To paraphrase a timeworn activist slogan, if you aren't filled with outrage and disgust at the institutions of police and prisons in this country, you probably haven't been paying attention.
Power to the people!
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If you have followed my career in drug policy reform you have likely heard the story of my brother, Randy. In brief, (in case you haven't heard it and don't have time to read the above referenced material) Randy is a career alcoholic. This has led him to become frequent a resident of the Alabama Department of Corruptions. All of his crimes are non-violent and they are all alcohol related.
He is serving time now on an alcohol related charge.
So today September 4, 2005 after many weeks of planning and schedule arranging, I drove my mother and my oldest brother (a disabled Airborne Ranger and combat veteran) to see Randy at Elmore Correctional Facility which is just outside of Montgomery.
Incidentally, it is also in the broadcasting area of "The Morning Show" which I often co-host with Roberta Franklin. I hear we are very popular at Elmore Correctional and other prisons within our listening area around the state. I was really looking forward to this visit not only for being able to see Randy but also to meet some of the people who listen to the show on a regular basis in person. Since it has just been revealed that Drug & Alcohol Convicts Can VOTE in Alabama! I wanted to do a little campaigning among people who would likely get very excited about the possibility of being released, having their records erased and so forth.
I considered from the outset of this trip that there might be trouble because of the show and my prison reform work but thought...."Nah...Surely not."
It had been a while since we were able to make the trip and Randy had been transferred from Limestone Correctional Facility since the last visit.
We drove down a winding country road surrounded by large vegetable gardens in various stages of harvest, cow pastures with lots of passive cows mooing softly and small rural homes.
Eventually we came to a sprawl of ugly, yellow, corrugated steel buildings, many covered with rust, surrounded by chain link fencing topped with concertina wire.
It was a really ugly blight on an otherwise beautiful landscape.
When we arrived there was nowhere clearly marked as "Visitor Parking". There was a dusty lot strewn with chunks of broken pavement and a lot of cars were parked in it, but I wanted to make certain that it wasn't an employee lot. Best not to run afoul of the guards if it can be avoided.
A guard, dressed in a policeman-style uniform bearing the Alabama D.O.C. logo, was standing outside the guard shack which consisted of a squat cinder block building painted an awful eye-hurting booger green color. It was surrounded on three sides by the same razor wire topped fencing as the rest of this miserable hole.
I rolled down my window and asked him if this was the proper lot to park in.
He looked at me like that was the most ludicrous question he had ever heard and gave me a dismissive wave of his hand.
I took that to mean, "yes this is the proper lot" and parked the car.
We weren't sure what we would be allowed to take in with us but left what we knew would be problematic (cell phones, keys) in the car. We go into the guard shack and present our I.D.'s to the guards behind the desk and they proceed to cross-reference us with information in their computer database.
The guard at the computer said, "Oh..so this is your first time visiting here...Randy will be glad to see you."
"Yes, and we will be glad to see him too. It's been a while."
There were two female guards in the shack conducting the visitor searches. One of them informed us that shorts were not allowed and of course my brother was wearing shorts. Knee-length khaki shorts, very respectable, if you know what I mean.
This was upsetting, as it was obvious they were not going to let him in and we had driven over two hours to get there. As I noted earlier, my brother is disabled and has lots of things that make it almost impossible for him to sit or stand for any extended period of time.
I asked if there was a Wal-Mart or something similar nearby that would be open on Sunday morning. Many businesses in Alabama still operate under "Blue Laws".
One of the guards told me there was one in Wetumpka, which was a good 18 miles away and that was the closest one. So, despite it being a real inconvenience to us we got back into our car and headed to find Wal-Mart.
As it turns out the nearest one was some seven miles closer and in a different town.
Getting proper clothing for my brother cost me $31.97 that I really did not have to spend. It was worth it to me though, because my brothers have always been very close and both were very excited about the day. Also, you just can't beat a good pair of overalls.
After that was done we head back to the prison and back into the guard shack. We were told to leave our purses, any tobacco products, lighters, paper money, hats and everything but our trunk key in the car.
While I went back out to place all of these items in the trunk my mother and brother were searched.
When I re-entered the building my brother was nowhere in sight and my mother was sitting on the couch looking upset. One of the female guards asked me "Are you with her?"
"Yes. She is my mother."
"Well, she can't go in and visit."
The guard looked at me with such disdain as in "How dare you question me CIVILIAN!" and said, "Because she isn't wearing panties."
As you can guess I was completely flabbergasted and decided after a second that I must have misunderstood what she said.
"I'm sorry...what did you say?"
"Because she isn't wearing panties."
I felt a fit of mad, cackling laughter coming over me at the absurdity of what was taking place. But I held it in and said,
"And why is that a problem? No one is going to be checking to see whether or not my mother is wearing panties while we are visiting my brother. She is wearing pants. (I could see this rule coming in to play if one were wearing a dress). What is the purpose of that rule?"
"It is just our rules. We don't owe you an explanation."
"I think you do because no rules are posted on your website about visits nor do you give inmates a set of rules to pass along to their families and looking around in here I see a bunch of rules posted but "Mandatory Panties" is not among them. This has never been a problem on previous visits to the Alabama Department of Corrections."
"Those are our rules."
My mom could tell I was about to lose my temper and so she said "It's okay (although she looked as though she were about to cry). You and John go ahead and I'll wait out here."
Then my mother looks at the prison guard and asks if it is okay to sit on the couch in the reception room while she waits for us. It was brutally hot outside but nice and cool in the shack.
"No. You are not allowed to be in here."
Mom to me, "Well I guess I'll just wait out here in the car till y'all are done."
Guard: "No you won't. In fact, you have to leave state property altogether. If you aren't visiting you must leave."
Now, my mother is a meek, sweet, tiny little Christian woman who has a mortal fear of driving in strange places. She will not drive in large cities, or on four lane highways if she can get out of it and having never been to this area of Alabama before today I wasn't about to allow them to send her off to get lost and add further frustration to this already unbelievable day.
I told them about my mother's fear of driving in strange places and a different female guard said she would direct her to a service station up the road.
I relented and the two of them left the building.
I stood around and waited to be searched. The pro-panty guard stood beside me but did not motion for me to enter the search room. After a few minutes the other guard came back in.
She looked at me and told me I was free to go on in and visit my brother. And I almost did. I almost walked through that door UNSEARCHED but then I thought that if they discovered I had not been searched after I had gotten through then they would search me (as in body cavity) as well as my brother and I did not want that to happen.
So I said, "You're sure I'm free to go on in?"
Both guards in unison, "Yes"
"But, I haven't been searched."
They both looked at each other and said, "I thought she searched you."
It reminded me of two little kids simultaneously pointing their finger at each other to avoid accepting responsibility and being disciplined when they know they have really fouled up.
"No. Neither of you have searched me."
They look at each other for a moment and one of them gestures for me to enter the search room. Unfortunately, this was the same pro-panty guard that searched my mother.
"First, take off your shoes and show me the bottom of your feet."
"Now, lift up your bra and shake it out."
"Now, show me the top of your panties."
Uh Oh! In all of the clamor about my mother not wearing drawers I had forgotten that I don't wear them either.
I begin to wonder if this day will ever end.
"It just dawned on me that I am not wearing any panties either."
"Look, my brother who is disabled and can hardly stand on his own and is without his cane because you wouldn't let him take it in, needs myself or my mother in there with him. He falls a lot."
"I am not going to go charging through the door announcing
"Hey Boys...I'm not wearing any panties" so no one is going to know aside from you. We have come a long way and I have already driven 25 additional miles and spent $30 that I didn't have to spend so that my brother would have proper attire. If I have to leave again then visiting time will be over by the time I get back. I haven't seen my brother in a long time and do not know when I will be able to make this trip again. Do the right thing and let us visit him."
She didn't even consider it.
"You'll have to leave state property."
I proceeded to the desk and asked the guard to return my license.
He looked up at me as said "So you aren't going to visit today?"
"No, but not because we didn't show up, but because you supposedly have rules in place that you neither post on the internet, nor distribute to inmates to pass along to family members nor do you have this particular one posted in your guard shack on the wall with all of the other rules. That leads me to believe that no such rule exists and I will be demanding a copy of the current rules and codes on Tuesday morning. If that rule isn't in there then you better hope you can convince the Commissioners office to print you an altered one real quick like or there is going to be serious trouble."
I really lost it at this point, but held onto my tongue until I was out the door. My mom was still outside with the other female guard because she had lost the car in the parking lot. You can imagine how she would have fared if she had gone driving away on strange roads.
I told her what happened in an extremely loud voice so that guards and prisoners alike could hear me.
"Mom it seems these people are unaware that we, the taxpayers, are the ones who pay their salaries. They also seem unaware that we, the taxpayers, are actually the owners of this property. It is unconscionable that our own employees should treat us in this manner especially considering that these female guards did not search me until I pointed out to them that they had not done so. I think I should dock their pay since I did their work."
"Since I am on the Prison Advisory Board and am a widely known critic of this system, I have a direct line to the prison commissioner and I will call him first thing Tuesday morning and when I am done someone's ass is going to be in a sling."
My mother was so overwhelmed at this point that she began to cry. I hate to see my mother cry.
I loaded her up in the car and we drove to friendlier territory where panties were not required.
We waited for an hour while mulling over all of the possible reasons why panties were such a big deal as long as one was wearing pants.
My mother pointed out that it couldn't be to prevent rape as the extra nano-second it would take some crazed rapist to rip off a thin piece of cotton would in no way benefit you or the guards.
Then she added;
"I should have told that guard to let me see her panties."
Then my dear, sweet, Christian, republican mother quipped up with this keeper;
"Oh Lord Loretta...they are going to think we are some sort of weird non-panty wearing lesbian cult."
(note to readers: neither my mother nor myself are anti-gay in any way. )
Hearing my soft-spoken, polite, mother say such a thing with such grim seriousness sent me into gales of laughter complete with snorts, tears and a stitch in my side.
When I regained control of myself we drove back to the prison to pick up my other brother.
On our way home he told us that no one checked to see if he had on underwear. His exact words were
"Hmm...well no one checked my drawers."
He said Randy cried when we were not allowed in. He also told me that one of the female guards called me by name indicating that she knew who I was. She never looked at my ID so I can only surmise that she knew who I was before the whole panty spectacle.
As I sit here a few hours later writing this my phone rings and it is my mother.
Apparently my brother called and told her what happened after we left. One of the guards said I cursed the female guards and was smart with him when I requested my license and that he was considering banning me from the prison.
Hell, that sounds alright to me.
If I'd known that a little rebellion was all it took to keep me out I would have shown up drawerless a long time before now.
Perhaps I could ask him to implement that ban statewide.
He also supposedly implied that if I say anything about what happened in the public realm, that being the Morning Show which I made arrangements to do before I left prison grounds, and this article which I am about to publish online for all the world to see that my brothers remaining time there will be very hard.
Apparently, even a little challenge to the suppossed authority of these power drunken fools is enough to expose them for the criminals that they really are underneath that uniform.
Threatening a captive who has no means of fighting back.
Seems to me that the people running a jail are the ones who need to be in it.
So, this will serve as my warning shot across the bow of the Alabama Department of Corruptions and in particular to the guards at Elmore Correctional Facility:
If you so much as harm one hair on my brother's head or make his hellish existence in your concentration camp any worse, you will be the sorriest bastards on earth because you will find yourself among those you have held captive for so long.
Won't that be fun?
So, dear readers and supporters, I hope that you will not think less of me now that you know about my aversion to drawers.
My attire is a personal choice that I never would have shared had it not suddenly become an issue for the Alabama State Prison Guards.
I'd also like to note that I would have been more than happy to follow their rules and don a pair of panties if the rules had been made accessible to me beforehand.
I also hope that you won't think less of me for my refusal to drive an additional 25 miles to get some in order to comply with a rule that I do not believe exists. I won't be treated like an inmate until I am one and until that time,
"I REFUSE TO GIVE THE STATE POWER OVER MY PANTIES!!!"