One Sunday a month I go to prison, the Federal Detention Center (FDC) located a few blocks north and west of Independence Hall. The FDC is a stone fortress, built as much to keep people out as in. It imprisons over 1,000 women and men. I go to visit one of them, Marcela.
I bring Marcela’s fourteen-year-old son, Orlando, to see her. When I arrive at his foster home in Montgomery County he flashes a big grin and small bills as he hops in my car, eager to see his mom and spend money at the vending machines. Sunday morning traffic is light; we arrive in Center City quickly and park along Arch near Chinatown.
Once inside the FDC, I slide my license through a slot to the guard sitting behind inch-thick Plexiglas. He gives me a form to complete. I write my name, address and Marcela’s name and prisoner number. I check “no” to the questions asking whether I’m carrying contraband like drugs, weapons, or phones. I return the form, receive a padlock and lockup our belongings before heading to the metal detector.
Passing through security can be a challenge. Once, the guard told Orlando to change his khaki shorts because they resembled inmate attire. We grabbed a blanket from my car and wrapped it around his waist. As soon as we reentered the prison, the guard shook his head from side to side.
“How’s that different than a skirt?” I asked preemptively.
“It’s not a skirt,” he responded.
“How’s it any different?”
“If it was a skirt I wouldn’t allow it; it shows too much on the side. No slit skirts!”
We went to Rite Aid and bought pajama pants with pink teddy bears. It was the best we could do at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning. Orlando didn’t care; he just wanted to see his mom.
After the metal detector, visitors enter an atrium. Pictures of President Obama, Attorney General Holder, the head of the Bureau of Prisons and FDC’s warden adorn the wall. We sign-in and the word of the day is stamped on our left hands with ink that glows purple under black light. We’re escorted to the monitoring station, flash our hands under the light and are permitted entry. Metallic clicks unlock doors of thick glass and steel. The door in front of us doesn’t open until the door behind us closes.
We enter the visitation room, which contains one hundred and sixty interlocking blue plastic chairs arranged in rows. No more than twenty-five chairs are ever filled. Consultation rooms for lawyers and their clients line the back wall. There’s also a children’s room with butterflies, birds and a castle painted on the walls. It has toys and books for imprisoned parents to read to their children.
We wait for Marcela, which can take as little as fifteen minutes or as long as forty-five. When she arrives, she smiles broadly as her eyes fill. Orlando leaps from his seat and they wrap their arms around each other. Marcela grabs his face, kisses him on the lips, on his cheeks, and on the lips again with a loud smack. She then embraces me.
“Hermano Timoteo, gracias por venir.” Brother Timothy, thank you for coming.
Marcela and Orlando sit next to each other, across from me. She runs her hand over his belly. His childhood chubbiness is thinning out over a lengthening frame. Marcela pulls the top of his shirt looking for pubescent hair. He giggles, pushing her hand away. Seeing her son only once a month, Marcela notices every change.
Mother and son hold hands, stroke each other’s faces and glow. His sun-kissed skin is darker then hers, which is no longer touched by sun. Her natural brown hair has slowly returned and pushed dyed blond further out from her scalp, marking time. She’s done twenty months and has ten to go.
I walk to the bathroom allowing Marcela and Orlando time alone. When I return Orlando heads to the vending machines. He returns with Doritos, one bag of cool ranch, one original and Cokes. Marcela offers me a little of everything. I pass on the Coke, but accept some chips.
This hospitality reminds me of my time in El Salvador. I worked in a small community much like the one Marcela left behind. Whenever I visited a family, the señora would grab a prized plastic chair and swat dust from it with a rag as a child ran to the tienda to buy a bottle of Coke.
“Está en su casa,” the señora would say. “You’re in your house.”
Marcela doesn’t use these words but the sentiment is the same. The FDC is no home, but life still moves here.
Every visit we see a girl about Orlando’s age visiting her mom, who is Marcela’s friend.
“Digale hola a tu suegra,” Marcela jokes. “Say hello to your mother-in-law.” His pudgy brown cheeks turn red. She tosses her head back laughing, happy to think about a day in the future, free.
We pass a few hours enjoying each other, talking about girls, school and court dates. Too soon for Marcela and Orlando, it’s time to go. She kisses and hugs him and blesses him twice, touching his forehead, heart, shoulder and shoulder.
I glance around as they say goodbye and see other families refusing to become strangers. One mother tearfully smiles, watching her baby boy taking unsteady steps. A father scolds his inmate daughter. Three girls in pink practice a cheer.
Marcela hugs me and thanks me for bringing her son. Then, once again, Orlando and I place our hands under the light; a lock clicks and the door slides open allowing us out. Escorted, we pass through more doors, through the atrium, and the metal detector. We collect our things, exchange the padlock for ID, and exit one last barred door out to the uncontrolled climate. We drive west on Arch past City Hall, and work our way to Walnut and the suburbs beyond.
Tim O’Connell lives in Drexel Hill, PA with his wife and two sons. He works for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in Hispanic Ministry. His writing has appeared at www.literarymama.com and Maryknoll magazine. Whenever possible he participates in the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio.