Anne-Valérie Bernard developed a close relationship with Tewhan Butler, incarcerated in Lake Placid, in the northern part of the state of New York. In late April 2017, she travelled from France to the U.S. to visit him. This is her story.
IT ALWAYS STARTS the same way. Always the same checklist before the long flight: pack the right clothes, pay attention to prohibited colours, sleeve length, and cleavage. Choose a bra without underwire or metal fasteners, pants that are neither too wide nor too tight-fitting, shoes. I also plan on bringing a small, clear plastic bag to hold money and that I can bring into the visiting room, plus the bus tickets that will take me to the middle of nowhere. Finally, I have to make a reservation in an affordable motel for the nights I’ll spend over there and not forget to write down the telephone number for a taxi company to take me to and from the prison, until, maybe, I meet someone who will offer to drive me there.
It started like this a long time ago, when my correspondent and I decided we wanted to meet face to face. What a challenge!
It requires getting a visitor’s permit to a federal American penitentiary. I endured 5 refusals, and then one day, my application was accepted. I’ve since undertaken two return journeys to Kentucky. Now, I’m about to head for Lake Placid, in the northern part of the State of New York, not far from the Canadian border. After the 1980 Winter Games, the Olympic Village was turned into a medium-security federal prison where 700 men are serving their sentence.
Less than a hundred meters later we’re at the entrance to the federal prison. My driver tosses me a “Welcome to the Olympic Village!”It’s not even 7:15 yet.
A VISIT means above all waiting. A lot of waiting. It’s also a bit like a three-act play: before, during, after. Before, two actors get ready to meet. Communication is limited, each word is selected, all subjects that could give the prison administration an opportunity to cancel THE visit are silenced. On either side of the ocean, we busy ourselves. The prisoner is careful not to commit any false moves. The visitor plans her trip.
Once I’m on the American continent, I still don’t know if the meeting will be possible. In fact, I won’t know until the last minute. Carrying a light bag, I board a bus for an 8-hour journey. This is a time of calmness when I prepare myself to face the prison’s frigid environment. Questions rattle around my head: If the visit does take place, will they make me wait a long time? What will the wardens and the visiting room be like? How long will I be allowed to stay? Will we be able to communicate peacefully or will we have to yell to be heard? I try to enjoy the scenery to silence the underlying anxiety that always accompanies me before a visit. Through the window, I see forests, mountains, and deer walking around. I know stress levels will be high tomorrow morning.
Saturday, April 29. I get up and anxiety starts to invade me. The only taxi able to take me is picking me up at 7 am. The prison is not far away, not more than 15 minutes. So I’ll have to wait 45 minutes on the spot. Bad luck, the driver is early! We head off. He’s a cheerful man. We take a tiny road in the middle of a dense forest. We pass in front of a state prison. Less than a hundred meters later we’re at the entrance to the federal prison. My driver tosses me a “Welcome to the Olympic Village!“It’s not even 7:15 yet. I step out of the car.
It’s the beginning of Act II, the visit. Even though I’m alone on the enormous parking lot, even though I see no movement, I feel multiple pairs of invisible eyes resting on me and scrutinizing me. To be seen without seeing. To be seen before having seen. It’s a recurring sensation, but one I cannot get used to. It’s distressing. Making me feel ill at ease.
I enter the prison. As expected, I have to leave as I am prohibited from waiting on site until the official hour when visits start. I exit the prison’s perimeter and sit down in the woods.
I watch the back and forth movement of cars that are entering or leaving, the change of shifts. I hear detonations of firearms from the gun range adjacent to the prison. I also hear orders shouted to the prisoners and amplified by loudspeakers. I wait.
At the appointed time, I return to the prison’s entrance. Confined in some kind of a security airlock, I am soon joined by other visitors. Primarily women, a few men, some children. A young woman steps in front of me. All the better, she seems to know the place, I’ll be able to act like her. A warden sticks his head around the door. He asks if everyone has come for a visit to the federal penitentiary because there are often mix-ups with the state penitentiary. Everyone has filled out the visiting application form. Everyone waits. Conversations start. Comments on the warden, viewed unanimously as an “asshole.” He likes to torment women about their clothing. Nothing is right. Pants that are too skin-tight or too loose, too much cleavage, a blouse that is too short, everything is an excuse to make the present moment even worse. I realize at that moment that I forgot to bring a spare set of clothing with me, in the precise case that the wardens don’t approve of mine.
Loud announcement, “this is the last time I’m coming to visit my husband, I’m sick of making these back and forth trips,” discussions before mothers and children, panic when a women discovers that she forgot to bring her ID, which means she won’t be allowed in.
All the visitors are helping each other, they all want news from each other, solidarity expresses itself in an astonishing brouhaha that seeks to mask the anxiety visible in every gaze: “Will my visit take place?”
I listen. I glance at the room where the security checks will take place and see a photo of Donald Trump on the wall, and I tell myself that last time it was a different portrait. It’s of no interest whatsoever, but it allows me to concentrate on something else and forget a little the palpable tension.
The security airlock finally opens. The warden announces that we will enter three by three. I hand over my passport, my visiting form, I complete the register, I ask for a locker for my bag, and I sign. I take off my shoes, my glasses, and I put them together with the locker key and my transparent bag of quarters on the conveyor belt. Once past the security portal, I put on my shoes and my glasses back on. This time there’s no enhanced security search. I help a child put his shoes back on when the warden approaches our little group. We are four women and two children. He affixes the ultraviolet tattoo on our right hands. So it will be on the left hand tomorrow; that’s the only really predictable and certain thing.
THROUGH THE FIRST DOOR with the characteristic opening “bzzzz” accompanied by a metallic sound, plus the “cling” of keys, chains and handcuffs on belts. As soon as the door is closed, the warden wants to read our tattoos. Less than 30 seconds have elapsed between the moment when he affixed them and the moment when he wants to check them. He hasn’t left us and we went through the door together. But it must be the rule. At the far end of the room, behind a clear glass, another warden asks us to submit again to the same verification. I am submerged in the prison’s cold, metallic odour.
After another door, we are outside. I can see a small courtyard, the cell buildings, but above all I can see the surrounding woods. Contrary to high-security penitentiaries surrounded by walls, medium-security ones are enclosed by numerous fences that are topped by rolls of barbed wire but allow prisoners to see their surroundings.
We enter the visiting room after another door and another verification. Each visitor is called by the prisoner’s name and reaches out a hand again to be identified one last time, before taking the seat assigned by the warden. I sit down, slightly nervous. The visiting room is small. Maybe we will be too numerous for the visits, in which case they will be shortened. Nothing is a given. It could even be that, on the other side of the walls, the person I’m coming to meet won’t be authorized to pass through the door.
I look around me: there is a row of prisoners who will receive a single visitor and another row for prisoners who will receive many. In a corner sits a small table with a microwave oven, plastic forks, small spoons (no knives), and napkins. I also see two small uncomfortable cubicles with a monitor for the video visits reserved to prisoners in isolation.
I feel a little lost: 6 rows of plastic chairs face each other, separated by a small table. Am I allowed to place my key on the table? That was prohibited at the previous penitentiary.
I look at my two, day-old companions. They are buying something to eat from the vending machines that offer candies, cooked meals, fruit, and drinks at prohibitive costs. Incongruous situation: they lay their purchases on the table as if each of them were preparing a family meal. I deduce that yes, I can lay down my key and I, too, get up to buy something to eat and drink. Prisoners, whose daily meals are horrible and insufficient, particularly appreciate this opportunity to eat something else, even if what is sold here is of mediocre quality.
Think about the next visit, knowing all the time that everything will be like today, with the same routine, but that everything will be different because the rules change from one time to the next
SUDDENLY, a man enters the room. He walks over to give his prisoner ID card to the supervisor and heads for his visitor. The smile lighting up his face says everything: a visit is a moment of freedom stolen from the penitentiary institution. Tewhan Butler, the person I have come to meet, follows him. Khaki jumpsuit, bright orange plastic shoes, standing straight and dignified, his eyes search for me. A brief embrace. Already we are seated and we start talking.
Around us the noise reaches a crescendo. Visitors enter on one side of the visiting room, prisoners on the other. Coins tumble down the vending machines, conversations mix with the back and forth journeys to the microwave, people laugh, children cry when they win or lose at a game with their father, others cry because time drags by when you’re sitting on un uncomfortable plastic chair…
And then there is the flow of people when the photographer arrives to take snapshots and the flow of wardens who continuously pace the room, when it’s not the chief supervisor bellowing to call to order all those who are violating a rule.
Across from me, Tewhan doesn’t look at me. His eyes, like his neighbours’, never stop moving from right to left, sweeping over everything in his field of vision. He’s watching the visiting room, ready to react if anything abnormal occurs. The visiting room is also a dangerous place.
Suddenly, the supervisor shouts even louder. Silence follows. All the prisoners stand up; it’s time for them to be counted. New order, they sit back down and conversations pick up as if nothing had happened. This interruption serves to remind everybody, in case someone forgot, that we are indeed at the heart of the penal system.
We talk, we talk. About all sorts of topics. About Tewhan’s work, around 45 hours per week at the laundry, remunerated 17 dollars a month. About his children, their plans, their next birthdays—one more he won’t be celebrating, about his daughter who told him that her mother has agreed to drive her here so she can visit him. We talk about what he, Tewhan, wants to do later, about his university application, his reintegration into the general population. About the rules in this establishment where he recently arrived, about the window he has in his cell and through which he can see the moon in the evening. Ironically, since the buildings were created for top athletes, there are real windows. We talk about his hope of one day seeing deer roaming around the prison’s enclosure, about “Chien blanc” by Romain Gary and other books, Donald Trump’s election, the ongoing presidential election in France, common friends outside, and about my visit…We talk without pausing, because even if no one mentions it, everyone knows that time is being counted. Besides, the supervisors yell that the visiting time is almost over.
It’s Saturday. There are some who will come back tomorrow, or at least they hope to as anything can trigger a visiting ban or a prison “lockdown,” and who thus pursue their conversations fairly serenely. There are others, those who will leave.
Conversations speed up, the sound volume increases. “Visit over!” It’s the end. Already “after.” We have to leave. Say goodbye to each other. See you tomorrow or not. Prisoners stand with their backs to the wall at one end of the room, visitors, too, but at the opposite end.
They are the ones who leave first. We take the same journey as this morning with the same checks but in reverse. Pick up my belongings. Return the locker key. Leave the grounds. Try and shed some of the emotional burden, oh, so heavy. Think about the next visit, knowing all the time that everything will be like today, with the same routine, but that everything will be different because the rules change from one time to the next, without any notice, just to keep everyone under pressure, just to be able to say, “We’re the ones who enact the rules and we do as we please.”
Prison is the triumph of the arbitrary. It’s “after” and consequently, once again “before,” the infernal cycle of visits that can last a whole life for prisoners. Thirty years in fact for my friend Tewhan.