Journal Entry: Douglas Jason Way-05/25/2024-WAY TO VISITATION

Journal Entry

It is a common occurrence on weekends for the residents at the camp at FCI Thomson to hear over the intercom, “Way to visitation.” Every one of those announcements is a testament to both the perseverance of my loved ones and my rebellion against advice I was given by more than one old-timer in my early days of incarceration. Every time my name is called and I head for the visitation room, the profound power of connection is affirmed.

There is a pernicious bit of prison thinking that was passed along to me when I was a newcomer. “Cut yourself off from the world outside and focus on doing your time,” they said. “It’s too hard to get through life on the inside when you are reminded of everything going on outside.” It is unfortunate that the first person who expressed this notion was not confronted directly by someone who had actual wisdom. That listener would have known how unhealthy and wrong-headed the idea was and could have replied, “Dude, that makes no sense whatsoever.” Instead of becoming a terrible idea that died a rightful death, it became yet another aspect of the dysfunctional thinking of the institutionalized.

Fortunately, I came into prison with an unshakeable belief in human connection learned in my recovery from addiction that had been bolstered throughout my prosecution and sentencing. Relationships with my family and friends were the reason that I made it through that ordeal without losing my sanity, or life.

All available scientific evidence backs up my experience. Studies have definitively shown that the number one predictor of happiness and longevity is whether or not a person has meaningful relationships. We are hard-wired in our limbic brain to bond at a deep, emotional level and to thrive through those bonds, both as individuals and as groups. As physician Henry Lodge wrote in Younger Next Year, “No one has ever gone into the Amazon jungle and found an isolated person; it’s always a tribe. There is no such thing as a solitary human in nature, because isolation is fatal.”

Although I highly value a handful of the men I have met while incarcerated, the simple fact is that my tribe is not here. It is at home and I am not going to give them up because some guy who has spent most of his adult life in prison suggests it. Upon hearing that advice, I committed to doing the exact opposite. With enough effort I decided it must be possible to exit prison with stronger relationships than when I entered.

For all the lip service that the BOP pays to preparing us for successful re-entry by making us better family members and neighbors rather than better inmates, the reality is quite different. As I write this, we are on yet another lockdown. Visitation is cancelled, and phones and email have been turned off. My family and I have been through this disturbing cycle more times than I can count. Our connection will be restored at some point, and the prison administration will carry on, oblivious to the damage they’ve caused.

It was an arduous journey just to get to the point where we could have contact visits for them to take away. In a manner reflecting its default indifference to the health of the men and women in its custody, the BOP was slow to respond to the COVID pandemic. But once it had everyone locked down, complacency set in and safety was used as an excuse to deny rehabilitative services, including visitation. This mentality was particularly egregious at Thomson, where standard operating procedure was to cut the maximum security residents off from the outside world.

“No contact” visits began shortly after I arrived at Thomson in late 2020. A lucky break. However, it was next to impossible to get visitors approved. Our case manager refused to do the work and we had no counselor. It took six months, with many of my people having to submit their applications multiple times, for those who wanted to see me to gain access.

Once approved they had more hurdles to clear. They encountered different rules for entry nearly every time they came. They dealt with rude and ignorant staff. Only three of the eight intercoms in the main prison’s visitation room functioned properly, resulting in long waits or missed visits altogether. When my people finally got to see me, it was through thick glass. They were experiencing the additional punishment beyond separation that our retributive carceral system heaps on everyone it touches.

Guys told me during this period that they asked their families not to come. In spite of the challenges and the pain of watching my loved ones leave without hugging them, I am grateful that we stayed committed to holding onto any connection we could get. We were dealing with the reality of hardship together, lifting each other up along the way.

Pandemic related restrictions eased in the world outside in 2021 and a group of us decided to lobby the administration to restart contact visitation at the camp. Our wardens at the time were spiteful and sadistic men who presided over the dark period at Thomson that ultimately led to the prison’s closing and repurposing. It took persistent emailing and other inquiries over several months to get an initial response. We were told that there would be no contact visits until 100% of the campers were vaccinated. For various reasons, this was an impossibility and they knew it. The blowoff was particularly offensive given that the staff were refusing vaccination, not wearing masks, and disregarding other COVID safety measures.

Warden Ciolli transferred in 2022 and was replaced by the more humane, approachable, and honorable Warden Bergami. Warden Gonzalez resisted our renewed lobbying, but when he finally retired, Warden Bergami made the call to move visitation back to the camp in September. That first hug with my wife and sons two years after I surrendered to prison was indescribably wonderful. It renewed my faith that we would come through this phase of our life stronger than ever.

My family and friends continued to be champions of connection even though they were often confronted with obstacles. My father drove seven hours from Sioux Falls, SD one weekend and spent the night in a hotel before our intended visit only to be told that it was cancelled due to a staffing mix-up. When he went to the main prison to request and audience with the lieutenant who made that decision, a lackey was sent out and acted with disrespect and contempt. My visitors have been turned away numerous times for arbitrary clothing issues. They had to spend hours driving to other towns to buy acceptable clothing.

A pattern also became apparent as the staff rebelled against Warden Bergami’s authority by undermining what they believed to be his overly generous treatment of us. Whenever he went on vacation over holiday weekends, officers would search the camp, find contraband, and cancel visitation. This loss for us was a double win for them–they could thumb their noses at the warden while not having to work on holidays.

Weekend after weekend, when they were allowed, my people continued to show up. We have found that when we were together, the insults and inconveniences did not matter. Our bond is stronger than anything that the BOP can throw at us. We hug and we talk about all manner of topics big and small. Our horizons are broadened and we grow together. That time allows me to feel like I am still a part of the big world outside of these walls.

I was blessed with strong family ties and true friendships before coming to Thomson. My time here has proven my hunch correct though. It is possible to both deepen existing connections and even form new ones.

On a recent weekend, I sat talking to my friend John, marveling at the fact that the lively, wide-ranging conversation was taking place. I didn’t know John before I came to prison. He was in a bible study with my friend Brian and after hearing my story, wrote me a letter. I responded and a correspondence began. John repeatedly submitted visitor applications and when he was finally approved, came out to see me with Brian. Now he comes on his own. He is a tremendous role model of what it looks like to show up for your fellow man.

To be in relationship with others, to be engaged and care, means that we will suffer sometimes. When my visitors head for their cars and I have to go back to the unit, it is acutely painful for us all. When our visits are taken away and communications are cut off, my anxiety and depression increase. Those negative impacts are a small price to pay for the immense short and long-term benefits of the connection, however. I gratefully feel the pain of separation because it reminds me that I love and am loved by people whose quality is second to none. People who stand ready to welcome me home and cheer me on as I spend the rest of my life paying their goodness forward.