Ellen Sprague One Man's Prison Is Prison

I fill in the blanks. My name, address, social security number. Our license plate number. The inmate’s name, housing unit, and number. My husband, Josh, has all this memorized. He has stood outside the solid front door of the prison completing these forms before. It’s my first time. When I finish, I try to suck in as much lingering freedom as I can.

To be admitted into the visiting area of the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Worth, Texas, you must have an established relationship with an inmate. There’s paperwork. A waiting period. Inner conflict. You might not know what the inmate really thinks about your visit, about what you think of him or he of you. After all, you’re free and he’s not. And you actually have to want to navigate the barriers between freedom and what it takes to get into the same room with the incarcerated.

If you’re me, you wonder, What if the guards get confused and keep me here? If you’re me, you send a text message to your cousin in Colorado making sure she’ll follow up if she doesn’t hear from you later tonight. This barb of uneasiness pesters me well before I step inside, but I don’t mention it to Josh, even as a joke. I know he’ll think it’s stupid. It is. We’ve followed the rules: we are not wearing khaki, the inmates’ uniform; and neither of us has anything that could be mistaken for a shiv, the penalty for which includes time in the hole until transfer to a higher-security prison. At least, that’s what would happen to a prisoner. That’s what would happen to my father-in-law, locked up here for the next five years.

FCI Fort Worth does not look like a prison—the low, flat-roofed, cinder-block variety I had as a stereotype in my mind. It was converted from a U.S. Public Health Service hospital to a prison in 1971, the year I was born. Have any of the prisoners has been here my whole life? If it weren’t for the glistening, wagon-wheel-sized razor wire coils stacked on themselves atop fifteen-foot-high fences, along with a grass buffer zone and more chain link fence with more razor wire on top, it might be a modest retreat—a collection of butter-colored haciendas with red, ceramic-shingled, peaked roofs—an idyllic setting for meditation and philosophizing. It perches in a controlled sprawl on a hill surrounded by a ring road traveled by prison fleet vehicles. As we wait our turn to be invited in—we have been given a pager as though we’re awaiting a dinner table—I spot a Ford Escape making the rounds and wonder if the guards revel in the irony of the name.

The pager buzzes, and we approach a guard to hand over our forms. I’ve never even been in a local police station. I know no ex-cons. I know only my father-in-law, and I hope our visit will strike a balance between cheering him up and not making him miss the outside even more. I hope to get a sense of what life in prison is like, how Tip is coping. As I stand in the vestibule between the security screeners and the inner prison—this is definitely not a restaurant—I hope that he doesn’t complain about things we can’t help.

Despite removing my earrings and rings and shoes and not even wearing a belt, I set off the metal detector twice and get the wand as well as an intimate, yet polite, pat-down from the female guard. This reveals no metal. I’m pretty sure the underwire in my bra is plastic, but the wand beeps insistently. They let me in anyway. I keep moving forward but my breathing is different here, more labored, the way it gets when I have multiple deadlines and no time.

Josh guides me by the elbow as we move through the inner prison entrance in a pod of visitors. I free myself from self-imposed tunnel vision long enough to raise my head and find myself inside the chaos of razor wire, traversing a courtyard and climbing five steps into the building where I will see Tip for the first time in over a year. My hair is windblown from the car trip, but I have tried to compensate with my outfit. I had wanted to look good, but not too good. Not attractive good. I had thought about painting my nails, but my reverse vanity got the best of me. I don’t want the other inmates to notice me, but Josh has told me Tip shines his shoes for these visits. It seems only right to dress for the occasion. Tip is a St. Louis Cardinals fan, and I figure that, if nothing else, my red Cardinals shirt will be a conversation starter.

A fabric backdrop depicting a grand staircase looms against a wall inside the visiting area, and since I ask, Josh explains that later an inmate will arrive with a camera to photograph fellow inmates and their visiting families and friends. It’s his prison job. Photographed inmates can then purchase photos and send mementoes to their visitors. Josh tells me that a winter scene, something with evergreens and snow, had been a backdrop in December. I doubt anyone sends copies of these as Christmas cards.

This visiting area is almost the size of a regulation basketball court, maybe shorter, but size is where the similarities end. Before arriving at the prison, all I had to go on was TV and movies. The high-security inmates on TV growl and spit and glare. The low-security prisoners always look sorry, sad, pale—not necessarily pathetic, but leaning that way.

This space reveals docile men with smiling but serious—even earnest—families and friends. The meek man flanked by quiet parents. Fathers yielding to wives or girlfriends when it comes to correcting children. Everyone seems subdued. Nameless, but not faceless, each man in this room has someone who cares at least enough to come visit.

One reason I’m willing to visit is that I’ve always found a sense of grounding in being able to picture people when I’m not with them. When we talk on the phone, I can visualize where they are sitting, what they look at out the window, the nooks where their pets curl up to sleep. Before prison, before Tip moved to a neighborhood near us in Illinois in 2004, before I knew him as something other than the big oaf who came at the New Year to watch college bowl games with his grown sons, twice Josh and I visited him in California. His dead-end street climbed the side of a desert hill in Riverside. His dog, Rupert, patrolled the fenced yard of his basic ranch house. The neighbors across the street grew cacti. Next door was a Mexican family who cooked him dinner sometimes. On one visit he drove us into the San Bernardino mountains to climb up and down one of Tip’s favorite hiking trails. Knowing him in his element, as a real person with a home of his own, helped him make sense to me. But he has moved to Texas, sort of, and he doesn’t make sense to me any more.

Josh says sometimes it can take awhile for Tip to come through the door from the innermost part of the prison, the one I turn toward each time it cracks open. I don’t know if the gears started turning when we first showed our IDs, once we cleared security, or once we entered this room, but I want to see him walk through that door, to be sure he’s okay. At the same time, I don’t want to see him because I’m still mad at him. Here I am.


On the car ride I had asked Josh a question we had talked about before, but a question whose answer continues to bewilder: “So, what has Tip said when you’ve asked if he ever made the connection between the girls online and Savanna and Sierra?” These two are our nieces, his granddaughters.

Josh’s response: “Here’s what I said, or asked him. ‘How could you, having granddaughters, support an industry like that, be mentally aligned with it?’ I’m not even sure he knew it was illegal, since one of his rationalizations was that he didn’t pay, only found free images.”

“But he knew it was wrong, right?” I asked.

“I’m pretty sure.”

“What did he say?”

“He just shook his head. He didn’t have words.”

When I first met Tip during a family vacation in 1993, his first granddaughter, Savanna, was a baby and the center of attention. At the time of the arrest, she and her sister were fourteen and thirteen. When their father found words to explain what child pornography is and that Grandpa Tip would go to jail for it, they responded with tears. I don’t think they really understood though. They were still too innocent, and untouched. The psychologist Tip met with several times before his sentencing reported that he was “quick to make a distinction between his fantasy wishes and reality and it was clear that he has never violated this boundary.” Even the judge believed he had only looked.

I don’t have words for most of this. It’s wrong. He’s in prison. We’re visiting. And I don’t see the need to rehash what Tip and his sons and his lawyer and the judge have already covered. Guilty.

I notice more inmates coming through the door and consider whether Tip thought he would ever be caught, if his private fantasy life would be made public. Did he think about how it would impact his family? My guess is that criminals don’t really think about others that much.

We’ve been in our seats for fifteen minutes.


Josh has chosen three chairs near the glass door to a fenced inner yard with picnic tables. A dim hallway stretches to one side, housing a half-dozen glowing sandwich, snack, soda, and dessert vending machines. Immediately in front of us, a guards’ observation post and desk tower above the dull linoleum floor, and every few minutes a couple of khaki-clad inmates mutely surrender their commissary ID cards as they check in.

Except for the fact that he has to visit prison if he wants to see his father, Josh seems unaffected. He goes about his everyday life, pays his dad’s bills, doesn’t broadcast his dad’s misdeeds but doesn’t hide them either. It’s normal for Josh to work out his problems himself, without talking. That’s why I have to ask questions directly, such as this one which I finally asked not long after Tip went away: “Are you mad at Tip, or what? What’s the emotion? You always seem so calm about things.” He thought a minute, then reminded me of a story that featured him acting out some frustration.

“I guess, maybe when Garry and I were packing up Tip’s things for the renter.”

“Sure.” Tip hadn’t packed up much, though he’d been confined to his home for over a year and knew he’d be heading to prison.

“We couldn’t get his desk apart, to get it through the doorway. Tip thinks it’s oak. He prized that desk. Not oak. I took a hatchet to it. That felt good.” That’s how Josh feels.

After the arrest, Tip had nearly lost his home and his savings. He shelled out $50,000 to an attorney who couldn’t do much to help him due to the signed confession, and we loaned him some of that money. I didn’t like having my money connected to Tip, but I figured if he were my dad I would help.

I lean a little to the right to peer around the guard station to a glassed-in playroom that looks to hold no more than two or three families at a time. The primary-color play structures remind me of aquarium toys, but my still-churning stomach isn’t seasickness, just nerves. “Just nerves,” however, are making me question whether I can greet Tip without crying. I get this way sometimes, more from empathy than sadness. I’m expecting to face a defeated man locked up for an unforgivable crime. But I hope he’s not defeated and I don’t want to believe he’s unforgivable, because I’m one of those people who believes everyone is worthy of forgiveness.

I’m nervous and now a little angry. Maybe counting things will help. I tally the rows and estimate over 150 chairs forming ranks, facing a center aisle. Our front-row seats face north. Arms crossed, Josh is staring ahead, resting, waiting.


It’s been forty-five minutes since we pulled into the prison parking lot when Tip enters in a short-sleeved khaki shirt and a pair of khaki pants and marches to the guard post. His required prison-issue boots have been shined. He has kept his gray-white hairs trimmed nearly to bald for a decade or more, and he sports a slightly menacing Fu-Manchu moustache below his basic bifocals. He looks pretty good. Josh stands up to wave and I rise as his shadow. (I’ve watched other inmates look helplessly for their visitors.) Soon Tip is close enough for a quick and awkward hug—he’s a big man, six-feet four-inches and well over 200 pounds to my five-foot seven-inch stature—after which I retreat to my chair. Per visiting room regulations, inmates and visitors sit shoulder to shoulder, not facing each other, not touching except for a brief hug or kiss hello and goodbye. And once a prisoner sits down, he is not permitted to get up and move around. Josh sits next to me, with Tip to his left.

“Did you read about the 2011 Nissan Altima in Car and Driver?” Tip asks Josh, picking up right where their last conversation, a fifteen-minute-limit phone call, had been cut off. I remain on the periphery of words and space.

“Yeah. Do you like the 2.5-liter four or the 3.5-liter six?”

So while father and son ease into what I might call idle conversation, I half-listen and half-take stock of other families and friends similarly arranged. Across and to the right, four Hispanic children swarm a man I take to be their father while a slender woman I presume to be their mother sits close to him. In front of me the seated guard monitors a thirty-something black couple to my left. He gets their attention and with hand gestures directs them to face forward and keep their hands to themselves. Is anyone else watching this? The guard doesn’t yell, but he could have. If I were him, I wouldn’t want to cause any more trouble than necessary, knowing I’d have to deal with these inmates when the visitors were gone and I should pick my battles.

As far as I can tell, no one is watching me, not guards or inmates, and I commit to keep it that way by aiming my knees forward and holding my hands in my lap. I’m not good at getting in trouble, having the attention on me. I can feel the constriction in my throat and the flush in my cheeks when a cop simply passes by me on the road with his red-and-blue flashers on.

Why am I here again?

On September 5, 2007, when Josh called me at work to report that his brother had just called saying Tip had been arrested, I laughed. Boys, even grown ones, play cruel jokes on each other, the more believable the better. In this family, the sons have always been straight arrows and the father the rebel. Tip had once been hauled off to jail and spent a single night behind bars before paying a fine for growing marijuana behind his house in a utility easement. Decades later, the episode had surfaced at a Thanksgiving dinner as a family joke. For all I know, that pot bust was funny to Tip all along. He has a way of giggling about things I don’t think are funny.

But Garry was not joking, and the arrest was for child pornography images he had downloaded, printed, and viewed on his computer and big-screen TV.

Surrounded by convicts and their visitors, now I catch myself imagining that Tip’s neighbors, including the petsitter who had reported him after noticing images in his recycling bin, looked on during the police raid through windows with pulled-back curtains and enjoyed the free-for-all atmosphere as police removed Tip’s computer, TV, camera, family and other photographs. Forfeiture of personal property is a common penalty for Tip’s crime.

I hear Josh ask Tip about his exercise regimen and refocus.

“I usually walk five miles a day, six days a week.” In prison, where he can’t be in control of much, Tip is thriving where he can be in control. He’s not bragging, but he’s proud of himself.

I consider that during our drive south, Tip might have been circling the track I saw outside, a one-third mile rectangle with rounded corners. I imagine his circuit. As he strides toward the southwest he can see, or at least hear, kids in the near distance kicking the ball around on the grassy fields. Does he think about the kids he used to coach in local park and rec leagues, or the sixth-graders he used to teach? (Why is there a school so close to a prison?) When he shortens his stride to round the corner he can distinguish the gray and white striped highway he won’t travel for another five years. When he turns left again he faces the butter-colored buildings where he eats, sleeps, and waits. A final bend takes him along the short side of the track that heads back out toward the green playing fields below.

I finally jump into the conversation. If I don’t ask any questions at all he might think I don’t care about him. So I decide to make some factual inquiries, not the “how does it feel” kind. I favor the sideways approach. Pointing to a three-story, worn yellow structure out one of the many windows encircling the visiting area, I ask, “Do you live in a building like that?” “Exactly, but Dallas Unit is over there,” he says, gesturing. I guess each building is called a unit. “I’m on the second floor. You only qualify for the first floor if you are in a wheelchair or something.”

At 68, Tip may be one of the older inmates, but he’s not nearly in need of a wheelchair. Back in county jail in Illinois where he spent three months in early 2009, he was convinced he needed a hip replacement. Now, he says, he feels almost sprightly, and when he reports that the younger inmates remark on his fitness, his tone tells me he is flattered.

But a few weeks before our visit Tip had spent nine days in medical ward isolation to get treatment for scabies. He was fired from his job of checking out athletic equipment to other inmates because he missed too much work, and he’s not really better. Now he is charged with cleaning up litter in the recreation yard, where he also re-racks and wipes down free-weights. I ask about this job, and he admits to performing his duties as if looking to be recognized for a job well done, even in a world where his CV—the MBA, in particular—does him little good. “I did get a bonus last month,” he says, but notes the base pay is $.30 per hour.

I spy white sheets catching the dry Texas wind like spinnakers, makeshift curtains in gaping double-hung windows with six-over-six panes—an effort, I suppose, to keep out the bright Texas heat. So I ask, “Do you have a window like that in your room?”

“I do, just like that. It even opens. That’s unusual in a place like this,” he says. I trust this testimony. I keep finding myself thinking that there is a lot of glass around.

I tell myself we should talk about more than his living quarters. The fact that we’ve driven this far to be face-to-face suggests that something important has to be revealed. But I don’t want to know why he did it. Besides, I’ve already heard, through Josh, his rationalizations—he lived alone, he was single. And now isn’t the time to yell at him, at least not according to my sense of propriety. Maybe I should have yelled at him before he went to prison, but at least three things stopped me: I don’t trust that I’ll be articulate in such situations; I don’t want to hurt Tip’s feelings; I don’t want to overstep my bounds in Josh’s family. Plus, I’m a wuss about directness.

Gaining courage, and trying not to yell over the controlled din of reunited families in a hollow room, I ask, without naming his crime, “Do you guys talk about why you’re here?”

“No.” It’s a declaration. “Mostly guys keep that to themselves.”

“What about your roommate?”

“Oh, my cellie.” His cellie. “No. But I’m pretty sure he’s in for the same reason.”

I don’t ask how he has reached this conclusion. In prison it’s dangerous to be found out.

In general, child pornography is unspeakable, but not unheard of. I’m struck that federal prosecutions for child pornography rose from 169 in 1996 to 2,539 in 2006. That’s fifteen times more prosecutions. Someone was talking. Or more people were looking. Or both.

Who are these people? Tip tells us about his other “new friends”—a philosophy Ph.D. from Buffalo (crime unknown) and Big Ed, a drug dealer. Once they’re on the outside they’ll be able to Google each other easily enough and find out each other’s misdeeds if they still care. Before Tip entered prison he was required to register as a “violent sex offender.” I can agree that it’s good for families to know if they have neighbors who have been convicted—and served time for—sex offenses. He, himself, was not violent, but the crime he’s been convicted of is categorized as such.

I’m curious to know how long his “friends” are in for, but I don’t ask. The judge sentenced Tip to seven and a half years—90 months. He’ll be required to complete 85 percent of that.

So here we are, and we decide it’s dinnertime. The menu for Tip: A vending machine burger. “Garry says if you microwave the burger and bun separately it’s better,” he tells Josh, who is now brandishing the two rolls of quarters, unrolled and in a clear plastic bag, he was permitted to carry into prison. Tip likes things a certain way, but inmates aren’t permitted to prepare their own meals. I’m not mad enough at Tip to be mean, so I slide over to the chair next to him while Josh gets their dinner. Even so, it’s a little awkward. I try to sport an encouraging smile.

“Do they have classes or anything you can go to?” I venture.

“Sure,” he says. “I’ve taken Anger Management and a communications class from the Psych. Department. They were terrible.”

I’m beginning to regret the question.

“Part of the reason I took them,” he says, “was to have something to do.”

I look over Tip’s shoulder at the vending area. Josh waiting in line for the microwave. The burger will take two minutes. What will Tip and I talk about next? I must confess I don’t run to answer the phone when it rings each Saturday morning, Tip’s unscheduled but regular time—but we’ve always gotten along. We first got acquainted through letters—his idea—when Josh and I were engaged. I’ve always been a letter writer, so this strategy made sense to me. Besides, I was studying in France, and Tip was living in California.

I have three letters he sent me, which he treated as formal introductions. I wasn’t alarmed at the time, but I re-read them recently, curious about whether they held clues to predict his behavior years later. The first begins, “I believe I am a combination of all sorts of archetypes, from the small child to the (hopefully) wise old man, and everything in between.” He wrote about the marathon he trained for but missed due to injury; the mountains he’d climbed in California and Alaska; his part-time appointment as a lecturer in physical education at U.C. Riverside.

Now that I know him better, this reminds me of the start of one of his monologues, or what I imagine an early session with a therapist might sound like. I also suspect the coursework he’s taken toward a master’s in clinical psychology makes him speak this way, about things like “archetypes.”

Another letter: “I have been married and divorced three times….My greatest joys and worst pains have centered around relationships.”

At the time I had thought Wow, this guys bears it all. I hadn’t been talked to this way by many people, especially my elders, and I thought he was being quite courageous. Now I think he sounds no different from many struggling adults. Nothing to tell me he’ll turn to child pornography to fill an emptiness in his life.

In one letter, though, Tip wrote, “I love kids, and for the most part they love me. I have a friend with a very young baby that makes me erupt with happiness. The students in my hiking classes are at the other end of the age spectrum. I also help with an outdoor program for middle schoolers at a local church and deeply enjoy these kids.”

“Deeply enjoy.” I would never say that. Now I know that’s just the way Tip talks. He has a heartfelt way when speaking about things that mean something to him. Did he look at his students sexually? It doesn’t sound like it to me. Of course, I’m not a trained psychologist and the letters are sixteen years old.

Really, I don’t know why I’m worried about holding up my end of the conversation here in prison. With Tip, no one has ever had to talk much. Unlike his sons, he seems to process by talking. Josh and Garry didn’t grow up with Tip, but with their mom or grandparents, and neither one talks much about feelings. This doesn’t mean they’re not sensitive. In fact, they’re both trained educators and counselors. They’re just better at listening. I’m neither trained in counseling or communication skills nor do I talk directly about feelings. Maybe it’s okay to listen tonight.

Before Josh gets back I remember to ask Tip about the Christmas card he’d sent the previous December. It had rained glitter and looked a bit like a child’s artwork, and I had wondered where the colored construction paper, magazine-clipped photos, glue, and glitter had came from. I also had questions about the scissors.

“One of the inmates made it,” he says. “I know they’re not the most beautiful creations, but I like to support the guys this way. You know, they’re doing something productive.”

This is the Tip I like to know.


Josh returns with the properly prepared burger for Tip balanced atop a refrigerated sandwich for himself, and I realize that, in order to eat, I will have to cross the visiting room without an escort. Together, guards and visitors far outnumber the inmates. Obviously, I reason, the inmates aren’t looking at me, but at their own visitors. No need for self-consciousness. There’s no threat. I complete the crossing without incident to focus on my own dinner selection—a ham and American cheese sandwich on squishy white, precut into triangles. Expiration date: Two weeks later, my birthday. Bewilderment shrouds the face of a woman peering into the alien light of the vending machines.

“Maybe just press this one,” I say, pointing to a button about a foot off the floor that I’ve already pressed to rotate the sandwich selections. I’ve never talked to anyone who has a relative or friend in prison before.

“Oh, of course,” she says, and we bond with pained smiles over our sense of being rookies together. It’s a little like braving the cafeteria as a parent during freshman orientation, except you already know your kid’s a troublemaker—and so does everyone else.

I deposit four quarters and liberate a Diet Coke. Untouched by hands or eyes, at least those of the prisoners, I return to my seat victorious and half-listen some more. Tip can go on and on about politics, cars, PAC-10 football.

After dinner, when Josh doesn’t offer Tip dessert, I question his reticence. I’m feeling bold enough to challenge Josh but not Tip.

“He usually doesn’t want it,” Josh replies. But Tip’s home freezer always had ice cream in it. Tonight, he accepts my offer to fetch something sweet, and with the confidence of a veteran I return to the dim vending area to retrieve a $2 sleeve of Oreos. When I can’t finish my bite-sized vanilla cream cookies, having devoured his Oreos, Tip bails me out.

Conversation flows easily, as if we were back in Tip’s living room with a Cardinals game on TV. Then, talk happened during commercials, TV on mute. This had become the pattern during Tip’s year-long home confinement. Then, I didn’t ask any questions about the crime or prison. It’s hard to talk to your father-in-law about sex.

I rest my elbows on my knees as I lean left, into Josh, to hear Tip, seated again on the other side. The guard doesn’t notice that our legs are touching, or maybe it doesn’t matter since we’re not inmates. World War II emerges as a topic because Tip had sent Josh some history magazines that he had traded for.

“What book are you reading now?” I ask, knowing he is working his way through Patrick O’Brian’s series about high seas adventures during the Napoleonic wars. Using Tip’s credit card, Josh buys him books on Amazon, and some of his old friends in California treat him to books as well. He says he’s on book sixteen.

“Hold off on sending any more. I’m only allowed three books in my locker and I’ve got something like fifteen.” These, he says, are liable to be confiscated any time. But the guards are not searching for books, are they? Contraband of more interest would be weapons, drugs, cell phones.


“You should probably leave now.” Tip says this just before 8:45 p.m.

I don’t know what to think, but Josh asks, “Are you sure?” Since we have driven so far and he hasn’t had visitors in months, it would be both proper and kind to stay till the very end, 9 o’clock. Yet Josh will be back the next day, Saturday, and that must be some consolation. I’m not approved for a Saturday visit, though, because my trip happened last minute, and I don’t know when I’ll return.

It turns out Tip’s suggestion is a matter of making the departure easier for us and perhaps less tedious for himself. He must have weighed the options and consequences and decided he doesn’t mind losing out on fifteen minutes if it means he won’t have to clean up the trash or straighten the chairs when everyone else is ushered out. But what does he have to rush back to?

After a quick goodbye, including the cursory hugs that happen in a precipitous departure where people like me don’t understand the protocols, Josh and I line up like primary school students at the door and, with a small contingent of visitors, retrace our steps across the courtyard. We line up again, this time at a thick glass window with a gap beneath it, the kind all-night gas stations sometimes have for security. A cute, stout, black woman, last name “LeFleur. L-e-F-l-e-u-r!” she almost shouts through the window, reaches out her right hand and places it under the black light to reveal her hand stamp. She waits. We wait. “Let me out,” she bleats until the guard locates her driver’s license. My nerves start to prick, too, when he fumbles through cubbyholes on his desktop before finally finding my license. He sets his hands on Josh’s easily, and we huddle with the others already waiting in a reinforced glass and painted steel vestibule. We stand still with benign smiles and avoid eye contact.

The door to the prison grounds clangs shut. The door to freedom hisses open. We spill out into the parking lot like fans leaving a game when their team lost in overtime, and the tension begins to drain.

As we head to our hotel, I wonder again how it feels to be the one in prison, to be visited by people who can leave at will, by people like me who only write you two letters in an entire year while you send one every week or so. How much of being in prison is mental, more than simply a place you can’t leave, especially if the fear of being shut in by accident strikes visitors like me so strongly—and, perhaps, irrationally? With the ring road and the fences and the emerald buffer zone and more fences, does Tip feel not only confined but also constantly constricted by a series of inescapable, collapsing, concentric boundaries? I imagine that the perimeter seems to get smaller, tighter, every day, and just thinking about it makes me forget to breathe.


The next day I’m waiting for Josh outside the prison at the appointed time. He’s late. So I pull out my smartphone to explore FCI Forth Worth with Google Maps, a surprisingly easy maneuver. The entire layout of the facility, including the rec yard, track, fences, ring road, and even playing fields beyond the boundaries, are posted right there on the Internet.

But I still don’t know what it’s like to live there. And that’s just it; it’s not Tip’s home, but where he lives. Sure, I can picture the sky, the razor wire, the buildings. But I don’t know what Tip sees when he looks up from writing letters at his desk, or what surrounds him in the room or hallway or who-knows-what space he calls from. I don’t even know if he’s sitting or standing, if there are others waiting in line. I can only conjure images of him circling the track outside, working in the rec yard, meeting the one or two other visitors he receives in a year.

One man’s home is another man’s castle is not a saying that applies to people in prison. Especially not, if when you hug your guests goodbye and watch them depart, you walk through the door you had originally entered, slowly remove your shined shoes and khaki pants and shirt, and submit to a strip-search.


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