I am an attorney. My particular field of law frequently requires me to go to jails or state prisons to visit clients.
Last week occasioned such a visit. I traveled to the jail in another county to meet a new client. After checking in and waiting for about 15 minutes, two young guards escorted me to the pod where I would interview my client.
The pod, a gray cinderblock cul de sac, featured a central common room with rooms opening up on either side and along the back wall. As the guards ushered us to a small interview room on the left, I heard, from across the way, a male voice expressing, shall we say, a frank appreciation for my appearance. Instinctively I shied away from turning to acknowledge that person, and it was easy enough to ignore the voice as the guards opened the door to the interview room and left my client and me to our discussion.
About halfway through our conference, the man across the pod began to sing a reggae song in a passably good voice, accompanying himself by beating against the walls and doors in time to the music. He sounded quite cheerful.
“Do you listen to this all day?” I asked my client.
“Nah, I’m on a different wing,” he said, then added, “But he’s in solitary. I imagine he gets pretty bored.”
Our meeting concluded, we left the interview room for the outer common room and buzzed the intercom to let the guards know we had finished. As we stood waiting for them to come for us, my client told me we might be waiting quite awhile.
“Yeah,” chimed in the voice across the pod. “Y’all might as well go back in the little room and sit down.”
I looked for the first time at the man in the solitary cell. He was crouched in a half-sitting position, bent at the waist, so that he could peer through a slot in the door about two feet up from the floor. The slot was the width of the door and about a foot tall, just enough for me to see his face and upper shoulders. His skin shone ebony and he wore mid-length dreadlocks. His shoulders were bare. He grinned a pirate’s smile of white teeth and struck up a conversation, asking if he could hire me, what my name was, where I worked.
I smiled back but politely refused to volunteer information about myself. Undeterred, he again complimented me on my appearance. In return, I told him he sang well.
“Yeah? I thought I was a little off-key today,” he said.
I asked him and my client where they were from. They both answered me, and one topic led to another as they talked about where they had gone to school, what their hobbies and interests were, what their families are like.
And there we stood: me, a woman quickly passing middle age, and two prisoners, both young men in their prime, my client standing next to me in a prison jump suit, socks, flip flops and ankle shackles, and the man in solitary, half clothed (or maybe unclothed, who knows?), crouched and bent almost double for nearly 20 minutes in his determination to make eye contact with us through the slot in his cell door. Talking, laughing, joking, discussing high school football, the Rolling Stones, vacations in Florida, and the presidential campaign. Political talk led to a discussion of books.
“Have you ever read Behold A Pale Horse?” asked the man in solitary.
“No, I haven’t,” I said. “Do y’all have a library here?”
“Yeah, a law library and a regular library,” said my client. “There’s a library cart that’s supposed to go around once a week, but sometimes it’s more like two weeks. And they need more reading material. There aren’t but about 60 books and about a third of those are Bibles. Nothing against Bibles,” he added quickly.
About that time the guards came, so we bade the man in solitary goodbye. I shook my client’s hand and one guard took him back to his pod while the other escorted me back to the visitation entrance. He asked me if the man in solitary had “talked his usual talk,” indicating that he usually makes inappropriate comments to visitors.
“No, he didn’t. He was very respectful,” I said.
“Well, I’m surprised,” said the guard.
“What’s he in for?”
“What’s he not in for, would be the easier answer,” the guard replied.
I realize that, just as my client is in prison for a reason, so this man was in solitary confinement for a reason. There’s no telling what he has done in his relatively short life. If I knew all there was to know about both men, it might make my hair stand on end. And yet…and yet.
All I knew was that while I was in the presence of these two men, it seemed imperative, somehow, to converse with them in a way that might give them a sense of normalcy. Without making a conscious decision to do so, I knew I had to – I just had to – extend to both men the basic human courtesy of conversation – the kind of easy conversation that people outside those walls enjoy daily. I felt compelled to accord them the dignity of simple acknowledgment. And so we talked as though we were three strangers making conversation in a long line at the airport or in the grocery store checkout, sharing our common experiences, acknowledging our common humanity.
I’ll not be forgetting that encounter anytime soon.