The Sacrifice of Innocence & Dignity For What’s Most Important


Written by: Robert LaBarr
Edited by: Cody Stuhltrager

As I get out of the shower, preparing for my family coming to visit, I try to keep the anxieties
of the moment at bay. I’m thrilled to see my mom Louise, sister Kimmy, brother-in-law Nicky,
and my 7 & 3-year-old nieces Riley and Avery. But I’m dreading everything my family and I
have to go through to hug and kiss each other. As I’m fixing my hair in the mirror, my feelings
swing from excitement to anger. Through the speaker in the wall of the cage I reside in, I hear
“DY-1088, LaBarr, You got a visit.” I scramble about for my “state boots,” throw on my brown
jacket and head out the sliding door of the cage. I approach the Correctional Officer’s (CO)
desk, ID in hand, and I get the pass to go on my visit. I get to the front door of the unit, push
the button to get it open, then the buzzing sound of nightmares releases me to the next of the
8 fortified doors I have to go through before I get to embrace my family. As I walk through
the second door of the unit, I brace myself for the piercing reflection of the sun beaming off
the rows of barbed wire that top the high fence enclosing the white concrete unit yard. I
know all too well how it blinds you until your eyes adjust, and I sneeze a few times, as is my
usual from bright lights. I walk about 30 feet through the unit yard, toward door number 4,
surveilled by the 5 cameras that encircle the yard and watch my every movement. Buzzzzzz!
I exit the yard, make a right, and am released to the main compound. I walk as fast as I can
down a white paved walkway two city blocks long, thinking about the hassle my family is
going through. After all, I don’t want them to have to deal with any aggravation and/or wait
any longer than they need to. On my way, I’m tracked by the hundreds of thousands of
dollars’ worth of surveillance equipment that covers almost every surface of the compound
— a portion of the $400+ million in taxpayer money that PA misspent on State Correctional
Institution (SCI) Phoenix, “the safest, most technologically savvy prison in the US.” On my
right are the rows of barbed wire and fence that encase the two other units I pass by before
I get to the visiting area. At the end of the walkway, where the chow hall is located, I make a
right, only to stare down another block and a half walk. I weave my way through slower, less
purposeful traffic, and finally I arrive at door number 5, the entrance to the visiting area.
Buzzzzzz!

I enter the spartan lobby of the visiting strip area, a room about 12′ x 22′. The walls are lined
with hooks — for guys to hang their brown, state-issued coats on. Below the hooks, steel
benches run around the room. In two opposite corners is the eye in the sky. I approach the
far end of the room to my right where a CO is sitting behind a plexiglass window. I slide my
ID and pass through the narrow slot below the window. As I begin to unbutton my jacket and
untie my boot laces, to try to rush through this upcoming experience, I make a conscious
effort to leave my body, to go somewhere safer, all in preparation for the indignity that awaits
me on the other side of door number 6. I brace myself for the first of 2 such experiences to
come. I’m buzzed through. Buzzzzzz!

This room, without cameras, is about 8′ x 22′. A full body scanner fills the space to my left,
awaiting me after my visit is over, and a second window and slot, identical to the first, are to
my right. The CO, always a man, sits behind the window, expecting my clothes. I feel like I
lose a little piece of myself as I begin to remove each article of clothing — the state boots,
then the state issued jacket, my t-shirt, state issued pants, my socks and then finally my
boxers — always in this order, as I try to hold on to my dignity for as long as I can. I pass
them through the slot to the CO.

Then the dehumanization really begins: the CO says, “Arms in the air; run your fingers
through your hair; pull your right ear down; now your left; tongue out; lift your tongue up;
run your fingers along your gum line; arms out in front of you; wiggle your fingers; hand on
your privates; lift your testicles; separate your penis from your testicles; turn around; raise
your right foot behind you and wiggle your toes; the same with your left foot; bend over,
spread your butt cheeks; squat and cough for me.”

He looks at the floor, or at the monitor on the desk — anywhere but into my eyes — and I
can see that he’s ashamed of it, consciously or otherwise: the state sanctioned harm he just
committed. He hands me back my socks, t-shirt and boxers, along with a visiting room getup:
a community-worn brown jumpsuit and ill-fitting “skippies”. I throw my underwear on as
fast as I can to cover the embarrassment of my nakedness, then the visiting room garments
before I go through door number 7. Buzzzzzz!

As I begin the process of regaining my composure and return back to my body, I enter into
an oddly shaped room. It is lined with little wooden boxes attached to the wall on my right
for the personal state issued browns I, and other people already on their visits, must get
stripped out of; and the jumpsuits and skippies they give you in their place. There is a steel
bench in the center. To the left is a holding cage and the bathroom I’ll use if I have to “go”
during my visit. Just beyond the door, on the floor — amongst the yellow caution tape
marking the off limit areas for me — are a pair of painted feet I must stand on, facing a camera
to the right. This is where I get my picture taken, as part of their security measures for facial
recognition. I stand still on my directive, see the camera click, and turn to my left to finally
walk the 20′ to door number 8, beyond which the main visiting room is located. Buzzzzzz!
I walk out into a huge space as my senses are overwhelmed by the renewing mixture of
different noises — kids playing, laughter, distant chatter, and the not so uncommon sound
of a CO’s walkie talkie — and the smells of food, perfume and the newness of this big waste
of money. Straight ahead are all the vending machines filled with soda, juice, candy, chips,
sandwiches and salads. The ceiling is riddled with cameras pointing at every angle. I turn to
my right, immediately run into a CO sitting in a chair overlooking visitors, and head for the
middle of the room where the CO’s desk is to give them my pass and ID. As I walk, to my left
are rows and lines of burgundy chairs filled with people accompanying one another, eating
and conversing. To the far left is a kids room with a huge flat screen TV on the wall and
shelves filled with toys and art supplies. On my right are holding cages for people to get noncontact visits. As I make my way toward the desk, I look out of the corner of my eye for people
I know and space for my family and I. As I dash through kids running around playing, I
visually locate an area with 6 seats, turn my ID and pass in, and have a seat.

As I sit there anticipating the arrival of my family, I cycle through a range of emotions. I know
the wait could be a half hour or more. I’m trying to calm my premature frustration, but I’m
worrying they’re getting a hard time from the staff while trying to get in, as this is what
normally happens. All while trying to bury my complete disgust from the utter violation I
just had to go through. I compulsively look back and forth, from the clock to the door at the
far left end of the room, the door my family will walk through, any minute now. I look up
every time the door opens, hoping it’s my family coming through the door, just as everyone
else waits and hopes. I occasionally scan, without trying to make eye contact with anyone,
the different expressions on the faces of the imprisoned and the free who love them: some
grim, some elated, some blank. Time seems to stop in these moments. I somewhat regain
feeling back in my body from the numbness of trauma I just had to endure. As time goes by
the emotions mount. I sadly think to myself, “This is exactly why I rarely ask my family to
visit.” I think of giving my nieces hugs and kisses, as a way to cheer me up, to put on a smiling
face for my family. Finally, my family arrives, having survived the attitude of the staff
member at the front desk, the hand scan for drugs (which consistently gives false positives,
and results in non-contact visits), the metal detector, and the last of the many doors they had
to go through to see me. Buzzzzzz!

First, I see Kimmy coming through the door, holding the hand of my beautiful red headed
niece Riley. My mom is right behind them holding everyone’s IDs, the visiting room
paperwork we have to turn in to the CO at the desk, and the “food card” (a card my family
can purchase and deposit money on for the use of the vending machines). Bringing up the
rear is Nicky, with Avery in his arms. He points me out of the crowd and releases her. She
runs to me screaming “Uncle Bobby!” I kneel down to accept my Aves. As she runs into my
arms, I scoop her up, give her a huge hug, and kiss her all over her cheeks and forehead —
these tender moments make everything worth it! Avery is more free-spirited than Riley.
Always the shy one, she grasps and hides behind Kimmy’s thigh. While carrying Avery with
one arm, I give my mom a hug and kiss, then make my way to Kimmy and Nicky and give
them the same. Then I reach out for Riley, who only clutches Kimmy’s leg harder. But I know
she will warm up during the visit, as she always does. As we continue greeting each other
with casual conversation — Kimmy: Look at all your grays! My mom: Did you get taller or
am I shrinking? Nicky: Yo bro! Did you see them Flyers? Me: Did they give you a hard time?
— we start to make our way to hand in the visiting room paperwork to the CO and to our
seats.

At first I watch and play with my nieces as to take heed to what Kimmy and Nicky tell me,
“Our hands are free, it’s your turn to babysit.” I gladly do so as I cherish these moments. I
chase Avery around as she is a “runner.” As curious as any other 3-year-old, she eventually
walks to where the vending machines are located which are encircled by the same yellow
off-limits caution tape I mentioned earlier. I get Riley to retrieve her as she warms up to my
affections by seeing me interact with Avery. I return back to our seats and watch Riley show
me some of the latest moves she just learned in dance school and gymnastics. Being with my
family helps me to regain my feeling of being completely human again. For this short period
of time I can be my genuine self without putting any of the many masks of prison on. I can be
vulnerable. I can sing preschool songs with Avery. Let Riley boss me around — take my
glasses off and try them on; mess my hair up which is a No! No! for anyone else! — and do
whatever she wants me to do, no matter how silly I might look.

After a half hour or so, we’re ready to eat. Kimmy always takes care of the food and drinks.
I’ve come to accept over the years that I don’t have a choice in what to eat as Kimmy comes
back with plates full of sandwiches, chips, and candy. She puts four full plates of food (enough
to feed 3 people) in front of me. I tell her, “Kim I’m a 100 pounds soaking wet, I can’t eat all
of this!” As we eat, we talk about some of the same TV shows we watch together — Big
Brother, 90 Day Fiance — all while keeping an eye on Avery the “runner.” We make small
talk about many different things, everything except for the brutal reality of my situation, the
cold fact that I’ve been caged for the past 22½ years, after being sentenced to Death By
Incarceration (DBI) as an 18 year old accomplice to a burglary that resulted in someone
losing their life.

My family and I try to make the small amounts of time we have together in person as light as
possible. We know all too well the harm my actions have brought about all of us and others,
and how that harm has been exacerbated by a retributive state. The pain of my imprisonment
constantly looms over us just like many of the ills caused by a plague such as the coronavirus
— the separation from the people you love, the constant worry about their well-being, the
collective prayer of wanting it all to end, the powerless feeling of wanting to do something to
help but don’t know how to. We live it every day. We’re traumatized by it. We’re tired of
it. We can’t escape it. We’re reminded every time we are rudely interrupted by a recording
when we talk on the phone (reminding us we’re being recorded, 4 or 5 times per every 15
minute phone call); every time I’m not there for holidays/family occasions; when my family
wants to call me or Avery asks to facetime me, but can’t; every time we see each other and
notice how much we’ve aged over the time of my incarceration; every time we have to go
through the same bull crap to see each other!

Now, this harm is slowly taking away the innocence of my nieces. Riley just asked my sister
the other day, “Mom, why did you tell me Uncle Bobby was in college and not in jail?” She is
getting to that age where she is going to want some answers to her questions. How do you
tell a child you are sentenced to die in prison? That I may never be able to attend any of the
most important occasions in her life. Her innocent brain probably couldn’t comprehend why
any rational thinking human being would condemn another human being to die in a cage
regardless of what they did. I’m still struggling to make any sense of it myself, so I know she
would definitely have an impossible time trying to figure it out.

After we get finished eating we sit in the delirium of our fullness as we settle into a relaxing
state. The focus of the conversation usually goes to each of our lives as we try to get caught
up to date. We talk so often on the phone that everything discussed is an extension of our 15-
minute phone calls. All while we’re trying to keep my nieces occupied — making runs back
& forth to the bathroom with them, to the vending machines so they can insert the card &
pin #’s for the items; they compare the size of their hands to mine; Kimmy uses her leg as an
amusement ride for Avery — as boredom starts to take them over.

After 3 hours or so, the amount of time we’ve become accustomed to for our visits to last, we
begin to make our way up to the CO’s desk to retrieve our paperwork to leave. I pick Avery
up as we begin the separation (incapacitation), sanctioned by the state, away from each other
again. On the way, I fix her hair and tell her I love her as I kiss her all the way up to the
entrance of where they came in. This is usually the hardest time for all of us as I want to leave
with them, and they don’t want to leave me behind. The difficulty of the moment has sadly
diminished over the years. We reserve most of our emotions, unlike in the earlier years of
my incarceration when we all cried at the end of every visit, as we’ve grown calloused to the
magnitude of the moment as a defense mechanism. We’ve adapted to show each other as
little agony as possible to protect each other, as we know it would only make things harder,
as we physically separate for the next few months. I heart-wrenchingly hand Avery over to
Nicky as I give him an appreciative hug & tell him I love him. I give my mom and Kimmy hugs,
not wanting to release, as I tell them I love them and kiss them. Then I kneel down to give my
warmed-up Riley a heart melting hug as I tell her I’m proud of her and how much I love her.
I give her a kiss on the forehead as I dreadfully let her go. As I stand to walk away, I wave
goodbye to everyone and tell them I love them one last time before I resistantly get to the
point of letting go and walk the other way. What is supposed to be a happy moment is quickly
marred by the long walk back into hell. Walking away I feel rejuvenated, devastated,
exhausted, loved, angry, and motivated. All of these feelings are consumed by the repulsion
I feel when I consider the impending and inevitable return to the strip room. Buzzzzzz…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s