February 28, 2009

A visit long in the making

More than two months ago, I wrote about how Petros, a young man I know in Itipini, was in jail on murder charges. I wrote about my struggle to decide whether or not to go see him. Then I promptly forgot him.

Actually, that’s not quite true. He was at the back of my mind but there were so many other things at the front of my mind I let him slip back. I was conscious he was slipping to the back of my thoughts but the idea of visiting him was too intimidating for me and I was glad to have him off the front-burner.

About two weeks ago, I learned from his sister that he had had a court appearance (postponed until next month). When she saw him there, she said he was not well and had been in the hospital. That put Petros front-and-center again and after doing some reconnaissance work, figuring out when visiting hours were and what was required, and thinking about how I would approach the visit, I drove onto the prison grounds Thursday morning.

There were several false starts. It turns out there are (at least) two prisons on the grounds. I went to the maximum security one, called the “Mthatha Maximum Centre of Excellence.” (From what I saw, it was not a centre of maximum excellence, I can assure you.) But he wasn’t there and they had no record of him. I was going to check the medium security prison but I had to get back to Itipini so I decided to find his sister and figure out where he was. Relying on her from the beginning, rather than going solo, might have been a good idea.

(I hadn’t told the family or anyone in Itipini about my plan, in part because I didn’t know how they would react. You’ll recall that my good friend Noxolo was fed up and ready to forget all about him the last time I raised the subject. She’s not related to Petros but she’s a good barometer of the mood in the community.)

It turns out Petros is in the medium security prison so I returned in the afternoon with his sister, Sesi, and her friend, Phatiswa. But the guards would only let two of us in. I immediately volunteered to wait outside but Sesi insisted that Phatiswa and I go see Petros while she waited. We navigated our way through the gates and were shown to the visitor room. Phatiswa and I were an odd couple. She is quiet and withdrawn (around me) and I was nervous and looking for her to show me the way. We both kept deferring to each other.

I had no expectations for the visit but the room was generally consistent with everything I’ve seen in movies. There was a long glass wall with benches on both sides and collections of small air holes in the glass so we could speak to each other. There was Petros, waiting on the other side.

He was obviously happy to see us and although I was nervous I couldn’t help but smile to see him as well. He looked healthy and said he had never been in the hospital. It was really difficult speaking through the glass what with the Xhosa and the swirl of all the other conversations around us but I learned lots of interesting things.

He said he was eating enough and there was enough room to sleep at night. (News accounts of this particular prison have made it sound horribly overcrowded.) They aren’t let out during the day so he mostly watches television.

He has a lawyer, whose name he forgot, working with a public defender-type agency. I never asked anything about the charges or the alleged crime. I didn’t know how to and I didn’t see it as the point of the visit.

I think he was a little disappointed we hadn’t brought him anything. He asked for things like toothpaste and cookies, which other visitors had brought their prisoners that day. As I wrote in my previous post about this, I don’t want this relationship to be about gifts or what I can buy him. I just told Phatiswa to tell Sesi when we got out and let the family handle it.

Mostly, I was just impressed that he was laughing and smiling. I let him and Phatiswa talk to each other while I marveled that something I had made out to be so difficult and overwhelming in my head was actually turning out to be just fine. In fact, I was already making plans for a return visit.

On the way out, I asked Sesi if she knew of any other people from Itipini in jail. She would make a great chair of some sort of family support group because she started reeling off names before saying, “There are 13 people from Itipini in jail.” I didn’t recognize any of the names - I know very few young men in Itipini - except for Petros’s accomplice, whom I barely know. Still, the number was a bit stunning. It made me even more resolute not to purchase Petros any treats. If word gets around that I’m doing that, I’ll be opening myself up to appeals from the families of the other dozen.

But I did start thinking about next steps on the drive away. Petros can read English pretty well and I began to think about where I could find the right kind of books to give him and just what the right kind would be. I thought about going for his court date, although I’m not sure how effective that will be. Cases here are delayed and postponed again and again and again and people spend months or years in prison awaiting trial. It is likely that at his next hearing he will just be told to come back in another month.

I did find myself questioning the value of the visit. We weren’t there for longer than 15 minutes and it was so difficult to communicate. What could possibly be gained by going back? I don’t underestimate the importance of showing Petros that he has not been forgotten. But I also don’t see what we’re going to “do” at the next visit. Haven’t we already exchanged all the news we have to exchange?

My last post on this topic generated a considerable amount of e-mail. I welcome your feedback on this post as well, especially suggestions for what I could do for Petros that wouldn’t make the relationship just about me buying him toothpaste.


Michelle said...

It's amazing what a short, 15-minute visit can accomplish, and I would venture to say that simply your presence is what the value would be - a connection to the world outside prison. Isolation is a heavy-handed thing, and the value of even just sitting with someone for a few minutes need not be a big thing on one end. Bringing him reading material would be a positive thing, I would presume, also; that was an idea I liked.

Judi said...

I agree, Jesse, that your presense with Petros does probably more than you know. You are choosing to recognize him, to see him, at perhaps one of his lowest points, and to me that says a lot about valuing him regardless of innocence or guilt, liking him or not. There have been ministries here of folk driving family members to see their Moms or Dads in prison, where otherwise they would not be able to visit.