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Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2005 11:03 am

On visiting the cooler

Where you check your dignity at the first heavy steel door

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Today I’m going to take you somewhere you never want to go. Don’t fret; just reading about it won’t hurt you. Besides, it’s the only painless way to peep inside. A brief visit to this place can be humiliating. Spending your life there has to be pure hell. Last month, I went inside three maximum-security “correctional centers” — the optimistic euphemism that replaced “penitentiary” in 1973. I doubt that any tour company offers a prison package, but the three historic joints I visited look architecturally awesome, from the outside. The most modern is Dwight, called the Oakdale Reformatory for Women when it was built in 1930. The campus covers 100 lushly shaded acres in a rural area along Interstate 55. Menard, built in 1878, is some 50 miles off the beaten path, in Chester, where the prison squats along the banks of the mighty Mississippi. A swath of railroad tracks busy with freight trains ensures the inmates won’t get to enjoy the spectacular river view. Pontiac, on the other hand, is hidden in plain sight. No signs remind motorists of the appropriate interstate exit or hint at which residential street dead-ends at the prison’s front gate. Built in 1871 as the Boys Reformatory, Pontiac looms over a landscape of gingerbread houses so neighborly, you have to wonder whether the gatehouse guards hand out popcorn balls or candy apples to trick-or-treaters at Halloween. But no matter how picturesque the prison, you can’t park on the property without realizing that you’re in Slammerville. Just driving onto the lot means that you consent to having your vehicle searched. Once you’re buzzed into the gatehouse — with a metallic thwack! so sharp that you check to see if you’ve been shot — it becomes much more personal. First you have to present proper identification, which usually (but not always) means a driver’s license and Social Security card. While the officer hunts-and-pecks your data into a computer, you can stash all your taboo toys in a 50-cent locker. “You might as well put your whole purse in there. It’s full of contraband,” a guard tells me after reaching into my handbag and finding a pack of sugar-free Wrigley’s. Chewing gum isn’t allowed in prison, not even for the guards. It’s messy, it can be used to clog locks, and it might discourage smoking. Most jewelry is also verboten. Visitors are allowed one watch, one ring, one matched pair of earrings, and one necklace — as long as it isn’t a locket and doesn’t display letters, such as a monogram. No bracelets. What about anklets? “No bracelets of any kind!” the guard at Menard barks. Actually, I don’t remember having to remove my bracelets at Dwight, which is possible because there’s a bit of whimsy in each prison’s application of the rules. For example, at Dwight and Menard I was allowed to carry my notebook with me, whereas at Pontiac spiral binding is banned. At Dwight and Pontiac, I was allowed to use my colorful Uni-Ball pens, but at Menard I had to take notes with a prison-issue black Bic ballpoint. Also at Dwight and Pontiac, a female officer took me into a closet and made me remove my shoes and display the bare soles of my feet. The officer then patted me down, checking for wire in my bra. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d been caught wearing an underwire (instinct told me not to risk it), but I’ve heard of a lawyer who got off with an admonition — “You need to get yourself a prison bra!” — and an inmate’s sister who was handed snippers and ordered to cut the stays out. The only place in which I wasn’t personally monitored was Menard, where I interviewed two convicted killers and a third felon, who, having been acquitted of attempted murder is doing 30 years for aggravated battery with a firearm instead. The guard delivered these homicidal maniacs to me one by one, then shut the door, leaving me alone with a guy who could easily have ripped the spiral binding from my notebook and twisted it into . . . an illegal bangle bracelet. Really, though, I shouldn’t complain. Some guards gave me special treatment. At Dwight, an officer spotted me two quarters for the locker. At Menard, they let me in with no pat-down. There seems to be a pecking order for prison visitors — law-enforcement guys at the top, kinfolk near the bottom. I got the feeling that my status as a reporter ranked me lower than a defense attorney but a step above the inmates’ babies’ mamas. A friend of mine who was once a warden assures me there’s a reason for every rule — such as no wigs, because visitors have smuggled contraband inside under fake hair. Though I truly believe him, I also know that the rules chipped away at my dignity — and I was just dropping in for a visit. Imagine living there.
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