If there is one thing that all prisoners agree on it?s that prison sucks. And so it should. When a person plays so wickedly that they get ordered out of the (gene) pool, they should hardly expect a free trip to Disneyland. That?s why, even in a humanitarian country like Canada, prison is no petting zoo. The hours of cell lockup where the sound of your own thoughts drowns out all others; the months that turn into years, while the world you knew forgets your name; the loss of dignity when treated like meat by prison guards; the constant anxiety that every day holds a life-threatening catastrophe: that?s prison. It?s enough to test your sense of humour.
Then something will happen to confirm that you are still part of the human race. Like the day Jacky Wang decided that his fresh fifteen-year-sentence shouldn?t derail long standing birthday traditions. Where Jacky comes from, birthdays are a really big deal. His good luck in the following year depends on eating fresh lobster and drinking exactly one ounce of premium whiskey on his birthday. He claims it?s been that way since he broke from the nipple. So, in the fashion of someone who ?just doesn?t get it?, Jacky got on the phone, and made arrangements. He had the foresight to have already booked a Private Family (conjugal) visit on his lucky day. That only left his wife to stop at the vendors, then a quick dip into Superstore?s lobster tank on her dash to the prison. Evidently, Jackie?s Feng Shui demanded fresh lobster.
If you?ve never been a visitor to a medium-security federal penitentiary, the first thing that strikes you is the in-your-face security presence. Razor wire, a twelve-foot double fence, armed guards, and bold warning signs are only the entr?e. Then you enter the gate house, where you face metal detectors, ion scanners, x-ray machines, drug sniffing dogs, and guards trained in the fine art of ?pat down? searches ? what we used to call ?getting felt up?, back in high school. Finally, if any of those ?non-intrusive? search techniques raise the slightest suspicion, you may be invited to participate in a more intimate experience. A regulation strip search includes removing all of your clothing, baring your mouth like a horse at auction, and presenting the soles of your feet for inspection. Then, the main event: ?Bend over and spread ?em.? It makes you wonder why anyone would ever come here as a visitor, never mind with a mini-bottle of rye in her bra, and a live lobster strapped to her back like wee Willie Shoemaker.
The call-out time for Private Family Visits (PFV?s) is 2:30. Jacky sat in his cell and waited. By 3:15, he started pacing the tier. At 3:45, he used the tier phone to call home. No answer. Ten minutes later, his name came over the P.A. system: ?Wang, report to the 1st floor Correctional Manager?s office.? Not good. The Correctional Manager is in charge of visiting. As Jackie walked off the tier, you could see the nerves jumping under his skin, like little kernels of popcorn under heat. I truly felt for him. PFV?s are one of the greatest privileges afforded to prisoners in the federal system. Those that qualify to participate in them usually count the days until the next one. They are an opportunity for a prisoner to eat a meal with their family, fall asleep in the arms of someone who loves them, and engage in the types of normal human activities they took for granted on the outside. The thought of your PFV being cancelled for any reason is almost more than the psyche can take. When Jackie left the tier to receive what could only be bad news, my heart travelled with the likeable little Asian.
We were locked down for our regular 4:00 count before Jackie returned to the tier. When our doors opened a half-hour later, I wandered over to his cell to find out what had happened. His door was locked. The cell was dark. Looking through the 4 x 16 inch cell-door window, I saw him lying face-down on his bunk with a pillow pulled over his head. That?s when Tiny Tim told me what had happened. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I settled for a smirk. After eighteen years in the loony-bin of prison I thought I had seen everything. But the day Jackie Wang?s wife got pinched muling a contraband lobster felt like a loss of innocence. I knew that nothing would ever surprise me again. It?s too bad that it cost them a four-month suspension of open visits. But there is one rule that all prisoners know: you do the crime, you do the time. Better luck next year Jackie.