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Women prisoners count their blessings on a tearful Thanksgiving at Lowell PrisonNovember 30, 2016
By: Jack Strickland
It’s hard to find something to be thankful for inside a penitentiary. At Lowell Correctional Institution, at Thanksgiving, prisoners seemed determined to overcome their harsh surroundings and give thanks.
They found ways to count their blessing this holiday season in the state prison for women north of Ocala in Marion County.
It was a festive occasion inside the prison visiting park. There, over the holidays, women prisoners celebrated Thanksgiving with their families.
There were tears of joy, or squeals of delight, from most involved as mothers were reunited for a day with their children.
Mothers of all ages radiated with happiness as they hugged their families. Some children clung to their mothers in what appeared to an effort to avoid being separated ever again. The prison provides toys and board games to entertain the children who visit. It seemed to be a bonding experience as mothers played with their children.
Visiting at most Florida prisons is a ritual that occurs on Saturdays and Sundays and some holidays. It is not easy to get in. Visitors have to submit a detailed application in order to be placed on the approved visiting list. They undergo a background check. Several things can disqualify an applicant. It usually takes several months to gain approval. Once on the approved visiting list the individual can visit on any or all visiting days.
The prisoners undergo strip searches that include cavity searches. The procedure can be very humiliating. On this day all negatives are trumped by the joy of spending a few hours with loved ones.
Security is very tight. It usually takes more than an hour for visitors to clear the hurdles and make it to the visiting area. The visitors are photographed. Each visitor is thoroughly searched and checked with metal detectors.
A visitor can take in up to $50 to buy lunch and food treats that are not available to the inmates on the compound. Salads and other health foods are a big hit with the inmates in the visiting park. They can not get those treats on the compound.
Each prisoner is a separate story. Many receiving visits on this Thanksgiving are lifers. They know they will never leave the prison. That harsh reality does not seem to dampen the joy of this Thanksgiving celebration.
Several others are “short-timers”. They will be released in a few months. Looking around the visiting park it is hard to tell which is which. Everyone seems happy and counting their blessings on this Thanksgiving.
Prison rules usually require inmates to only talk to their own visitors. Visiting with other inmates and their families is not allowed. On this day the rules are relaxed. Prisoners share their children and other visitors with each other. It is a festive occasion. Only the prison uniforms and concentric razor wire fences around the visiting park give mute testimony to the reality that this is a very foreboding place.
In the visiting park it is inappropriate to ask anyone personal questions. If they want you to know about their circumstances they will volunteer the information. A person’s privacy is respected here.
Standing in line waiting to gain admission to visit I found myself next to delightful elderly gentleman. He was there to visit his wife who has a life sentence. He says she has been at Lowell 28 years. He tells me he visits her every time they open the visiting park.
Once inside the visiting park I found my attention riveted to this delightful couple in their sunset years. It is evident that they are very much in love. They seemed to be in a world of their very own-a place far away from the harsh confines of this penitentiary. I found myself reciting my wedding vows. “.....in good times and bad….‘til death do us part.” Clearly, this couple is living those vows.
Then the dreaded announcement came, “Visiting ends in 15 minutes. Please say goodbye and exit the visiting park.” The quite chatter of family fellowship is replaced by shrieks and frantic goodbyes. Children grab their mothers and cry that they don’t want to go. One child who appeared to be about three asked, “Why can’t Mommy go home with us? Why can’t I stay with Mommy?”
Many mothers with tear filled eyes watch until their crying children go out of sight as they leave the park. Then the prisoners move into the shakedown room for one more humiliating strip search. From there it is back to the compound and the reality of the harsh conditions of prison life.
But, this is Thanksgiving. It’s the middle of the week. In two more days the visiting park will open again and there can be an escape back into the blissful world of family life that only comes on visiting days.
My drive home is pensive. There is a mixture of sadness and joy. There were many blessings to count. Many of the prisoners are making positive strides toward release and rejoining society in a positive way.
But, It’s tough to leave all of those lovely people in the harsh conditions of the prison and separated from their loved ones. It occurred to me that when a judge sentences a person to prison their entire family is imprisoned, too.
Some of the prisoners are a real inspiration. I will follow their lead and count my blessings. It was a Happy Thanksgiving.