The surreal world of prison visits

Prisons go to ridiculous extents to stifle intimate connections

By Pam Bailey

It had been more than a year since my collaborator, Rob Barton, and I have been able to confer, brainstorm and dream in person. The pandemic hit, Rob was moved from institution to institution, and lockdowns became perpetual. At last, U.S. Penitentiary Coleman 1 (Florida) began allowing restricted visits for short periods of time, and we seized the opportunity. I take you inside this particular, surreal attempt at human contact in the world of the federal Bureau of Prisons:

1) I booked a direct flight from D.C. to Tampa, along with a car and hotel. Our allotted visiting time started at 8:30 a.m., so there is no way I could fly in on the same day. (And due to the constant threat of another lockdown, booking advance flights is inadvisable. The BOP seems to go out of its way to make maintaining connections with family and friends affordable.)

2) My flight out is cancelled, forcing me to rebook and connect through Chicago. That means I have to reschedule the car and hotel, since I now would not arrive at the Tampa airport until after midnight. Total travel time to get to the hotel from D.C.: eight hours.

3) I arrive back at the airport the morning of the visit to pick up my car at 6 a.m. The rental car office is closed, however. The hours on the door clearly say it’s supposed to be open. At 6:30 I finally conclude I’ll have to try to rent from someone else. The first two I try are sold out. Finally I find an available car, but now I’m running late.

Prisons are located far away from any transportation hub

4) I drive an hour and 20 minutes to the prison. At the main entrance, I see a sign saying “Coleman Federal Correctional Complex. We embrace our values.” (Remember that.)

5) I walk up to counter and am told to go wash my hands in the bathroom. (Couldn’t there be sanitizer?) I do, and get back in line.

6) I walk up to the counter again and the same woman gives me two forms to complete. Why didn’t she give them to me when sending me to wash my hands?

7) I fill out forms and get back in line again. At the counter, she tells me that “Coleman, Florida” is not the correct answer for the line on which I’m asked to write “location” after the name of institution. I am supposed to write “front lobby” — like, they meant MY exact location! Wtf. I am told I can’t cross out “Coleman, Florida.” Instead, I have to get out of line and complete the form all over again.

8) I get back in line and dutifully re-submit my forms. Finally, I make it to the x-ray conveyor belt. Beeeeep. I set off the alarm, and it turns out it’s the underwire in my bra. That has never set off airport alarms. And I had called in advance and asked about specific dress instructions. A woman told me not to wear sandals or tights, but said nothing about underwire bras. I am given children’s scissors and told to go in the bathroom and cut the the wire out of my bra. Hmmmmm.

9) I disrobe in the bathroom and stab at my bra, but it is constructed like a tank. PLUS seriously, those scissors could probably barely cut paper. I give up and think, “I’m wearing a loose tunic. You can’t see anything through it. I’ll just take off the bra and leave it in the locker.” Which is what I do.

10) I sail through the x-ray machine, thinking I’ve made it in. But NO. THAT WOMAN keeps staring at my chest. She either thinks I look saggy or sees an outline of a nipple, because she literally shouts, “DID YOU TAKE OFF YOUR BRA?” Sheesh. Now what?

11) A woman who has been watching the whole thing advises me to try going back through the machine, but this time covering the underwires with my arms, on top of my shirt. How would that block x-rays? But hey, I’ll try anything. But no. BEEEEP.

12) Should I ask That Woman about those so-called values advertised on the entrance sign? Nah…that would antagonize her, and while that normally wouldn’t deter me, I want to get in. Would tears help? It doesn’t take much to summon a glisten in my eyes. I’VE SPENT SO MUCH MONEY TO GET HERE, I say. That Woman just stares at me. She’s very impassive. I do not like her.

13) The man at the x-ray machine who’d been so embarrassed to tell me my bra must be setting things off suddenly comes up with a second pair of scissors. They are still small, with literally pink butterfly handles, but these have teeth. Back I go to try again. I pick at every little stitch and pull. I finally start to make some progress — so much progress that I almost rip the entire strap off. That Woman won’t like that. But finally…DONE. I have now destroyed an $50 bra. Can I send them a bill?

14) Triumphant, I return to the x-ray machine, only to be told by That Woman that I’d exceeded the two times through the x-ray machine that you’re allowed. By this time, however, the embarrassed x-ray man and the waiting women (fellow visitors all) are on my side and they burst out in a chorus of “awwww let her in.” The women (and that nice, embarrassed man) win the day.

15) We make it into the visiting hall, where parallel rows of chairs are positioned six feet across and away from each other. Masks must be worn at all times, we are told, and there will be NO TOUCHING.

16) We are supposed to be given a three-hour visit, but by the time we are seated and the men we’ve come to visit start coming in, we’re down to two hours. Was this all worth it?

17) Rob comes in, sits down and it’s clear: You don’t need to see the mouth to recognize a big smile. Yes, it’s worth it.

Barbed wire and towers cannot contain the human spirit

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at

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