On Saturday morning I carried out a sort of ritual self-emptying. Mobile phone, credit card, car keys, cash (apart from a single Euro coin for the locker and a €20 note), glasses case, watch and pen were all piled on the bed before I left for the twenty-five minute walk to Wheatfield prison.
This self-emptying is a fairly regular ritual with me but the feeling of emptiness which the ritual brings never ceases to affect me. Prisons appear to regulate themselves in a different time-frame and a different pace of life. I arrived at 9.45 a.m., having been admonished to arrive fifteen minutes before the time of the visit. I needn’t have been in any hurry. Prison time and pace took over and it was approaching 10.30 before my driving licence was scrutinised and the €20 was accepted and lodged in Eddie’s prison account. My contribution would help Eddie to stock up on cigarettes, pot noodles and biscuits on his weekly access to the prison shop.
As we sat and waited in the aptly named ‘waiting room’, complete strangers shared their stories. It’s amazing how a common cause can unite people. One mother related that she has been visiting her son, now in his forties, every Saturday morning for the past eight years and how she expects to be doing so for another eight. He got his first prison sentence before his twentieth birthday and has spent the greater part of his life since then in detention. She hopes and prays that he will come to his senses and ‘settle down’ before she dies.
Another mother was visiting one of her sons in Wheatfield and hoping to make it across the campus to Cloverhill Prison to visit a second son who was in custody awaiting trial. For her, the delay in the reception area was more than just an inconvenient irritant; it might mean that she would miss her visit with her second son. Given the heroic nature of my companions’ love for their children and my own paltry credentials to be in such exalted company, I held my peace about the nature of my visit.
Looking around the waiting room, it was noticeable that a good number of the visitors were young mothers with very young children – no doubt being brought to visit Daddy. What was noticeable, too, was the brevity of the skirts and shorts being worn by a number of the women. Their dress could probably be best described as provocative and one can only wonder about the effect such apparel would have on the hormones of a virile, sex-starved, incarcerated partner!
Finally, as frazzled nerves were starting to give way to loud complaints, we were escorted across to the main visiting area. Just like in an airport, jackets, shoes and belt have to be put in a basket for scanning and everyone has to walk through a scanner and then be tested with a hand-held scanner and swabs.
The final part of the scanning is the one beloved by children. The visitors stand still on a numbered spot and a sniffer dog (usually a Labrador) is led around each person. If the dog sits down, it is an indication that the dog has detected contraband and an open visit is refused to the visitor. No amount of discussion or pleading will be of any use – the dog’s word is taken.
On Saturday morning, the dog sat down beside the young man in front of me – a screened visit was offered. The man objected loudly, his anger no doubt fuelled by the long delay in the reception area. However, staff were polite but inflexible.
When it came to my own turn to submit myself to the dog, the handler waved me through – either deeming me too old and innocuous to be a threat or recognising me from previous visits, or maybe both!
At last I was in the visiting area. I walked towards the section allocated for spiritual and other special visits. When I told the officer that I was there to meet Eddie, he informed me that Eddie had declined the visit. Nothing for it but to retrace my steps, collect my house keys from the locker in reception and head home.
Eddie has served three years in prison and his release date is in 2025 when he will be 32 years of age. There will be plenty of other opportunities to visit him
Maybe next week!
By Paul Hendrick This story is taken from 'Scribbles from the Margins' Read this and other stories Scribbles Sept 16 ff