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My First Five Hours in Prison

Resting Garden Two by Betsy Walton

Finally visiting my old friend, a murderer who plea-bargained for life without parole.

I arrived in rural nowhere at 10 a.m., well inside the 8-to-3 visiting hours. I left my ski parka in the car, realizing its many pockets would be a hassle to search. As I walked through the cutting wind, a passing guard told me visitors are not processed from 9:45 to 11:00. I’d brought a book to read; may I sit on a couch in the lobby? He told me there were couches but that no books were allowed in the visiting area. He suggested I drive to a nearby mom-and-pop convenience store.

The store turned out to make a pretty good chicken sandwich. I arrived back at the prison at 11:00. When I finally got to the front of the sign-in line, I didn’t know my license plate number, so I had to walk back to my car. I also didn’t know my friend’s ID number. I waited almost an hour to find that out.

When I was finally called to the office, the woman behind the desk typed in my friend’s name. “He’s not here. He’s in Unit Two.”

I drove a half-mile further down the country road and then walked even further in the cold, following the signs to Visitation. Inside, I was told I must first go to the other building to sign in. Next door, after finishing some paperwork, the bulldog-like clerk asked me for my friend’s number. I’d left my Post-it note in the car. The clerk rolled his eyes and asked me my license plate number. Crap! I’d forgotten it already—back to the car. At this point, I was too cold, so I put on my parka and headed back to check-in. I took off my parka to be searched. There was a pair of sunglasses in one of the five pockets. No, I may not leave them at the desk—back to the car. I deposited my sunglasses and, to save one step in the airport-like search, I stripped off my belt and tossed it onto the seat. Now, on the brisk walk back, my pants threatened to fall down, and I kept having to hike them up. But this time, two hours and 20 minutes after arriving, I was finally admitted to the visitation room, which was filled with about 100 other visitors.

My old friend, the murderer, came into the room, not knowing who was there to visit. Our eyes met from about 15 yards away. He’d lost a lot of weight—I wasn’t sure it was him. He was staring at me, wondering if I was the unknown visitor he’d been summoned to meet, and then I saw him mouth the words “Brad Bull.”

When we sat down, I quickly told him about my ordeal getting admitted and my rookie entrance. My friend was shaking his head and laughing the whole time. Then, with a smile but a curious and serious gaze he quizzed me: “I’ve got to ask. When you’re locked up, society sees you as disposable trash. Outside my family and some ministers at local churches, no one has come to see me. Why did you start writing letters and come to visit a disposable like me?”

After an awkwardly long pause, I began, “I want to be honest.” He nodded. Working up the nerve, I finally spit out the word, an awkward confession: “Duty.” I raised my eyebrows and shrugged. “Jesus said, ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’ It’s what I’m supposed to do.” He nodded. I continued, “And. . . . So many things from our hometown kept reminding me of you. I started wondering what change in the wind would have led me to be out there and you in here. And if our situations were reversed, I would want you to come see me.” He nodded, seeming to appreciate my honesty.

After around the two hours in the crowded visitation room, a gently smiling man suddenly towered over us. He didn’t say a word. I could see in his eyes that he could tell a rookie visitor when he saw one. He knew I hadn’t known to bring five-dollar bills in my pocket to buy a vending machine card. He had noticed that his buddy had a brand-new visitor, and we’d been talking for two hours. He didn’t say a word to interrupt. He just extended to us in one hand two stacked cans of Pepsi—first to me and then to my friend—and bobbed his head with a smile when I said thank you.

One of society’s disposables.

My friend had been a drug addict—even for a while after being in prison. Now he was glowing with a serene peace. He had an amazing ability to listen—eyes attentive, nodding appropriately. His eyes glistened with tears at certain parts of my story. His amazing skill reminded me of two professionals who had both blessed and harmed me—people with profound listening skills but also a profound streak of sociopathic seductiveness who exhibited perfectly legal white-collar sociopathic behavior. There, in that prison, I saw a man who would be a better therapist than I—and more genuine than the exploitive professionals I’ve known who will never be punished for their behavior.

My friend said that in prison he has become a “genuine Christian”—rather than the mere church attender he’d been as a kid. He apologized for not writing more, but his job in the fabrication center keeps him very busy. As I told him of challenges in my life and he described his journey from addiction to redemption, he was quoting chapter and verse of far more scripture than this ordained Baptist minister can. I apologized for waiting so long to visit, and he replied that it was good timing—his second wife had just filed for divorce. Now I saw pain in his eyes. He had listened so intently to me, all the while dealing with his own deep pain, managing his emotions to focus on the person before him. What a therapist he would be.

We ended up laughing and occasionally crying for nearly three hours, until a female guard bellowed, “Last Call!”

One of society’s disposables.

I drove an hour home in total silence. Arriving home, I was hammered by the stench of spoiled food in the kitchen trash. I pulled out the trash bag and carried it to the bin outside, and then it hit me: out of sight, out of mind. Twenty-three years from conviction to my first visit. May God have mercy on my soul. Oh, wait—God has had mercy on my soul. In the eyes and ears and embrace of my friend—the disposable.