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Issue 5




Visiting Willie

By Ed and Toni Eames

On July 1, 1990, Willie Lee Johnson, in frustration and anger, shot to death a guest in his home. The victim, a friend of Willie's stepson, was dealing drugs and threatening the stability of Willie's family. During Willie's trial, the court-appointed public defender never raised the issue of Willie's legal blindness.

One of the unanticipated benefits of our visits with Willie was the therapeutic impact of our dogs on Willie's fellow prisoners.

After 12 years of multiple appeals, the court reduced the conviction from second degree murder to voluntary manslaughter and Willie was released without parole or probation.

In the November-December 1994 issue of The Disability Rag, Ed and Toni Eames wrote about Willie's conviction ("Justice and Blindness").

If you think it's tough getting out of prison, try getting into one when you'd like to!

Our visits to see our friend Willie Johnson, incarcerated during the last 12 years, have demonstrated how difficult it is to breech unfriendly prison walls. Willie, legally blind, was convicted of second degree homicide and has been housed in six different prisons since his conviction.

The Visiting Process

California's Department of Corrections requires all prison visitors to obtain prior approval, and several of our sighted friends who volunteered to drive us to visit Willie joined us in obtaining the needed credentials. However, each prison has its own schedule, so it is essential to check dates and times in advance. Simply dropping in is not condoned!

Being approved for visiting is only the first step in a complex procedure. On arriving at the visitor intake area, one has to have his/her credentials verified. All extraneous objects, such as wallets, purses, knitting needles and crochet hooks, books, etc. must be left in the car.

The security check is more rigorous than any we have ever experienced at an airport, even after September 11! Shoes and jewelry must be taken off and carefully examined by a guard. One goes through a very sensitive electronic sensoring device; any metal will set it off. On being approved, the visitor's wrist is stamped with indelible ink and that symbol of approval is checked at the next guard station.

A driver's license or identification card, one key and an unopened package of tissues can be taken inside, but must be kept in a plastic bag, carefully examined by a guard. Each visitor is also permitted to bring in $10 in quarters to be used in the commissary/dining room to purchase food. On one visit, Ed had a sneezing fit as we were approaching the security checkpoint and opened the package of tissues he was carrying to blow his nose. The guard then disallowed the open package of tissues.

Having passed through the security system, visitors walk from the receiving area into the inner sanctum where they are checked again. It is at this point that a call is put in to escort the inmate to meet his guests. One enters the actual prison through two sets of steel gates. Hearing them clank shut, you know that your ability to leave is now in someone else's hands.

Usually, the inmate is brought in within 15 minutes. Visits take place in a large room that reminded us of a church or community center social hall. Tables and chairs are neatly arranged throughout the room where inmates and visitors interact. Since there isn't much to do but chat and eat, the quarters are spent on popcorn, potato chips, hot dogs, French fries and other nourishing delicacies. Prisoners are not allowed to handle money, so Willie would tell us what he wanted and we would purchase it for him.

Toni, who knitted and crocheted her way through college and still does these crafts during lectures and reading sessions, would start fidgeting without her hands being occupied. With three of us visiting, we usually had $30 in quarters, and quite a few were left over after our commissary purchases. In order to occupy her restless hands, Toni invented a game in which she wrote Braille messages to Willie using the quarters as Braille dots. Since Willie is a Braille user, he and Toni would spend considerable time sending quarter Braille messages back and forth!

Dressing Up

Visitors must adhere to a dress code which, surprisingly, is never fully specified in the visitor's instruction packet. We rarely got it right. Each time we visited, we or our driver wore something that violated a rule not specified in the written code.

Knowing that blue is a forbidden color because prisoners are identified by their blue outfits, on our first visit Ed wore black slacks. The checkpoint guard disallowed Ed's pants anyway, though, insisting they had faded to navy blue. During a winter visit, knowing that layering was not permitted, Toni wore a hooded shirt. Hoods, we discovered, are disallowed. Given our previous experience with the quirky dress code, during another visit our driver wore a bright red blouse and white pants. Believe it or not, the pants were considered too tight and disallowed! The clothing issue would have been disasterous had it not been for the availability of a visitors' swap shop at a neighboring prison facility. Apparently, we were not the only ones to run afoul of the unstated dress code!

Dogs in Prison

Initially, we were concerned that our guide dogs might present an access problem. But only once was our right to be accompanied by Escort and Echo challenged by a guard, and he was quickly educated by the other security officers.

One of the unanticipated benefits of our visits with Willie was the therapeutic impact of our dogs on Willie's fellow prisoners. During each of our visits, several men approached us asking permission to pet our dogs. Many had not seen or interacted with a dog for more than 20 years. The dogs are also an attraction for the large group of children visiting their fathers in prison. One father was delighted when we allowed his three-year-old daughter to have her picture taken standing with her arms around our two Golden Retriever guides.

The Case of the Expired Identification Card

During one of our early visits, we were startled when checking in to discover that Toni's California identification card had expired several days earlier. What to do? Apparently this was not an unknown problem and the staff directed us to the local Department of Motor vehicles office, where Toni was able to apply for a renewal. The prison folks said all they needed was proof that her card was in the process of being re-issued and they would let her in. Fortunately, it was a weekday and the DMV office was open. Otherwise, the five-hour drive would have been for nothing. Two hours later, we re-entered the prison with the required documentation.

On Being Wimps!

Rarely have we been accused of not standing up for our rights, but we did get our come-uppance on one prison visit. We had arrived about 11 a.m, accompanied by our friend and driver Michelle. When Willie didn't appear within the usual 15-minute time frame, we found a table and began feeding our faces with the local goodies. After the three of us sat around for more than an hour, an inmate at a nearby table came over to chat.

He said he had been observing us for some time and asked who we came to visit and why he wasn't with us. When we mentioned Willie's name, our chatty interrogator kept asking questions. Did we come all the way from Fresno to enjoy lunch at a prison commissary? How long did we intend waiting before raising a fuss? Were we just a couple of wimps letting the system push us around? After all, said our new acquaintance,"You're not inmates, you have rights. If you came to see Willie, make them bring him to you!"

Spurred on by his less-than-gentle goading, we all went outside the lunchroom to the nearby security station and told them we wanted to visit with Willie. These guards were startled to learn that we had been there for more than an hour and the inmate we had come to visit had not yet been brought in. Willie did arrive within half an hour, but the time we had to spend with him was much less than anticipated. Willie expected us that day but, when he had not been called to the visitors' area, assumed we had a change of plans and went back to his cell. It seems the guard in charge of his section never told him we were there!

No More Visits!

Now that Willie has been released, our prison visits have come to an end. No more three- to five-hour drives ending in a truncated visit because we had the wrong clothes on, an expired identification card or a guard who simply forgot to tell Willie we were there! When Willie visits us at home, Ed can wear his faded black cords, Toni can wear her hooded sweatshirt and Debbie can wear tight white pants! Those left-over quarters have been deposited in our piggy bank and Toni can knit and crochet to her heart's content!


Ed Eames, Ph.D. is President of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. Toni Eames, M.S. is on the IAADP Board. They can be contacted at eeames@ csufresno.edu.

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