I was in prison yesterday, visiting clients and potential clients. Between meetings, I sat in a professional visiting room, where so-called "contact" visits are allowed: in other words, I was able to shake my client’s hand; there was no barrier separating us. The door to my room was open, and I looked across a hall, and through a plexiglass window, out on row-upon-row of booths set up for ordinary visits. Each booth permitted an inmate to visit with folks sitting on the other side of a plexiglass window; the parties communicate by means of a telephone, and the booths are separated by partitions.
My mind wandered as I waited for a client. Suddenly, I found myself looking at a little girl who could not be more than two years old, sitting on the counter opposite an inmate whose back was to me. A woman was sitting behind the girl, taking to the man on the telephone. Her eyes were welcoming, the sort of eyes that convey "I love you" without words.
The phone was handed to the little girl. The girl sat with her back to the man, and all at once, my heart ached for him. This must be his daughter, dressed up and come to see daddy. But the environment is foreign to her. What is she to make of the plastic wall separating her from her father? What is he to do with the craving, the need, to hold this daughter close to him?
The woman encouraged the girl to speak: the tiny stranger struggled with the bulk of the phone, as though it were a dumbbell.
I wanted to tell the girl to turn around, to look at her father. Surely, if there is to be no hug there can at least be a look. Let him tell you he loves you. Find those eyes, those anchors in a world too often fearful.
Soon enough the girl turned around. She struggled to hold the phone to her head, but somehow the apparatus was too big; the earpiece and mouthpiece framed her entire head. Her mother beamed and encouraged her to speak, but the girl could not use the piece or make sense of it all.
At once, her face lit up. She was now kneeling on the bench on the other side the window facing her father. She looks confused, somehow tentative. How long has it been since she has seen her father? I worry that she thinks his absence from her life means he does not love her.
Her mother continues to encourage her to talk. I see tears in the mother’s eyes, and suddenly there are tears in my eyes, too.
The girl now takes the phone. She holds it in a tiny hand and presses it against the plexiglass, both the receiver and mouthpiece now facing her father. He takes his phone and presses it against the glass, just opposite hers. No words can be spoken in this fashion, but the bond formed is obvious. He places his free hand against the window; she places hers against his.
I hear the sound of a door opening, and too soon a client of mine is ushered into my room. It all happened so quickly, I did not have time to wipe the tears from my eyes. I am embarrassed to be seen so; yes, prison is a hurting place, but my clients count on me to be wily and brave. I hurt when I watched this family divided.
I am sorry now that I watched this family in what should have been their private moment. Yet the obvious love they expressed for one another drew me like a moth to a flame. I can’t stop thinking of the little girl, and worrying about her, her father absent, and then present, but just beyond reach, beyond touch.
The scene gave me a whole new set of reasons to hate prisons, and the tiny victims that we create by locking up so many folks for so long a period. I will remember the little girl as the forgotten victim.