I've spent the last hour or so reflecting on my trip today to McNeil Island Corrections Center, and there is still so much to sort out still. Having never before been to a prison, I had my expectations dialed to the "minimal to zero" setting, and I found myself awash in a spectrum of emotions when I stepped off of the ferry: excitement, fear, uncertainty, intrigue.
Perhaps the most disquieting thing about the whole trip, at least initially, was feeling out of my element and especially vulnerable to the perceptions of others. The latter was most apparent when we toured the segregation unit where the inmates were under 23-hour lockdown, and the little windows into the cells were filled with the peering faces of the curious inhabitants. I found myself wondering what they were in there for, and what they would be capable of doing if they were suddenly able to get out, the way I sometimes do when I stand in front of a lion's cage at the zoo. Only it's more inherently disturbing when the "lions" are fellow human beings.
This institution is considered minimum security, and the general population had a very "campus" feel to it, with the "students" dressed in khaki pants and jackets, their ages ranging from quite young to quite old, and any number in between. With every face my eyes locked onto, I found my mind reaching out to them, wondering if they were going to get out of this place and if they could ever make a good life for themselves. I kept my heart in check, however, doing my best to remain impartial and be a casual observer. Until, that is, the opportunity came to meet a couple of them up close, and that is when my emotions began to breach the walls.
I know it probably sounds strange. A lot of people could care less what happens to folks behind bars, so long as they stay there, and in many cases those feelings are justified; there just isn't much hope for some people. When two of these men came in to speak with us, however, I observed that they were both people you could just walk by on the street and never know that they had done a long stint in prison. They possessed a certain amount of self-awareness that only years spent on a leash with a lot of time to think can bring out in certain people. Particularly the second gentleman, who was by all terms engaging, thoughtful, articulate, and smart as a whip, and despite all of the alarms in my head telling me this person was inside those walls for a reason, I found myself liking him almost immediately, wishing I could have spoken with him longer, feeling an overwhelming desire to understand this broken man.
Perhaps most evident as the day progressed was the underlying sense that most of these people were just not going to make it. They would get out with a few bucks in their pockets, with nowhere to go, and end up right back where they started because our society refuses to recognize the fact that giving a hand up helps us all.
Essentially, I left the island feeling absolutely helpless, like I needed to try and "fix" something. I have a stronger hope than ever that I will one day get that chance.