs are allowed to live in special crates in the inmates' cells and are with them 24/7. I would adopt any of these dogs in a heartbeat and was ready to take the one golden retriever home right there (in fact, I just looked her up on the internet)! The inmate trainers told me that they had the best job at LECI, but the worst part of the job is letting a dog go, because they love their canine roomates so much. I can totally understand that.
It might also sound like a cliche' ~ and it is ~ but I got to tour the license plate factory. LECI is the only prison in the state of Ohio that makes plates, and they make ALL of the plates and registration and county stickers for all autos in Ohio. That was one IMPRESSIVE operation! So if you live in Ohio and drive, those plates and stickers on your car were made at LECI. I was told by the manager that the year Ohio switched to red, white and blue plates, they cranked out 16 million plates in twelve months!
So anyhow, as you can see, there are a ton of positive educational and vocational programs going on behind those bars, and a lot of good hearted, hard working people who go there every day to help these inmates make the best of their time and make them better people. But don't be fooled, it's not all good either. It's still prison. I think it's easy to see friendly, hard working people and bright clean walls and kind of forget where you are. We were constantly reminded that while the prison population as a whole has a large percentage of inmates who follow the rules, there are always those who don't. These are the guys who end up in solitary, or in prison court for doing the same things on the inside that they did on the outside. These are the guys who don't believe in rules and think that they have something to prove. They were the scary guys. I got a glance into some of the cell blocks where the gang-bangers-with-attitude live. Our guide says that if she had to work in there, she would quit first.
People get hurt, attacked, and sometimes even killed in prison, and as a visitor, and employee, or even an inmate, you can never forget where you are and let your guard down. As a visitor or employee, you can't make friends with the inmates, or you leave yourself vulnerable to physical attack or a swindle. That was pretty sobering, as was watching them do "movements" where large groups of inmates were moved from one area to another as a part of their day. When I saw that, it really hit home what it means to lose your freedom.
Of course we all know that when you're incarcerated, you aren't leaving the building. But what I now think would be worse than that was the realization that in every second of every day, other people are monitoring what you are doing and where you are. You are accounted for 24/7, 365. While you might have some choices as to what you might do...like go to the library as opposed to the art room, you are constantly scheduled. You never wake up when you want. You never eat when you want. Your time is never your own and you can never just disappear. As somebody who loves her alone time, I think this kind of monitoring would drive me completely insane, and that's the heart of what it means to be in prison. It's not about whether or not you have access to cable television, it's the fact that nothing you have is your own, not even your time. All you really have is your thoughts.
Well I could go on all day, but this is long enough! I think everybody should spend 90 minutes in prison, and maybe there would be fewer people doing real time in there. There's just nothing more chilling than watching and hearing those huge iron gates click behind you. At least I knew that they would open up again for me. Thank God!