On a recent warm August night, I joined that group of waiting people. I was taking the 2:00 am van to Great Meadow Maximum Security Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York to visit my friend, George Baba Eng, or Baba, as his friends affectionately call him. He's been incarcerated for twenty-seven years now for killing a drug dealer who had pulled a gun on Baba's wife. The public defender assigned to his case hadn't bothered to mount much of a defense since Baba was poor, Black and drug addicted at the time. He wound up with twenty-five years to life.
I first "met" Baba, in the summer of 2002 at the Millions for Reparations Rally in Washington, DC when long-time activist and Reparationist, Sundiata Sadiq, showed me a copy of the insightful article Baba had written on reparations and the need for "Restorative Justice." As the Communications Director for the organization Caucasians United for Reparations and Emancipation, I was greatly interested in how this incarcerated brother saw the subject.
Baba's writing impressed me so much that I wrote an article about him. Then I began corresponding with him, mostly through his very close friend, Karima Amin, an African storyteller who performs in venues all over the country, including behind the walls.
In early August Karima wrote me that it would mean a lot to Baba if I visited him. That was all I needed to be told. I'd wanted to visit him for quite a while but never had the gumption to carve out a space in my busy schedule and just do it.
Once I decided to go, I was really excited. Even so, I found that as I made the actual preparations, I had pre-visit heebie-jeebies about practically everything from "What if the bus breaks down and I get stranded?" to "What if I have banned items on me and they don't let me in?" and most of all, knowing that the visit would last about five hours, "What if Baba and I run out of things to talk about?"
Thinking back to those fears now makes me almost laugh because they all proved so completely unfounded, especially the last. But through it all, Karima patiently answered my every question and gave me constant reassurance.
THE OTHER VISITORS
As about seventy of us waited on the corner for our buses and vans to pull up, I was hoping that during the four and a half hour trip to Comstock and the ensuing wait at the prison I'd get a chance to talk to several of my fellow travelers and learn something about them and the persons they were visiting.
My first conversation was with a very pretty young woman going to Washington Correctional Facility, also in Comstock. She told me that this was her first visit to her uncle. He had shot but not killed someone who had assaulted him first in a case of mistaken identities. The man had not even pressed charges, but her uncle was given a year and a half for illegal possession of a weapon and an additional year and a half for assault.
There was a very dignified Black woman executive who was likely in her mid-thirties. She was visiting a friend she's known since childhood. He'd been convicted on the testimony of only one eyewitness. Even though he had done some bad things earlier in life, he swears he is innocent of this crime, and she believes him. She and others are trying to get him an appeal, but it's heavy going and she has little faith in the system.
I spoke with a very lively woman from the Bronx, probably in her early forties, whose husband has been incarcerated for twenty-seven years. They've been married for thirteen of those years. He had been the best friend of her first husband who had been shot and killed. In their mutual grief over his death, they bonded so deeply that they eventually decided to marry.
Another quiet-spoken young woman was visiting the father of her fourteen-month-old daughter, an adorable little girl who was curious about everything. He's serving six months in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) for supposedly sassing a guard, (a correction officer or CO). For that reason he's not allowed out in the big room with everyone else but has to receive visitors in a claustrophobic little room off to the side. From it they can hear the sounds of the main room, which just accents their desolating sense of isolation.
Another mother was there to see her teenage son who was only seventeen when he went in. She told me that he did commit the crime and deserved to be punished, but she is extremely concerned about the effect of his being in an adult facility at such a young age. He's scheduled for release next year, and she just hopes that he comes out without irreparably damage.
There was also a very elegant grandmother who spoke only Spanish. She comes frequently to visit her son, who should be released in December. This time she brought her youngest grandson, who appeared to be in his early twenties, for his first visit to his father in the four years he's been incarcerated.
Another woman told me that she and her four-year-old daughter had been scheduled to leave for their first conjugal visit with her husband on the night of the blackout, but with the subways out of service, they couldn't get to the bus. She had tried to reschedule for the following weekend, but the prison wouldn't allow that. The next availability was in October.
She was disappointed, but her daughter was devastated. The little girl has no memories of her father because she was only three months old when he went in. She had been beside herself with excitement about meeting him and spending the night together under the same roof, so it was quite a blow.
All of the children I saw seemed delighted to be coming to visit their fathers, even though many of them were too young to really understand where they were and what was what. In the van, for instance, there was a little boy about sixteen months old who kept saying happily as he bounced up and down with joy, "Go see daddy! Go see daddy!"
Throughout the entire roundtrip - and I'm talking close to eighteen hours - I was struck by how well behaved the children were. There were no whining infants or children throwing tantrums. Only once did I hear a baby get upset about something and cry loudly for about thirty seconds. The anticipation and emotions of the trip were felt even by the little ones.
IN THE WAITING ROOM
Through the dawning day we drove on, and shortly before 7:00 am we arrived at Great Meadow Correctional Facility. We disembarked and lined up outside the prison in the chilly morning air, along with others who'd come by car. Whereas everyone in the vans except me had been Black or Latino/a, several of them were white.
Soon we were admitted into the visitor's waiting room. As we filed in past the desk, we were each given a form requiring basic information about the person we were visiting and ourselves. First-time visitors got a second form as well. After filling them out, we brought them back to the guard, who examined them and our two pieces of photo ID.
Karima had told me that the reason we weren't admitted into the visiting room until 9:00 am was because they have a change over of the guards first. Therefore, I took a seat where I could get a good look at who was entering and exiting. I watched as white guard after white guard passed by in both directions, each with the job of wielding power over the inmates of color who mainly comprise the prison population. I saw exactly one Black guard come in and none go out.
On the van coming up, a woman had explained to me that most of them dress for comfort for the long trip, but bring everything they need to really dress up after they get there. Then they leave all their traveling stuff in a locker in the visitors' room.
Therefore, when I opened the door to the ladies' room, I was met by the pleasing sights and sounds of women happily engaged in the act of transforming themselves. The mood was festive as scarves came off heads, curlers were removed from hair and make-up was applied. The women graciously stepped aside to make room for each other in front of the two small mirrors. They took turns going into the booth to don their nice outfits and to change their children's clothes. The whole thing reminded me of the girl's bathroom in high school, only nicer because there was such a spirit of camaraderie and cooperation.
And let me tell you, when the ladies stepped out, they were lookin' good! I could hardly recognize several of my travel companions who had turned into some foxy ladies.
Then, we waited. While we did, we were able to enjoy the coffee, juice and diverse breakfast snacks that a woman named Rebecca, who volunteers with a Christian organization, had so kindly set out for us.
ENTERING THE VISITING AREA
At 9 am sharp, they began letting us in, one by one. When they called out the name of the person we were visiting, we went up to the counter, took off our shoes and set them on top for examination along with the other meager things we were allowed to bring in: not much more than our IDs, house keys and money for the vending machines. We couldn't have anything like a lipstick and certainly not a mirror or anything else that could possibly be turned into a weapon.
If a woman had on an underwire bra, she had to remove it in the ladies room, put it into a small brown paper bag and place it on the counter as well. It was only after she'd gone all the way through to the visiting area that she was allowed to put it back on in the rest room.
When the name George Baba Eng was called, I took off my shoes, earrings and watch and placed them on the counter with my wallet. I went through the metal detector just fine. Then they stamped the back of my hand with an iridescent blue ink that only showed up under a special light, gave me back one of the forms I'd filled out, and slid open the first set of bars for me to walk through. After they had shut behind me, I was sent out a door and across a small courtyard to another building where the guards buzzed me in. From there, I was let through another set of bars and into the visiting area.
I entered the visitors' room and handed over my form to one of the guards at the desk. He asked me if I planned to leave money for the inmate - I said no because I hadn't even known such a thing was possible - and he pointed out exactly what seat I was to take at one of the three long tables running the length of the room. There were no glass partitions above the tables, but there were wooden panels underneath to prohibit contact of any kind below. As I saw later, all the visitors sit on one side of the tables with their backs to the guards, while the incarcerated men all sit on the other, facing the guards.
As instructed by Karima, I then went into the vending machine room to buy all the items for Baba's and my lunch and the tickets for the Polaroid photos that we could have taken together. She had told me what he liked best to eat and also to be sure to get the photo tickets right away before they were gone.
Though there were so many of us crammed into this tiny room in long lines for the machines, I was amazed by the good nature and fellow feeling. Never did I feel it more than when I got my first turn at a machine. As I struggled with each purchase to get the machine to accept my money, I was embarrassed because I felt so inept and like I was taking forever! Yet, no one showed the slightest sign of impatience or irritation with me, but offered suggestions and tried to help.
In between my raids on the various vending machines, I kept looking to see if Baba had been brought down yet because I wanted to be there when he walked in. Just as I carried in my last haul, I looked over and there he was, coming through the inmates' entrance. I recognized him immediately from his photo.
We came to our assigned places, leaned over the table and gave each other a big hug. Then we sat down and immediately dove right into deep discussion with no preliminary small talk.
Looking straight into each other's eyes, Baba and I talked non-stop for four and a half hours. We discussed all kinds of things, both personal and impersonal. For instance, I asked him how he sees the Bible with its condoning of such things as slavery and the oppression of women, and he gave me his answer, placing it in the context not only of the history of Christianity, but of Judaism and Islam.
We talked about politics, racism, the reparations movement, and about our very selves. When I asked, he told me in detail about the commission of his crime. He never tried to lessen one iota the awfulness of what he had done in taking the life of another human being. His searing, everlasting remorse for it was evident.
We also talked about dance (I used to be a dance teacher) and about gardening, another love of mine.
Just as in his letters, I found Baba to be warm, sincere, open, intelligent, scholarly and kind - the sort of person it's a real joy to spend time with under any circumstances. I felt so at ease with him, completely at liberty to be myself and free to bring up any subject under the sun.
I already had tremendous respect for Baba before I came, but every good thing I thought of him was confirmed and multiplied during our visit. I am positive that he is a changed man who not only deserves to rejoin society, but a man desperately needed in the community. He is both a warning and an inspiration to young men who may be headed down the wrong track and need support and positive direction. I am sure that interaction with him could turn many of their lives around so they don't end up spending years behind the walls like he has. That is why, when he goes before the parole board in December, with all my heart I hope and pray, as do so many others, that they grant him a parole.
THE ATMOSPHERE IN THE ROOM ITSELF
Around noon I went back to the vending machine room to microwave our lunch. When called, Baba and I also went to the area off to the side where, under the watchful eye of a guard, an inmate took our photos. Each time, before sitting back down, I looked around the room, trying to gauge the general atmosphere among the approximately sixty inmates with their visitors.
What I saw was such an intense interaction between people that it's hard to describe. While there were a few people playing cards, practically everyone was locked in deepest conversation. Most were looking straight into each other's eyes, and many were holding hands.
Usually in a room with so many people, groups form for casual conversation. Here, however, even though we were sandwiched between the persons next to us in about three feet of space, we each focused on the person across from us as though we were in complete privacy.
The sound level was so loud you had to strain to hear your partner; yet, there was something wonderful about the din. You could tell that this wasn't casual conversation, but fervent communication, people trying to establish a deep connection with each other. You could literally feel these men's hunger for a taste of the world beyond the walls, brought to them by someone who recognized their humanity.
Children sprawled on the tables and even perched on the inmates' laps, all looking as though they were having the time of their lives. One little boy sat astride his father's shoulders while he leaned forward, talking to his wife.
Shortly after I first sat down, a man entered, whose appearance I found a little scary. He took a seat not too far away, and I soon forgot about him. When I was looking around the room, though, I noticed him again. He was leaning across the table with a very tender expression on his face as he gazed lovingly into the face of his woman visitor. Very gently, he stroked her hand. She had tears in her eyes. Recalling my first superficial response - and yes, I have to say it, racist reaction - I felt so critical of myself and vowed to learn from it.
Altogether, being in that visiting room and witnessing the indomitable spirit of those present was a tremendously compelling and educational experience. When you looked around, you were aware that if you knew the story of any one of these inmates and his visitor it would break your heart. And you knew, too, that all of them, taken together, would comprise a massive weight of unbearable pain. Yet, here was this remarkable affirmation of humanity taking place and a sense of real joy snatched from so much tragedy.
At 1:45 pm we were given the warning signal that there were only 15 minutes remaining. I was shocked that the time had flown by so fast; I felt I could easily have stayed and talked with Baba for at least another four hours.
When the final signal came, I was really sad to leave. I gave Baba the biggest embrace I could as everyone else hugged and kissed goodbye. Then they hustled the inmates out through their exit while we retrieved our sheets of paper and began making our way back through to the waiting room.
Before they let us through each locked door, they checked our blue-stamped hands under the light. Prior to passing through the final barred doorway, we also had to write our signatures again, which they compared with our originals when we first came in.
Those with possessions in lockers retrieved them, and then we all climbed back into our vans.
The ride up had been fairly quiet because it was, after all, the dead of night and most people were trying to get some sleep. But in the van going home, there was a completely different kind of quiet. Even though the driver was playing music, the silence of the visitors was palpable. Everyone, myself included, were struggling with lots of difficult emotions, and we were pretty well hunkered down within ourselves.
Meanwhile, the weather outside was, in stark contrast, wonderfully bright and sunny. It was jarring to realize it was just like any ordinary Saturday afternoon drive in the country as we passed beautiful scenery and even wildlife, including a deer with her fawn.
When we reached Ricky's at about 7:30 pm, we all said a swift goodbye before making off in different directions. Many, no doubt, will see each other again soon on future trips to visit loved ones.
Though there were painful aspects, this trip was one of the deepest and most moving experiences of my life. I wouldn't have missed it for anything. I implore anyone who has ever thought of visiting someone behind bars to go ahead and do it. You will affirm your own humanity as you help affirm someone else's.
Two bus lines serving the New York correctional facilities are Operation Prison Gap, (800) 734-3733 and Double K Transportation, (718) 495-4991.
On any given Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, in the wee small hours of the morning, if you happen to be in the vicinity of Columbus Circle in Manhattan, you may notice a group of people, mostly women of color, many with small children, gathering quietly in front of Ricky's at 58th Street and Eighth Avenue. They are waiting for the Operation Prison Gap buses and vans that will take them to see their loved ones in the approximately forty upstate correctional facilities.