“Get away from me, pig!”
Like choreographed gears in a machine, the heads of my wife, two children, and a half dozen other visitors spun as one in the direction of the outburst. Usually, the prison visiting room comes with an unspoken rule: no rubbernecking. Whether it’s copping a feel, shedding a tear, or swearing an oath that will never be kept, what happens at another con’s table — stays there. Until a riot breaks out.
“Jaaaaaaaamie, get dooooown here,” one of the woman visitors howled from a far corner of the forty-foot room.
“No,” her spawn yelped back.
“Jamie! Get the FK down, right now,” barked the eight-year-old’s father.
“Nooooooo.” Now the whole visiting room was back-and-forthing, like buck-a-seat fans at some inner-city tennis match. So much for unspoken rules.
“Mr. Waylons, could you give us a hand here?” one of the visiting room staff called out to the boy’s dad.
A hand? Sure. Just let me get them out of my wife’s blouse. The crowd followed play as the now embarrassed lifer leapt from his seat and stormed across the room to the Coke machine.
“Jamie. I. Said. Get. Down. Here. Now.” This final ultimatum arrived with all the subtlety of a car accident, and I’m sure I saw the child shiver — from his entertaining perch on top of the seven-foot-high vending machine. Without a word, the lemon-faced lad rappelled into the impatient arms of his incarcerated parent. “Sorry,” the flushed prisoner mumbled to the two attending guards.
“Child visitors must be within viewing distance of one parent at all times,” cited one — who had evidently read the eleven-hundred and forty page rules and regulations manual the night before. The father and son team slinked past us towards their assigned seating.
“Jamie, what did I tell you about sugar? No more Coke for you today,” the elder one sermonized.
My eyes fell away to our seven-year-old daughter, who by now was quite glossy-eyed on an obviously inside joke. “What’s so funny,” I asked.
“Look — look — on top,” she blurted between breaths. My eyes followed hers back to the top of the tall, crimson cola dispenser. There, tipped on its side, was a pop can — with its contents running down the side of the machine and onto the carpet beneath. PEPSI, the can announced. “He said, ‘no more Coke’. He didn’t say nothing about Pepsi,” Rachel said, roiling in the irony of her own joke. Her nine-year-old brother and I looked at each other and then joined in. Even in the pen, it’s all about product placement.
Every so often (when I’m not out breaking granite with a small rubber hammer in the prison slave quarry) my mate will read me some of this column’s reader responses over the phone. Recently, one of the more thoughtful ones included the comment, “I think this guy has an agenda.” I’m sure I laughed as hard as our daughter did that visiting room day more than a decade ago. Agenda? Only humans have agendas. And as some of my less thoughtful readers can assure you — the list of words describing a prisoner doesn’t include human. What I will cop to though is having a point of view. And while the view is self explanatory, the point goes something like this: the problem of crime and punishment is the most complicated and intransigent one the human family has ever faced. If you doubt that, just ask a kid with a dad behind bars.
“It inspired me to think deeper into life,” says twenty-four-year-old Damar in a recent interview with MSNBC. At thirteen, he attended a seven day “summer camp” along with his convicted father — at a medium-security penitentiary in Ohio. The event was sponsored by Hope House, a Washington D.C. non-profit.
After a week of days with his father in the prison gymnasium, doing crafts and just being, Damar came away with an understanding that “the world isn’t perfect. I [had] to be ready for that,” he says. Now a college graduate, he uses his experiences in the “Father-child camp behind bars” program to serve as a volunteer counsellor to other kids whose fathers are incarcerated. “My experience helps me. It makes me think deeper into life… and the things I need to do to keep myself on the right path. It’s [about] empathy.”
Thankfully, Canadian prisoners get more opportunities to parent than our U.S. brethren do. We have weekly open visits where we can read to, support, and play with our kids. For cons who qualify, there are also facilities where their families can stay overnight with them every couple of months. And while these compassionate provisions will surely elicit as many viewpoints as there are Canadians with an opinion, there’s one view I will always be grateful for. That’s the view of my daughter’s face the day she discovered the joy in spilt Pepsi.