Friday, December 30, 2005

Back from death row

(I'm cross-posting again with Nasty Little Man.)

Well, I'm back after a 525 mile round-trip jaunt. I left early this morning while it was still dark. That was fitting because I felt like I was driving into the unknown. I didn't know what to expect this day. Appropriately, I took a route I had never driven before, which seemed symbolic, as I took I-70 and I-68 across western Maryland. (Of course, I took that route just to avoid tolls.)

Along the way, there was a pit stop in Cumberland, Maryland, in search of a good cup of coffee. Although I know nothing about Cumberland, it gives the appearance of one of those towns with a story similar to so many towns in the northeast. It's best days appear to be behind it. Many older brick buildings, empty storefronts, other stores that obviously haven't changed their marquees for decades. It's gritty, and the dreary skies and my own melancholy about visiting a prison probably added to that effect. It seemed only right that Bruce Springsteen was playing in the cafe that I walked into for coffee.

Admittedly, I'm a bit of a coffee snob. I don't need to have Starbucks, but it's got to be quality coffee. Well, when I walked in to the cafe, there was one of those two-burner industrial models that is in every office in America. It wasn't looking good, but I bought a cup, anyway.

On my way out of town, what to my eyes did appear but the Queen City Creamery and Coffee Shop. It appeared that the quality coffee I craved was before me. When I walked in, behold, all of the signs of quality coffee were there- a menu with various lattes, cappucinos, and cafe au laits, the flavor syrup bottles on the wall. They were even playing Sirius Satellite Radio, which I was seriously missing from my car since I had a rental. Of course, even with these options, the house blend has been my choice of late. It must have something to do with taking the middle path.

After a stop in Morgantown, WV, for lunch, it was off to the prison. This is a relatively new prison, less than 15 years old, and its look is similar to other public buildings. The main entrance and other parts of the building are topped with the pyramid that is popular in the construction of new schools.

The main lobby is like other state buildings with bright flourescent lights, a large main desk, and rows of cushioned seats. Walking the halls you could feel like you're in a school or a hospital with the cinder block walls, tiled floor, and flourescent lights. Of course, one look at the three fences, spirals of razor wire, and sliding steel doors and it's obvious this is no school. (Then again, the kids at the residential school where I used to work called it a "prison" all the time.)

I have to be honest at this point: The visit was not as earth-shattering or life-changing as I thought. The guards were either pleasant or non-expressive. They were certainly respectful and helpful. And the prisoner I visited is very social and does not have some of the mental and/or social deficiencies that many prisoners have. He's also been in a long time so he is adjusted. I'll keep the contents of our conversation private, but I will say that it wasn't any different than conversations I have with other activists. This activist just happened to be wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs and was sitting behind a double-paned window and talking through a vent between the window and wall. And this activist is also living with a death sentence.

As I headed out, I thought about why it wasn't as heavy an experience as I thought it would be, and it dawned on me. Everyone I encountered this day- the guards, the prisoner, other visitors- are all human, just like the rest of us, with their own dreams and hopes and fears. It's a reminder that regardless of our situation, our race, our religion, our nationality, we all share that common bond of humanity.

So I've done it and will probably do it again. I can add "visited a death row prisoner" to my list of other interesting life experiences, like attending the Super Bowl and drinking quintuple espressos with a former Congressman. It was another adventure....



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