At Preston, Families Are Treated As Suspects
The drive to Preston wasn’t completely unfamiliar to us. I had driven there once before in 2007 for a tour and Kevin had done outreach at the prison in the past. As we were driving, I thought about all of the family members who drove these same highways and roads—every weekend—for years and for distances much longer than what we drove that morning. Upon our arrival at Preston, we were met with a completely unfamiliar situation. A couple prison guards greeted us in military garb. After we identified ourselves and the purpose of our visit, they directed us to the next “checkpoint” where our IDs were checked a second time. We knew it wasn’t over just yet because our driver licenses were left on the windshield for what I assumed to be the final checkpoint. As we rounded the corner, I could feel my eyes widen and I heard myself exclaim something incoherent. The last security checkpoint looked more like a militarized zone. There were approximately a dozen prison guards and local police officers awaiting our arrival. One guard approached our vehicle to check our IDs and proceeded to ask us if we had guns, knives or other weapons in the car. We were also asked whether we had other illegal contraband anywhere in the vehicle. We were warned to stay still and keep our hands visible. Let me pause here and share with you the myriad of emotions that coursed through my being. I felt angry, violated, and horrified. But the strongest emotion I felt was fear. I was scared. I knew I had violated no law nor was there any real reason for me to be nervous. Well, except for the fact that I was surrounded by a group of individuals with loaded guns. I wish my story could end here but alas, it does not. We were told to exit the vehicle and directed to sit a few feet away from the car. A police officer then used a police dog to sniff around the vehicle for drugs. He directed the dog to enter the vehicle and closed the door. I watched in wonder and horror as the dog jumped from the front to the back seat, sniffing in every crevice. Then the dog was taken out and led away. I made a move to rise from the seat thinking it was over but settled back down when I saw two guards put on latex gloves in order to begin another search of the car, including a search of my purse. As they began this next phase of “security” I became resigned to the idea that they were probably going to search us next. The search was abruptly interrupted when one of the guards asked us where we were from. “Books Not Bars,” I replied for the third time. Then they realized we were exempt from the search and made a few comments at an attempt to diffuse the tense situation. “I thought you didn’t look like the type of people that come here,” one guard stated. “We thought you were clergy or something,” a second guard added with a chuckle. My purse was returned to me, as were our IDs, and we were directed to park and “have a nice day.” The rest of the day was a blur. The tour was a dog and pony show. The meeting with the Superintendent felt scripted. My mind kept drifting back to the security checkpoints and the search. I thought about the family members who drove hundreds of miles to spend a few hours with their loved ones and how it must feel to be treated like suspects. Then I thought about their visits with their loved ones—what they would be like after the hurdles they faced that day. * Books Not Bars does not condone the bringing of contraband into any of the youth prisons. We do disagree with the methodology employed by the DJJ because the searches do not focus only on contraband—the purpose for conducting searches in the first place. We also believe that similar searches should be made of DJJ staff members involving local law enforcement so that contraband is not made available to youth by staff. Currently, DJJ staff members are only subject to a cursory search conducted by other staff members.
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