I noticed several things on my visit.
The place has no music playing in the entry or lobby or halls. It is nothing but echoing voices and reverberating noises. Unlike most things in life, you don't notice music until it's not there. I can't believe how music brings meaning to mundanity.
The building is nothing but cement and cinderblock. There is hardly a color in the whole building. Almost everything is gray and white which affects your mood almost immediately. The color is stiff and cold, sterile and stoic, and it isn't long before you adopt this emotional posture without knowing it. This is not a place of emotion or relaxation or recreation. Welcome to a world of gray.
There aren't paintings in the halls or in the rooms. No art. No beauty. Nothing to catch your eye and breathe life into your veins. Nothing remotely close to tender, inspirational, attractive or encouraging. I take for granted the artistry that fills most places that I visit filling me with hope and hospitality. This is not a harbor of hospitality for your heart, this a place meant to be meaningless on purpose so that you realize what you take for granted on the other side of those cold and colorless walls. This place is there to remind you what it's like when life is vacuumed out of the building and you are left with nothing be utilities and the utilitarian world of scarcity and survival.
The guards (other than my good buddy, Ben) are quiet and stone-faced, robotic and pre-programmed. They aren't inhumane, but they aren't human. They dwell somewhere in between the two trying hard to regulate their emotions so as to not appear affected by their surroundings or the feelings of those incarcerated. I want to go up to some of them and say, "Hey, you can talk to me normally, it's ok. I'm not a criminal nor a child, I'm a grown adult with intelligence and ingenuity. There isn't a need to bark orders or to talk to me as if I'm a cyborg. I'm a human who's just trying to help." But alas, many of them have on their work clothes and their work voice, and to try to get them to break character is nigh unto impossible.
As I sat in the visiting room for almost 45 minutes waiting to see my friend, I was struck with the stone-cold silence of the 6x10 space. It was so quiet, I could hear my nose whistling with every inhale. My thoughts were loud and the time was creeping along at a snail's pace. I didn't dare ask if he was close to coming for fear that I would be thrown against the wall, frisked, hauled away for a mug shot, hosed down in the basement like Rambo in First Blood, dressed in an orange pajama-suit and thrown into a jail cell waiting for my wife to post bond and bail me out. What made matters worse is that I couldn't bring anything in with me, so I didn't have a watch or a phone or any way of knowing whether 30 minutes went by or 3 hours. I just sat there in a suspense of disbelief almost untethered to anything that even resembled life.
Maybe this is why Jesus said in Hebrews 13:3 "remember those in prison as though you were their fellow prisoners...". Because until you get into one of those places, you can't begin to imagine how dark a night can be and how long a day can be. You can't even believe the jolt of hope that can come through a hand-written letter or the week of energy that can be produced by the simple hug of a caring human being.
I'm learning that I don't have to go to jail or prison to find these environments bereft of music, color, decency, art, or humaneness. Nope, it's on our block and in our backyard. It's two houses down or just around the corner. Heck, it's often in our own living room with our spouse or children. And it doesn't take much to turn the tide, just a word...
What you have done for the least of these you've done for me. - Jesus