|Our Visit with Veronza |
U.S. Federal Prison, Coleman, Florida
June 27, 2002
I was telling a friend about my visit with Veronza Bowers Jr.the other night. I was trying to convey to him the feelings andemotions that I was experiencing through out our eight-hour visitwith him at the federal prison. But I realized that no one cantruly grasp what I was feeling that day without experiencing itthemselves. I could only tell him about what I saw, heard, smelledand what emotions felt that arose. I wish that every person inthe world would to spend a day in a visiting room of a prison,just observing the inmates, visitors and guards and how they interactedwith one another. They would not return home the same. I wouldhope they would find compassion and pity for the inmates, familiesand friends that have to faced the harsh reality of having lovedones shut away from you, both physically and emotionally.
Whenwe first arrived at the prison in Coleman Florida, we had to waitin a room for an hour before we were allowed to enter the visitinghall. I had imagined the waiting room to be big, cold, uncomfortable,depressing and silent. To my surprise I did not find this. Theroom was warm, small and personable. People were talking withone another and greeted others that they recognized from previousvisits. It was definitely depressing that we in this one roombecause all of us were here to see someone in prison. One thingthat really stuck out for me was wondering whom everyone was hereto see. Was it a father, husband, boyfriend, brother or friend?There were mostly women and it was the children that brought themost warmth and happiness to the room. What I realized is thatthis was their reality. This process was normal for some of them.They weren't completely aware of what was happening, which isprobably they continued to play, laugh and horse around. I rememberwatching a little girl, maybe two or three years old, run aroundthe room, laughing, dancing and jumping about. This little girlbrought so much joy into the room that you forgot where you were.
When we were finally permitted to make our way into the visitinghall, I could tell who had done this numerous times before. Someof the women had their own plastic see-through bags, so the guardscould see what was brought in, where as I carried my belongingsin a "zip-lock" bag. They knew when and where to getin a single-file line, where as my family and I had to be directed.
The visiting hall was large and crowded. It was extremely noisybecause sound echoed off the tall walls and ceiling. Vending machinesthat served microwavable and junk food were lines against onewall. For the inmates and visitors there were little low coffeetables with four chairs surrounding them. My family and I slowlymade our way over to a table in the back corner of the hall. Aswe waited for Veronza, we sat and watched. I made note of thepeople that I saw in the waiting room and who there were hereto see. The image of the little dancing girl shrieking for joyand running across the hall towards her father will always staywith me. I looked around me and realized all the love and happinessshared among the inmates and their visitors. They were makingup for the time that they were torn apart from each other. Whyspend that time angry and sad?
After about a half an hour of anxiously waiting for Veronzahe arrived. He walked in looking sophisticated and determined.His dreadlocks reached to about his knee and he wore an olivecolored uniform and a beaming smile. I was so flustered and excitedthat I couldn't talk for about the first hour. After about threeyears of writing letters and talking on the phone, I was finallygetting to meet him. For the first time I was able to look intohis eyes, watch him speak and feel his physical presence.
Within the five or six hours that we spent with Veronza he sharedwith us his stories, experiences, advice and jokes. I can noteven begin to tell you the extent of his knowledge, compassion,thoughtfulness and generosity. On a personal level, I can saythat Veronza has changed my life. When asked who has had the mostsignificant impact on my life, Veronza is one of them along withmy parents. I feel so lucky to have Veronza as a friend, mentorand role model. He has always treated me an equal, never likea 17-year-old, but at the same time shared with me his experiencesand knowledge. He has always made me feel that my opinions, thoughtsand ideas were always valid.
During our visit I was reminded of how truly amazing Veronzais. I watched him work to get my little sister to open up andsucceed. At times when around new environment and people, shebecomes shy and is lost in her silence and aloofness. I thinkthat people tend to forget about her. May be it was curiosityand interest that drew him in, but I saw that he had touched herinside. He made an impact, and not only on her. He greeted andtalked with many people around us, no matter if he knew them ornot. Children would come up and stare at his long dreds. He wouldalways coax them over and let them touch his hair. With otherinmates, it was quite clear that they respected and looked upto him. My attention was brought to how many people Veronza hasa positive influence on, either through music, conversation, healingarts or meditation. What Veronza has made of his life is astounding.He has done, in a hostile and abusive environment, more than mostpeople outside of prison. He has created something grand out ofnothing.
When our visit started to approaches it's end, I told Veronzaof the love and joy I saw shared between inmates and visitors.He told me that it was indeed true and genuine, but there is alwaysa flip side to it all. Eventually everyone has to leave one anotherand face to sadness, disappointment and frustration alone. I startedto see it with my own eyes. Children started to cry and clinchonto their fathers refusing to let go. I saw the pain in the facesof the mothers, sisters and wives. I could relate with all ofthem. I didn't want to leave and felt angry. We were all escortedout of the hall and just as we all lined up outside of the waitingroom to leave, it started to pour. Within minutes there were hugrain puddles and everyone was drenched. Everyone was brought backin the visiting hall to stay dry, while groups of ten were allowedto leave. We got to share a few more word with Veronza and ourfinal good-byes, but something about the storm, all the rain,lighting and thunder, told me that we would be seeing Veronzasoon and to stay strong.
During our recent trip to Florida, I had many amazing and uniqueexperiences. Flying in from California, we first visited Naples,a rich, mostly Caucasian-populated, impeccably clean city withgated communities everywhere. This was a stark contrast to theprison in Coleman where we visited Veronza - a hot, racially-diverse,depressing, confined place, unlike anywhere I've been or imaginedbeing in my life.
Before leaving on this trip, my father informed me that we wereto visit Veronza Bowers Jr. in federal prison, but I didn't haveto go if I didn't want to. At first, I had mixed feelings as towhether it would be deathly boring, too uncomfortable, etc., etc.Although I wasn't sure at all what to expect, I did, indeed, wantto meet Veronza, the amiable intelligent voice I briefly heardonce in a while when answering the phone. I thought about it anddecided to join the family, figuring it might be interesting andI would finally be able to meet Veronza in person.
Althoughthe visit to the prison was one of our highest priorities, I haveto say, I was very distracted by the "environment" inNaples. I wasn't really thinking about what it would be like insidea federal penitentiary, being occupied by the beach and in aweof a town that has more billionaires than most other places inthe USA. Soon enough, however, I found myself in a 180-degreeposition. I was in the prison waiting room not thinking aboutNaples, but thinking how I would make it through this whole visitingprocess.
Before long, a blonde female guard called out our last name.I shuffled out of the waiting room, avoiding the stares of othersaround me, most of whom appeared to be family members or closefriends of inmates at the prison. I placed myself in a singlefile line leading through a metal detector and hoped that I wouldn'thave too many metal objects on me. When it was my turn, I endedup walking through several times causing a loud buzzer to soundwith each pass. Finally, one of the guards realized it was thestuds on my belt loops that triggered the alarm. Although I hadn'tdone anything wrong, it felt like I had. This process was ratheruncomfortable and gave me an odd sense of what it must be likefor the little kids and wives who visit here on a regular basis.Most of them were prepared in advance with see-through pursesand knew exactly where to go. I thought to myself how difficultit must be to maintain a steady and healthy relationship withsomeone who was in a prison - probably neither very easy nor enjoyable.When all the visitors were finished being "detected",we made our way through a heavy gate onto the prison grounds.We were told to stay in line and walk on the left side only ofa very wide path. (The exact reason for this, I do not know).We finally reached a large building the size of a school cafeteriawhere we were seated to wait for our designated inmate to arrive.During this time, I observed how normal everything seemed to be.There were little kids climbing all over their fathers and holdinghands. There were girlfriends or wives cuddling with some of themen. With each group I watched, I tried to imagine what had happenedin their lives that made them deserve this isolation and seeminglyeverlasting confiscated freedom.
After waiting a very long time, I caught a glimpse of a man comingour way. I figured this was Veronza. He looked exactly like hispictures, although a little shorter than I expected. His extremelylong hair was in dreads and he wore an olive green uniform. Immediately,his personality and kindness radiated so strongly, it broughtmy family to tears. I think I was the only one who didn't cry,simply because I haven't known him nearly as long as my dad whotold me he first began corresponding with Veronza in 1987, a yearbefore I was born. We sat and talked for a bit until some of usstarted to get a little hungry. I was told by Garfield (our friendin Naples who had visited here several times before) Veronza reallylikes the chicken they have in the vending machines, so I casuallybrought that up. I guess that the quality of the frozen cellophane-wrappedfood is much better than what the inmates are served in the prison.Trying to imagine that was very hard as my mom is a great cookwho works hard to feed our family healthy and tasty meals. Ifyou think about eating "plastic" food all the time,imagine the effect it would have on your body - not very goodat all.
During lunch, I didn't say much because I was so caught up inobserving everything around in the visiting area. At one point,Veronza seemed to take a special interest in me and asked, "Apenny for your thoughts." He wanted to know what I likedto do in school and I told him that I was on the basketball team.He asked what I do before I shoot free throws. I told him thatI always took five dribbles, got set, then shot. He told me howimportant breathing is and if I take a deep breath and slowlylet it out, I will make almost every shot. (This is somethingI plan to take into account next season.) He also mentioned thatthis simple technique would help me to relax at night becausesometimes I have trouble falling asleep. Just lay there and concentrateon steady breathing and soon enough sleep will come. Although,at first, the visiting situation was a bit awkward, Veronza'spresence was so strong, he made me feel very comfortable and ourtime together really worthwhile. It was as if we weren't in aprison visiting room surrounded by guards and tall gates and walls,but at a "normal" place just talking with an old familyfriend. I couldn't even begin to imagine having to be locked upin a prison for a day, let alone 32 years.
We were notified that visiting hours were over and it was timeto say goodbye. A wave of sadness seemed to wash over the roomas everyone would have to go their separate ways. Veronza mentionedsomething that seemed very true: when prisoners are visiting,everything is just so happy and joyous, but as soon as it's overthey enter the other side of the door again where everything issad and nostalgic. As we said our goodbyes to him, I handed Veronzamy bracelet. It was just a simple bracelet with small blue-greenglass beads. I wanted him to remember me, even in the slightestway, because I know that I will always remember him and my tripto the prison. As we were leaving, I had the strangest urge tocry, although I didn't feel that before when we first met. Justlistening to what he had to say really affected me a lot. I wantedto cry for everything that I have been given that others haven'tand I wanted to cry for not realizing it very much until then.I have to say I had very confusing and mixed emotions in thisshort period of time.
Since that visit, a little more faith in the human race has beenrestored for me. Seeing how strong Veronza can be in a grueling32 years, and him still being extremely intelligent and determined,has really made me believe that "good people" reallydo exist is this complicated society.
Who Needs Prisons, And Who Do The Prisons Need? Part 2 (with Veronza Bowers, Jr.)