Voices from See Us, Support Us: Pamela Brunskill
I got the feeling nobody wanted to be at Clinton Correctional Facility in the summer of 2003. Not the guards. Not the incarcerated. Certainly not me. Yet my sister and I drove there for the weekend because we wanted to see our dad for the first time in years.
The Sunday of that visit, we arrived at 7:45am in hopes of getting in at 8:30—we had a seven-hour drive back to Buffalo and wanted to leave by noon. We received visitor pass #56.
There were no signs telling us where to go, where to wait, what to do. Just a room of silent women, some with children, some itching to go outside and smoke.
Excuse me, sir. About how long do you think it will be?
What number do you have?
I showed the guard my pass.
Oh, at least ‘til 9:30.
By 9:30, the guards were up to #25. I feared we weren’t going to make it in, so I approached a guard and explained our predicament. He called ahead to have my father ready to speed things up—a godsend. At 10:00am, a guard called “Number 56.”
We were searched and then sent to a waiting room where a different guard stamped our card. Here we learned that the first forty numbers arrived by 6:30, and some even camped out in hopes of getting a little more time inside. Regardless, no one got in until 8:30.
At 10:30 we were ushered into the visiting room, but somehow the message didn’t get relayed—our dad wasn’t there.
The gate clanged behind us, and a puny man smiled. He looked like a kid who was beaten up in middle school and now took pleasure in picking on others. I remembered his greasy brown hair from the previous year and thought, I do not like this human being.
We wanted to buy some snacks, but the Pepsi man was filling the machines, so we were not allowed in there yet. Instead, my sister and I waited skittishly at a table until, finally, our dad arrived. We hugged, our dad squeezing us as if to contain a year’s worth of visits in a moment, and when I closed my eyes, I imagined we were home. For a few minutes, we talked about normal, neutral, everyday topics until the Pepsi man finished loading his wares.
Then, like rats, we and the other visitors descended upon the crappy food machines, leaving the deliveryman staring. It was as though all sense of humility and consideration left us when we entered the facility. We had to race to the vending machine room; all the best food got taken first and we couldn’t bring our own food with us. And the previous day, all the click-click bars—bars that could be exchanged for a Polaroid with your loved one—were gone.
Our dad had asked my sister and me to buy a bar for him, and after 10 minutes in the vending machine line, my sister succeeded. We wanted to use it immediately. It was 10:45.
We inquired about the program.
Just wait. Someone will come around.
Our dad told us stories until 11:15, when my sister went to find out about the photo again. Rest assured, by 11:30 we would be called. At 11:45 I asked the same guard.
The program is usually set up by now. You’ll be called once it starts—any minute.
The inmate was just paged to set up the camera and backdrop.
How much longer will it take before we can get our picture? We need to leave by noon.
He’s on his way.
So about how long? Five minutes? Twenty minutes? I was pushing my status as a rat, but in my mind, the puny guard’s whiskers grew.
Soon. Once the inmate arrives, it takes less than five minutes to set up. But, if there’s trouble with the inmate, it could take twenty minutes to an hour.
Frustrated, I gave the bar to my dad. He offered a resigned hug and said he understood, though I’m sure he broke a little inside.
The guard asked us if our visit was over and I wondered if he had poison for brains.
My sister and I nodded and went through towards the Stamper. Leaving already? he joked. You just got here.
I seethed. No, we didn’t. We got here at 7:45. He lightheartedly pretended he couldn’t find our exit cards.
My sister and I walked back to the searching place to collect our stuff. We gathered our bag of keys and other forbidden items, such as a plastic film container (to hold our quarters for the vending machine), and the last guard in the chain asked us for our exit passes. I glared at him. I felt like ripping mine into a hundred pieces to frustrate him like the system did me, but I just passed it under the glass, and left.
A few months later, my dad mailed me the Polaroid of him with a couple of buddies in white undershirts in front of a fake Waikiki. In it, the men are smiling as if they are anywhere other than at Clinton Correctional Facility. Now, fifteen years later, I wonder if there’s a way to take a photo that embraces the actual place and replaces indignation with real smiles and memories. I think, if I just wait, someone will come around.
Pamela Brunskill is a literacy coach, developer of educational resources, and writer. Connect with her via her website at or on Twitter at @PamelaBrunskill.
Editorial note: The visiting process can be difficult, but seeing someone in person is critical for children and families. Join the See Us, Support Us Network and attend Inside and Outside the Visiting Room: Supporting the Relationships and Well-being of Children with Incarcerated Parents on October 24, 2018 to learn how you can advocate for family-friendly visiting practices.