The ﬁrst time I walked into a maximum-security prison I dressed like a lawyer–though it wasn’t my intention. Let’s just say there are lots of rules about what a woman can and cannot wear inside a men’s maximum-security prison: no inmate-blue denim and no cop-green khaki seemed the most important ones. I ﬁgured it best to have a modest hemline and thought to-the-knee was plenty modest. The guard didn’t agree and sent me back to my car to change.
The last time I’d changed clothes in my car was the summer I worked two jobs and went to night school. Somewhere stopped in trafﬁc along the New Jersey Turnpike between my job at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson and class at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, I decided to wiggle out of my work skirt and into my student cutoffs without looking to see if there were any truckers who might get an eyeful. This time I am more conscious of changing in the open as I shimmy out of my pale green dress deemed inappropriate and into a black-and-white number I think will pass prison scrutiny.
How did I get here? I ask myself, scanning the myriad fences, razor wire, and looming guard towers of Pelican Bay State Prison. Yes, Pelican Bay. Whenever anyone writes or speaks of this notorious prison in Crescent City, California, they usually call it “the worst of the worst.” They mean the worst criminals and the worst treatment.
I think back on my twenty-something self cruising along in my white- with-red-vinyl-roof Pontiac Sunbird as my thirty-nine-year-old self changes shoes in my rust-colored Chevy Cavalier not much bigger than my beloved ﬁrst set of wheels. The older I get the more I realize we never actually shake off the internal image of our younger selves but hopefully evolve from it. Out of about three hundred students in high school I graduated something like thirteenth (just my luck). At the top but not the top–A minus–because Mrs. Bliss was right: things came too easily to me and I didn’t always apply myself. Nonetheless, I displayed all the trappings of a young woman ready to make her mark.
Cheerleader. Yearbook editor. The dutiful youngest daughter of ﬁve in a loving Irish-Italian working-class family putting herself through school. Girls like me don’t grow up to visit convicted murderers in maximum-security prisons.
Yet here I am.
“ ’Twas reading that did me in,” I say out loud as if I’m spinnin’ a yarn for some imaginary person in the passenger seat now littered with discarded clothes. I laugh because after eight years of living alone, much of that time spent working at home, I notice that I talk to myself a lot.
As I step out of the car I do think I look like a lawyer. I assume that I am a very different sort of person than the other people visiting today, but I cannot put my ﬁnger on why I think that way. I wear black patent leather high-heeled Mary Janes, a pleated dress dangling just below the knee, a black blazer that covers me from shoulder to midthigh. All I need to complete the effect is a briefcase. Instead, I clutch the plastic Ziploc bag containing the only things I am allowed to bring into the big house: thirty one- dollar bills (which the prisoner is never allowed to touch), some old pictures, and my car keys.
How did I get here?
It’s simple, really. For ten years I worked as a journalist covering the publishing world. Then a year ago I tried my hand at being a literary agent. It made sense. I had earned a reputation as someone who could judge the commercial or literary viability of a book. Why not do it from the other side?
Once you head down that road, manuscripts appear from the strangest sources. Seems like everyone has an uncle or a friend or a spouse who wrote a book and just needs someone to help them get it published.
One of my friends is a writer who taught creative writing at Pelican Bay.
He assured me that each week during his class the other inmates would read ﬁrst, saving the star student’s latest installment for last as if it were dessert. Although my friend wanted me to read his student’s book, he was reluctant to give a woman’s name to a convicted murderer doing life without parole, plus ﬁfteen. Besides, he wasn’t supposed to help a convict with any potential commercial enterprise. Instead, he hinted to his student, CDC#K78728, that he might send the unﬁnished manuscript to his own publisher in New York.
When the publisher rejected the manuscript, he forwarded it on to me.
The inmate’s letter to the publisher included these postscripts: “I am currently incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison. This will cause a slight delay in our written correspondence. P.P.S. Life sentence. Murder. And if you have any more questions, feel free to ask me.”
The book blew me away. Snap! From the ﬁrst page it took off and barreled its way along to a shocking conclusion. I decided to contact this Rory Mehan and tell him I thought he was a talented writer. At the very least I knew I’d make his day. Knowing it’s not smart to give your real address to a man in prison, I got myself a private mailbox address just in case (Of what? That he’d break out of prison?) and sent off the letter: “Dear Mr. Mehan, blah, blah, blah.
Talented writer. Send me more. Oh, and keep writing. Sincerely, Bridget Kinsella, Literary Agent.” I didn’t mention murder.
A month later I found a white envelope with my name and address written in a small-cap penciled print in my mailbox. I opened it in my car. There was no salutation, no “dear so-and-so,” it just took off. Much like the novel he wrote. My ﬁrst real glimpse of Mr. Mehan came on three-hole-ring-punched, school-ruled paper:
So I’m sitting here in my concrete box, just looking out my tiny sliver of a window, amazed at what I see. Ash is falling from the miscolored afternoon sky in thick swirling ﬂurries like snow, like dead grey skin falling from a psoriatic ﬁnally giving in to the constant promising pleasure of the itch.
And the television tells me that 32,000 ﬁres are currently blazing across America. Oregon, eight miles away, is not the only state burning.
And the ash, it just keeps falling, ﬁlling a foreign orange world, ﬂuttering down from a steadily purpling sky, a fresh bruise growing darker right before my eyes. It clings to the stinging razor wire. It piles up in drifts.
It’s the middle of the summer.
I haven’t seen the sun in weeks.
And thousands of dead squid are washing ashore in California, littering the postcard beaches, disrupting the fantasy/delusion that everything is all-right. The newscaster says that “nobody knows why.”
It’s my new way of crying.
Because I’m thinking if thousands of dead squid covering California beaches is not a natural occurrence, then isn’t it obvious that we [underlined three times] are the reason why?
And that, Bridget Kinsella, is when your letter slides under my cell door, skidding across the smooth stone ﬂoor to land inches from my right hush puppy.
Murderer or not, the man knows how to make an entrance. Nearly a year and many letters later, here I am visiting my client at Pelican Bay.
The guard approves of my change of clothes. I ﬁll out a form with Rory’s California Department of Corrections (CDC) number on it, my name and address and relationship to the prisoner. I write “friend,” because we are friends by now, having written to each other for months, and it is no business of the prison if I am his literary agent. The guard, a pleasant man with close-cropped hair and a well- ironed uniform, processes the paperwork to make sure I am an “approved” visitor. Since it took awhile for me to change clothes, I am the only person left in the visiting way station. It’s not much to look at. It could almost be a small-town post ofﬁce. I am fascinated by a glass-encased display with T-shirts and sweatshirts sporting the Pelican Bay logo as if it’s some sort of sports franchise to cheer on. Someone with an odd sense of humor came up with the slogans for the shirts. “Felony Day Camp” is my favorite.
I am nervous, but I am not sure why. There are several guards behind the counter, a handful of men and one woman. The guard who asked me to change clothes calls my name. I walk forward and another guard tells me I almost look too good to be going in there–but he says it with a smile, as a way to ease my nerves. He instructs me to take off my shoes, jewelry, or anything else that might set off the metal detector to my right. Even though it’s summer, the linoleum feels cold and the carpeted hump comes as a relief when I step into the machine. That is, until the alarm sounds and I have to turn back.
“Underwire?” asks the second guard. “Yes,” I answer, a little ﬂushed because no one likes setting off an alarm. He hands me scissors with the tips chopped off and tells me to go into the ladies’ room to cut them out. “But this is my favorite bra,” I half joke. “Can’t I just take it off?” That elicits a resounding “no” from both guards. So I go to the ladies’ room and do as I’m told. The second button comes off of my dress when I remove it to get to my pretty pink bra that is about to become wireless. Cutting silk–even faux silk–with sawed-off scissors isn’t easy, but I manage. My jacket covers my dress so I just button up as best I can. I return to the desk and hand my dress button to the guard to hold for me.
The alarm goes off again. I can’t imagine why. I have never had such trouble in airports–and that’s with the underwire. The guard asks me what I am wearing under my dress. “Panty hose,” I say, “underwear.
That’s it.” He tells me that next time I should wear a slip. Still ﬂushed from the alarm, I’m thinking that I don’t even own a slip, and then the other guard discovers the culprit. My button. It’s cloth over metal. Who knew? I have nothing else to change into and I hope they are not going to send me to the “hospitality” house and make me borrow some unknown woman’s donated clothes.
This is not helping my nerves. Then the guards do something really nice. They let me walk around the metal detector where they wand me and then lead me into a small room. A guard hands me my belongings in a scuffed-up, wooden “in-box” kind of container. I hastily put on my shoes and jewelry. One guard stamps the underside of my wrist with something that doesn’t show in normal light and the other buzzes the door open.
I gingerly walk through the door leading out the back of the building and enter the ﬁrst of two fenced-in pens I must cross to get beyond the prison’s carefully constructed and lethal fences. I jump a little bit at the sound of a gate mechanically opening before me. A sign tells me not to approach the gate until it is fully opened. I comply and walk through and enter the second fence-and-concrete pen. Three concentric fences snaking around the prison complex stretch out on either side of the pen. The ﬁrst and the third fences look like normal Home Depot chain-link–although they stand about twenty feet in the air and have razor wire looped at the top. I’m guessing that the middle fence, composed of a delicate, spiderweb-like wire connected to metal braces every few feet, is electric, and I don’t dare touch anything. I hear the gate closing behind me. The gate I face doesn’t begin to open until the other one completes its journey.
When I step out of the second pen and onto a walkway I think that I am now on “the inside.” But that’s just silly. The visiting buildings are down a concrete path and about twenty-ﬁve yards away. I assume they are separate from the general population and supermax buildings and heavily guarded. I take a deep breath and start walking. The California sun blazes down on me and I notice that the walkway is unadorned with any vegetation. I hear someone tapping on one of those sliver windows in the two-story concrete bunker of a building to my left. My heels clack against the sidewalk as I quicken my pace. There is nothing much to look at as I pass through an unnatural courtyard of concrete and dirt into a gray, nondescript one-story building.
Mostly it feels like I am walking into a school, and I remember that the public high school in the town where I attended Catholic school was actually designed by an architect who specialized in prisons. It had slits for windows, too.
Inside there are two reception areas, one to my left and one to my right. I turn left as told. The guard seated at a desk in front of a closed-circuit monitor looks at my pass and takes my ID. On his belt there are huge keys, of the size and shape that might open some medieval castle. I comment on this and the guard says the kids love those keys as he uses one to open the door into the visiting room for me.
Then I’m standing inside a sterile room. If not for the fact that all the prisoners wear denim shirts and jeans, the setting feels almost like a normal cafeteria. With armed guards, that is. There are vending machines, small round tables, and unforgiving ﬂuorescent lights. A guard at a slightly elevated counter across the room motions to me. Briskly I walk past the several groups of people in midvisit. A little girl of about three catches my eye. Audrey Hepburn getting ready to visit Sing Sing in Breakfast at Tiffany’s comes to mind, as she says to George Peppard: “You think it should be sad seeing children there; but it isn’t. They’re all dressed up with ribbons in their hair.” This girl is all dressed up with no ribbons but several braids with pink fasteners adorning her head.
The guard says, “Over here.” He takes my pass and briefs me on procedures.
“There is a brief kiss and embrace allowed at the beginning and end of the visit,” he tells me sternly but through a bucktoothed smile. I tell him it’s not that kind of visit. “You have no idea what I see up here,” he continues. The smile is innocuous enough, but I’m wondering if maybe this guy likes watching such exchanges just a little too much.
All the other guards have been so friendly. Believe me: I am happy for their presence. I am glad they care what I look like coming in here, because while I wanted to look pretty for the visit–as I would for any business or social meeting–I am well aware that I am in a room with men who do not see very many women. And while I am not in the least afraid of meeting Rory, I am a little afraid of these other guys. I am even more conscious of that in here than I would be on a New York City subway at midnight.
The guard, whom I am already mentally nicknaming “Buck Tooth,”
assigns me a table with the number “16” stenciled on it. He tells me that during the visit we are only allowed to hold hands–on top of the table. I ﬁght the urge to snap at him and admit to myself that I wouldn’t last a week in prison.