Terri Been is sister of death-row inmate Jeff Wood. In this letter she talks about her experience with visiting her brother on death-row and the situation during and after this month’s lock-down.
Yesterday’s visit to my brother was bitter sweet to say the least. Overall the visit went well, but it was very emotional and degrading!!! The lockdown has taken its toll not only on the overall policy at Polunsky, but on the spirit of the inmates as well.
I have visited the Polunsky unit MANY times over the course of my brother’s incarceration, but never have I experienced the overwhelming sense of complete and absolute dread that I felt there last night. Now don’t get me wrong, I have experienced dread there before…as my brother came within hours of his execution, and we said what we thought would be our final goodbyes to him, which has crippled and destroyed me emotionally; BUT the dread that I am talking about now reaches further than just those who have an execution date. The dread that I am talking about is a thick blanket that wraps around you and suffocates you when you walk into the visitation room…which you literally feel!
The tone for the evening was set when you pulled up into the facility. In the past we have always had to jump through hoops just to get into the place, but things are far worse now! Guards are now required to do “complete car checks” instead of the normal “pop the hood and trunk” checks. Visitors had their purses gone through, their glove compartments torn apart, bags/luggage in the car were rummaged through…you name it…it was searched. Did it stop there? Hell no; round two started at check in!!
Now, I’m going to flashback to the summer to give you a full picture of the nightmare we call check-in @ Polunsky, so please bare with me here: Imagine, if you will, having to make a run to the local Wal-Mart 3 different times to purchase clothing and shoes just to be allowed into Polunsky. This has happened on numerous occasions and to various visitors…and this literally is no joke! (My sister-in-law, Kristin, and I have experienced this for ourselves.) This past summer we were scheduled for a normal 2 hour visit to see my brother; Kristin had quite literally just gotten off of the plane from overseas two hours before the visit was to take place, and come to find out that the airlines had lost all of her luggage (which she did not get back for almost a full week) so all she had was the clothing on her back. She was not happy because she wasn’t going to be able to “dress up” for him, and due to time restrictions…she decided to make do with what she had on. Having made the trip to the US on several occasions, she learned a few valuable lessons; one being when you’re on a plane for 17 hours you wear “comfortable clothing”. The comfortable clothing that she was wearing was indeed appropriate, but the guard on duty felt that it was a little too form fitting; so we were sent to Wal-Mart…and mind you we are already late because of plane delays. Kristin grabs a baggy Mickey Mouse T-shirt, because there should be NOTHING wrong with a cartoon character T- shirt…or so you’d think. So we get back to Polunsky, where we are turned away again because of the Mickey Mouse Logo…which has been adopted by the Mexican Mafia (one of the most powerful prison gangs in the US). On our second trip to Wal-Mart she purchases a plain black T-shirt; and with her new T-shirt on we walk back into the unit, but were turned away…yet again, this time for her shoes!!! After purchasing a new pair of tennis shoes, we were finally allowed in, but with all of the trips back and forth to Wal-Mart, we had less than an hour visit.
Check in…sounds extreme doesn’t it? Well it can be and has been for MANY people!!! But…it has gotten worse, so in addition to the metal detectors and the wardrobe scrutiny we have always had to go through lets add the following: pat-downs/body searches, and counting your money down to the quarter. Waiting in line to be searched sucks…so if you know somebody who is going to visit, you may want to tell them to get there a little earlier than normal…because you will be searched. Think I’m kidding, ask the black lady a few people ahead of us in line that had to take off her “weave” and have it searched! You may also want to tell them that they will be patted down! Okay, let me rephrase that…you will be rubbed down and felt-up. I have gone through several pat searches in order to get into federal buildings before, but I have never experienced one quite like I got @ Polunsky this night!
When you walk in the door…you are now required to take off you shoes and socks so they can be searched. The metal detectors have new settings, and are picking up what seems to be everything; so ladies if you have jewelry…you might be better off leaving it in the car, because you will pass through the damn thing for every ring, necklace, or earring…not to mention belts. Some ladies even had to cover their breasts with their arms/hands to get through because the underwire in their bra kept setting off the alarm. “Pat-downs” now consist of the following for women: a lady using her two hands to rub the entire length of your leg. Each leg will be rubbed twice: one sweep covers the front/back and includes your ass-cheek, the second sweep of the leg covers the inside/outside, which includes a backhanded rubdown of your “downstairs privates”. The search also includes having each breast examined by hand…starting on the inside of each breast, and cupping around to the outside. It is an absolutely humiliating experience, and is absolutely NOT necessary in my opinion!
I risked not being able to see my brother because I gave them hell about the new procedure. I told them I understood such procedures for those who were allowed contact visits, but Death row families NEVER get to touch or come in contact with the inmates, and that it was the corrupt guards who were causing this nightmare, and we should not be subject to sexual harassment just to get to see our loved ones because they are self-serving and money hungry. I actually said several other things to the guards that were not exactly polite or worth repeating, but at least I said my peace.
You are allowed to take $20 dollars into the unit, however we did not get to take in the full amount of $ because both change machines were down. Luckily, I knew somebody coming out of the early visit that had some change left over; which gave us an additional $7 dollars, but we were not even close to $20. MANY people did not get to take in any money because there was no change…and I tell you that was cruel and was done on purpose!
These men had gone months with Johnny bags! Remember the lockdown was not the only time they were getting these…just weeks before they were restricted to these bags because of the hurricane that hit…so we are talking almost two months on Johnny bags. My brother had lost at least 25 – 30 pounds since I had seen him at the end of August. I spent EVERY bit of change I had with the exception of 1 nickel on food for my brother. 2 hamburgers, three bags of chips, 2 snicker bars, a salad, 3 dr peppers, 5 beef jerky sticks, and a piece of pie were all gone in less than 3 minutes of receiving them. Seriously…no joking; he was quite literally starving and inhaled the food! I am thankful that I was able to provide him with that, but there were many others there that were hungry that got nothing…and I feel so bad for them. So my second piece of advice is to make sure that you have change before you get to the unit…Do NOT count on the machines to be working! Also…if you feed your inmate like we do…you may also want to take the early session because they only have 1 machine now that serves “food” (sandwiches, salads, juice, pie, etc.) and nearly all of the food in that machine was gone from the 1st visit.
I’ll not even get into the property that was taken away or destroyed from these inmates.
Needless to say, the visit was absolute chaos! New Policies, new procedures, and new hours to call and make reservations to visit…the list goes on, but the important thing here is that nobody is handling it well…including the staff!
The only good thing that happened that night was in addition to getting to see my brother, my kids and I had the privilege of talking to several other inmates during our visit. (which is strictly forbidden, but we did it anyway.) We spoke with two of this week’s condemned inmates: Robert Hudson and Rogelio Cannaday. We told them that we had signed their petitions, and that we had written letters to the governor on their behalf. We also told them that there were a great many people who were fighting for them, and that we all would be calling the governor’s office this week in a continued effort to fight for their lives. They were very grateful and sent their thanks.
I could go on, but I have written a book here already! If you are pen-pals, or friends with any of these guys…they need our help in more than one way. Yes we want to fight to save their lives, but we need to fight for their rights inside as well. They also need financial contributions if you can afford it, as most of these guys have nothing left from all of the property raids and shake-downs. Their fans, hot-plates, radios, typewriters, and other various properties were taken and destroyed. Some people may be thinking that these inmates don’t need a radio, but I say different; that is their only link to the outside world other than any visit they may get. Complete Isolation leads to insanity…and being without this contact to the world will only cause more pain and suffering. Please keep these guys and their families in your prayers!