Thursday, May 30, 2013

The things I get myself into

So you may know that I used to work on death penalty cases when I lived in Texas, and, actually, for a short while when I first moved to Alaska.  I have several former clients that I still keep in touch with, even though I am not "officially" on their cases any more.  I have two guys on federal death row in Terre Haute, IN, and have not seen them in almost 10 years.

When Rich and I were talking about taking this trip to Chicago, we discussed renting a car and driving to Terre Haute to visit.  I know for a fact that one of the guys has had no visitors other than lawyers in the whole time he's been there. The other has had a few family visits.  They are allowed to email family and friends on a closed email system called CorrLinks, which does not permit them to go to any other sites (lest you think they are being coddled on death row).  I emailed both of them when I knew the trip was firm and asked them to start the process to get me on their visitor list and to let me know what I needed to do to set something up. One of them sent me some forms to fill out, which I did, but I did not hear from the other one. I thought maybe he'd decided he'd rather not have a visit or maybe he was just too depressed to see anyone right now since both of them had had their final appeals denied.  I didn't want to be pushy so I did not write another note to him right away.

I sent the paperwork in to a counselor at the prison and included a letter stating that we were leaving AK to go on an extended trip and because our mail is sometimes slow, if he sent me anything back via mail, I might not get it. I gave him my cell phone number and my email address in case he needed to reach me when we were traveling. I also mentioned that I would like to see the other guy as well, IF he wanted a visit, and asked if the documents I sent could be used to get approved for both.

We left on vacation without hearing anything. I emailed both guys and told them what I'd done so far. I asked guy #2 if he did want a visit since I hadn't heard from him nor received paperwork.  He wrote back and said he'd sent paperwork a long time ago and yes, he did want a visit.  Further complications!

I still figured we had time to get things done since we left AK on May 6 and would not be able to get to Terre Haute till May 21.  When we hit Seattle, I realized that my AK cell phone was not working as it should. I won't go into the long, drawn out story of our pitiful system, but even though I was supposed to have nation wide calling and unlimited texting, I was getting neither.  No texts at all and spotty calling.  There's more to this saga but just suffice it to say that my phone was totally unreliable.  This made me think, "oh, crap, if the counselor has tried to call, he can't get through."

I began calling the federal prison in Terre Haute, and let me just tell you that this was one of the most frustrating experiences EVER.  First off, since I never heard from the counselor, I did not know his extension. So here's how it goes: You dial the main number and get a menu of choices. The choices are: If you know your party's extension, dial it any time.  If this is about an inmate, dial 0 or stay on the line.  If this is about a visit, dial 1.  First I dialed 1, thinking it would hook me up with someone. No, it gives me a message saying "Visitation for the ______ is normal."  What the hell does that mean??  So next time, I dialed 0.  I cannot remember how many times I called and the phone just rang and rang and rang. I mean it rang for 3, 4, 5 minutes straight with no answer. Finally, a man answered the phone and I explained my situation to him. He connected me with the counselor's office. Of course, the counselor was not in and I got voicemail. I left a long, rambling message to explain all what was going on and left him Rich's cell number in case he couldn't get through to me. I mentioned that I had included my email address in my letter, so perhaps he could email me.  I said I would try again.

I called again and got an operator again and went through the whole rigamarole one more time. I should have asked for the counselor's extension but I did not think about it and figured I could keep calling and would eventually get him.  Little did I know that from that day forward, no one would EVER answer the damned phone.

I am not kidding when I say I called dozens of times, called every single day over and over again and let the phone ring for many, many minutes with no answer. There is no way to get out of the system without knowing an extension.  I even tried to make up extension numbers in case someone would pick up but they were all "invalid."

Meanwhile the date is getting closer and closer and I have nothing worked out. I emailed the guys and let them know the situation.  I didn't hear anything from them.  Odd.

I knew we should just blow it off but I was worried that we wouldn't go and then suddenly things would be approved and the guys would be waiting for a visit and we wouldn't show up.  You don't know how thankful I am for my easy-going and kindhearted husband, because although we were pretty sure this was fruitless, we rented a car and drove from Chicago to Terre Haute. We even went the long way for some reason, which took us forever.  All along the highway, I kept calling the prison and getting no answer.  I just kept thinking how frustrating this must be for family members if that's the way things usually are. Hopefully THEY know the proper extensions to enter!

By the time we arrived in Terre Haute, it was too late to do anything so we had some dinner, checked into our hotel and crashed for the night.  We got up in the AM and I began calling again, to no avail.  So we packed up and drove out to the prison.  Poor Rich was concerned about how all this was gonna go down and warned me to be calm and not get into it with anyone.  LOL

We pulled into the parking lot of the prison and had to go up to an intercom to explain our presence.  I hopped out of the car and pushed the buzzer while Rich sat in the car.  I was explaining my complicated story to the best of my ability but the receptionist was having none of it.  She basically said "you'd know if you had a visit scheduled."  I asked if there was a way I could talk with the counselor and she said no, I could not expect her to call him down there to talk with me.  She said if I'd left him a message, he'd get back with me. I explained how no one answered the phone EVER and she said she was sorry but there was nothing she could do.  Meanwhile two guards in white pickup trucks had driven down and blocked us in. They sat in their vehicles staring at us in an intimidating way.  What the hell.  I realized I was getting nowhere so told the woman thanks and told Rich we should just go.  I smiled at the one guard closest to me so he wouldn't think I was dangerous. I should have walked over and asked him to help but I was halfway scared he'd pull a gun on me if I started moving toward him.

So we pull away and one of the trucks starts following us on a parallel road, watching what we were doing.  As we were leaving, I told Rich I wanted him to take a picture of me in front of the prison sign so I could send it to the guys. I found some little pieces of paper from the hotel and wrote "Hi" to each of them, then walked up to the sign.  As I was posing there, I realized another white truck had turned around and was speeding up to us.  Rich took the photo right as I was looking at the approaching truck.   A prison guy got out and said, "This is federal property!  You are not allowed to take any pictures here!  What are you doing?  I want you to delete your photos!"  I walked over to him and said I was sorry, I had no idea (REALLY? You can't take any photos on federal property? Where did that come from?)  Rich was still behind the car with the camera so I called him over and told him we had to delete the photo.  He couldn't quite hear me and came around to the front of the car.  Then he started trying to explain to this guy what we were doing there.  Rich has kind of a booming voice when he gets excited and suddenly I had this thought: "Oh, it's RICH who's gonna get us arrested, not me!"  At some point, I ask the guy, "Can I just tell you what's been happening and see if you can help us?"  He said sure, so I gave him the whole saga.  Of course, it mattered not one bit.  He did say there's no way the phone should ring that long without an answer and I did tell him that I had not heard back from the counselor regardless of everything I tried.  He brushed us off and said there was an obscure email address on the prison website and I could use that to communicate. Well, too late for that, right??  The only good thing was that we chatted long enough that he forgot about deleting the photo so I didn't do it.  (I had even obediently asked him earlier if he wanted to WATCH me delete it.  How did I get so compliant??)

Totally frustrated, we drove away and headed back to Chicago.  What a freakin' mess this whole system is!  We stopped for lunch about an hour out of the city and who should call on Rich's phone?  Yes, the counselor.  OMG. I was so annoyed.  Of course, with my horrible cell phone system, the phone cut out before anything could be clarified. I called back and guess what?  NO ONE ANSWERED for 10 minutes!  He did tell me that he looked and there was no record of my ever visiting before, which is not true.  I later heard from guy #1 that the counselor told him he never received my paperwork.  And the reason neither of them had a chance to email me till the day of our drive was that everyone had been on lock down for 10 days. Now doesn't that just figure?!

Anyway, both guys were very disappointed and who knows when I will ever have a chance to try again.  When I do, I know I will start WAY in advance and make sure I know the counselor's extension.

This experience really made me see just how much the system is stacked against ordinary people and just how much power the employees have over the lives of not only the inmates but also their families and friends.  When I visited before, I was working for the defense so everything went very smoothly and there were no hassles; in fact, the prison staff at every prison I've visited have been helpful and accommodating.  Well, that just goes to show you, doesn't it?  No wonder people give up and just drift away.

"Uh-oh, here comes someone in a truck!"

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