Friday, June 9, 2017
Friday, June 9, 2017
June 9 - Summer Festival
Friday, June 9, 2017
The GCCC Summer Festival is an annual event that allows inmates a unique opportunity to spend a longer period of time with family in an outdoor environment, and perhaps the one day of the year that justifies the massive amount of parking space at the facility. This year, the Summer Festival took place on June 9, 2017. In previous years, Clayton and his family were unable to participate because he was in a Protective Custody (PC) status, and PC inmates are automatically excluded from all special events held at the prison. However, with his new housing status, he found out within days of his transfer that he could apply to participate.
Normally, a limit of 10 or 11 inmates at a time can participate in any given visitation hour, and usually much less than that actually have visitors. So, the parking lot is often mostly empty, with the staff only migrating into that area to get out of the way of snow plowing on their side. Today, however, the parking lot was filling up fast.
The procedure for checking and was much different because there would be many more people than normal. Instead of using the lockers inside the facility, most visitors were encouraged to leave their belongings inside their vehicles. There was a canopy set up outside the front door, with two guards checking visitors off of a massive list, and stamping their hands. Visitors were still processed through the metal detectors and into the holding area like normal, but when leaving the first building and heading towards the yard, they were met by buses outside.
These buses were the same ones used to transport prisoners to various facilities and other destinations. They are painted a rich blue with very high windows along the sides. The windows are much too high up for anyone to see in from the outside, and the only thing you can see from the inside is the sky. The buses are capable of holding 40 people, so the bus had to make multiple trips to move the visitors from the main entry area back to the ballfields that would be used for the day.
Each bus was such sectioned off in the middle with a large metal gate, and on the first few trips visitors were asked to place their feet in the way of the gate, so it would not slam shut dramatically whenever the bus made a turn. In later trips, the COs found a bungee cord to solve this problem. There was also a small metal cage in the front of the bus that held two seats inside of it. Clayton’s family assumed that these seats are used for transporting higher-security or protective custody inmates, but the cage was simply left locked and shut that day.
Getting to See the Ballfields
Upon arriving at the back ballfields, visitors were let in through a very large gate. All visitors were fully processed and brought into the ballfields before any inmates were released out into the area. There were picnic tables, plastic folding tables, blue plastic chairs, and canopies spread out all across the ballfields. All of these items were placed with decent space between them to allow families and friends the ability to converse somewhat independently.
On the side of the field closest to the facility buildings, a buffet line and serving area was set up. Clayton’s family couldn’t help but laugh after noting the buffet line was divided by crime scene tape. Perhaps displayed as one of the most serious buffet lines of all time, it definitely made you think twice about crossing sides.
Before participating inmates were released, a group of inmates dressed in all white entered the area and began setting up to serve food. This is the first time Clayton’s family got a chance to see the standard kitchen worker uniform. Inmates are sometimes assigned a different set of clothing in a different color when they’re working on jobs throughout the facility. Clayton himself had prepared some of the food that they were setting out, as he had started working in the kitchen shortly before the event took place.
Towards home plate in the ballfields, there was a stage set up which could hold: at least a half a dozen men, a variety of instruments, and an ornate wooden sign that displayed the name of the facility. There was also a small sound booth attached a small distance away, with an inmate who appeared to be the one assigned to run it.
A large drop cloth was set up over the fence for inmates to be able to stand in front of and have their photo taken with family members, and a couple of beanbag toss games were set up in the yard. Clayton’s wife quickly noted that there was an asphalt footpath surrounding the entire ballfield. Upon seeing it, she realized that this is the very field the SMU inmates were first taken into when they were finally granted outdoor recreation this winter. Now surrounded by trees, and filled in with green grass, it was hard to imagine what it must’ve been like running around the plowed track with a few feet of snow piled up on either side of you.
Being back in the ballfield gives a unique viewpoint of the facility itself that most visitors would never get to see. The recreation yard sits between two rows of large buildings. On one side, the buildings are all lined up together with different colored stripes on their doors and different letters corresponding to each of the housing units. On the other side are the buildings used for: visitation, the SMU, and facilities like the kitchen and dining halls. Smaller cubes jut out of the top of the housing units, with windows on all sides. Clayton has explained previously that these are the only windows visible from inside the mods; which is why inmates cannot actually see the outdoors unless they leave the units they live in.
Not all inmates were allowed to participate in the Summer Festival. There are very strict qualifications an inmate has to meet, and they have to apply for participation in advance. You could not participate if you’d had any write-ups for misbehavior within a certain period of time before the event. You had to be actively participating in programming, or actively employed, within that period as well.
Clayton had been worried about this requirement because they had just been transferred out of the SMU and into new housing very close to the deadline. While working in the SMU, there were not many jobs available, so he had not pushed too hard to get into one. They also were not considered to be in programming anymore, because the classes he had participated in were no longer available in his new mod. Ultimately, he submitted his application, managed to get a position working in the kitchen very quickly, and was approved to participate in the event.
One additional nice thing about the Summer Festival was that inmates did not have to have approved visitors to be able to participate. This meant that some individuals who never have personal visitors were still able to come out, enjoy the sunshine, and socialize during the event. Those who did have visitors, had to specify in advance which one or two visitors would be participating in the event, and get approval for those individuals in advance that was specific to the event. However, no children were allowed to participate. All visitors that could be approved had to be over the age of 18. For this special opportunity, Clayton chose his wife and his mother-in-law to spend the day with him.
Warm Yet Brief Greetings
Eventually, after all of the visitors had arrived, and all of the kitchen workers had begun their set-up for serving lunch, the inmates were released into the ballfield. It was later reported that more than 600 people participated in the event total, which we believe is the most participants they’ve ever had in a given year. There was a lot of hustle and bustle of activity, and a lot of COs mingling throughout the crowds, but the excitement in the air was palpable.
Clayton had been talking about his excitement over the event for weeks. The opportunity to be outside of the visitation room with his family members would be a unique treat. More than anything, the type of interaction would be amazing. In standard contact visits, Clayton spends the majority of the visit on one side of the table, with his family on the other side, and an actual plastic partition between them. While the contact visit itself is for an hour long, Inmates are actually not allowed more than roughly 8 seconds of physical contact during that period.
Clayton talked a lot about the fact that he had been dreaming about holding his wife’s hand. This is something that he is never normally allowed to do. When talking to one of the staff members at the facility about it, one of them had become teary-eyed over his level of excitement at such a basic human interaction. After searching their way through the crowd, Clayton’s family located him fairly simply. They were able to give him warm, heartfelt hugs, and Clayton was visibly buzzing with excitement. However, after a few minutes of holding his wife’s hand while sitting at the table, a CO quickly admonished them that handholding would not be permitted even on the special day. They were supposed to spend the entire four hour period of time without any more additional physical contact than they would have if they were confined to the tiny visitation room.
The rule was unnecessarily restrictive, and painfully disappointing, but Clayton and his family quickly shook off the effect as much as they could and focused on enjoying the unique opportunity. Sitting next to each other at the table, introducing other inmates he often socialized with to his family, and sharing a meal gave Clayton the brief sensation of being in an almost “normal” life. He and some of the other inmates commented that it almost allowed them to forget where they were for a moment, and that feeling alone made all of the hoops they had to jump through to participate worth it.
A Meal Together
Food was served right as the event got underway. There was a huge quantity of it, and it was good quality. They had options of hamburgers, hot dogs, baked salmon and pulled pork. There were sides like pasta salad, corn, and fried bread. The inmates dressed in their kitchen worker uniforms wore big smiles and were generally very enthusiastic about what they offered. It was almost difficult to say no to anything in the face of such excitement, and many visitors and inmates alike left the line with plates piled high with food.
A few of the inmates Clayton has come to know very well over the last couple of years were participating, but did not have any visitors who came to see them specifically. Clayton and his family invited them over to share their table and their meal together. It was obvious that some of them were very nervous about this, and seemed to be worried about intruding on Clayton’s time. However, his family tried to encourage them that this was a unique opportunity for them to actually meet some of the people that Clayton talked about so much during his daily visits. The conversation was light and fun, with lots of discussion about what people were doing with their time while they were still in the facility, or what they planned to do when they finally get to go home.
Inmate Performances & Opportunities
Throughout the meal, and the entire four-hour visitation, there were various performances going on up at the stage. The inmates performed a color guard early on. There were numerous musical performances, and even dance routines performed by inmates who had been practicing for weeks. Many of the men talked about their faith before or during performances. In the middle of one of the performances, Clayton burst into laughter. The rap/hip-hop song that was being performed, included a man who worked with Clay in the kitchen. He had seen the guy busting out various rap lyrics and dancing around the kitchen on multiple occasions in recent days, but had never understood that the man was rehearsing for the upcoming event.
It now made perfect sense in context.
“He’s actually really good with music,” Clay said.
After finishing their meal, Clayton and his family took the opportunity to get a couple of pictures for the day. The picture that appears at the top of this blog post is one of those pictures. Inmates had been encouraged to get approval for these photos in advance of the event, but forms were still available on-site for them to fill out if they had not been able to take that opportunity. Clayton had to wait for a couple of weeks after the event was over for the pictures to be delivered. Then he had to mail them out to family for us to make copies and mail him a copy back. This was a huge blessing after such a long SMU experience. For whatever reason, photos that were taken for SMU inmates during their long period of confinement never seemed to make their way back to the inmates themselves, even though the payments were usually deducted from their accounts anyway. GP inmates do not appear to have the same difficulty.
Clayton and his family also took advantage of every rare opportunity they could think of. They played a few games of beanbag toss, despite none of them being terribly good at it. Clayton won by a landslide, and at some point his wife was so excited that she’d actually managed to get one of the beanbags where it was supposed to go that she leapt up on the balls of her feet with a shout. A nearby elderly inmate, who she hadn’t realized had been watching, started to laugh and clap not at the game, but at her somewhat girlish display. They also took time to walk around the track and talk, and then laid in the grass to talk some more.
That was by far Clayton’s wife’s happiest few moments in years. Lying in the grass and talking was something she and her husband used to do in happier times. With her mother’s feet strategically placed between them to keep the COs at bay, they could lie there and look up at the sky and pretend for at least a few minutes that they were somewhere else. Soon the guards would call out the end of the visit, and visitors would have to board the buses once again while the inmates waited for hours to be processed back inside, but in these moments none of that mattered.
It was a priceless, irreplaceable day.