Last Tuesday, I got up half an hour earlier than usual, gulped down a mug of tea and some cereal in the pre-dawn dark and made the hourlong drive from my house in San Francisco north across the Golden Gate Bridge and around the edge of the bay to the spit of land where San Quentin prison sits, a mildewed-yellow fortress with a view that makes real estate developers cry.
As part of my job with a nonprofit law firm in San Francisco, once or twice a month I spend a morning visiting San Quentin inmates whose cases are on appeal. By 8:30 a.m. or so, in the long wooden shed that passes for a waiting room outside the prison gate, I'm gazing sleepily across the water to the hills of Sausalito. I sit there until it's my turn to stand before the guard at the visitors desk and be scrutinized and told whether I get to pass onto the prison grounds.
Being checked through as a prison visitor is like going to the gate areas in an airport, but more oppressive. I walk through the metal detector and my possessions are X-rayed -- but the metal detector is much more sensitive than the ones at airports. So I take off my shoes, belt, jewelry and watch and even my metal-framed eyeglasses and stand blinking in my stocking feet while the guard runs them all through the machine.
Regular prison visitors have to keep track of a disjointed list of rules and restrictions. No purses, no wallets. No tape recorders, pagers, cell phones. No cigarettes or matches, no food, gum or mints. Two keys on a plain ring. No more than $20 in change and dollar bills (for buying food and drinks from the machines in the visiting area). Legal visitors -- attorneys, investigators and paralegals -- can bring legal papers, pens and writing paper and up to 10 (case-related) photographs, but no books or newspapers and no ring binders. Within these rules is a certain amount of play, depending on the frame of mind of the guard on duty that day.
On some days, the keys and photos I bring aren't counted; on others, they are. For years I brought booklets of recent court decisions from the Daily Journal, a legal paper, to discuss with the clients I was visiting, until the guard at the gate one morning pronounced them newspapers and banned them. When I photocopied the booklets so they weren't on newsprint, the guard let them in. A lawyer in my office who jotted a grocery list on her legal pad was told she had to tear off the sheet before she could take the pad inside, leaving her to wonder what dark intentions she might have encoded in "onions," "baby applesauce" and "butternut squash."
The most nerve-racking part of the drill is the dress code. After years of visits to San Quentin, I still obsess about what I should wear. I take mental inventory again and again during the drive to the prison, fretting over whether my dress is the right color or my pants the wrong fabric, or whether I've worn the right bra.
If you bring a purse or a book by mistake, you can always put them back in your car -- or for 50 cents, you can leave them in a locker in the waiting area. But if you've worn the wrong blouse or slacks or, God forbid, the wrong brassiere, you've wasted your entire trip.
The California Department of Corrections posts a visitors dress code on its Web site. Here is what you can't wear to visit an inmate:
Clothing which, in any combination of shades or types of material/fabric, resembles California State-issued inmate clothing, blue denim or chambray shirts and blue denim pants.
Law enforcement or military-type forest green or camouflage patterned articles of clothing, including rain gear.
Hats, wigs or hairpieces (except with prior written approval of the Visiting Sergeant).
Clothing that exposes the breast/chest area, genital area or buttocks.
Dresses, skirts, pants and shorts exposing more than two inches above the knee, including slits.
Sheer or transparent garments.
Strapless or "spaghetti" straps.
Clothing exposing the midriff area.
Clothing or accessories displaying obscene or offensive language or drawings.
Brassieres with metal underwires or any other detectable metal are not permitted.
It's clear that some of the restrictions are meant to keep inmates and visitors from having sex with each other, or from wanting to too much. Those I don't worry about. I think it's a little pushy for lawyers to wear sheer clothing or expose their midriffs and the other listed body parts when meeting with clients.
I can also remember to avoid blue denim -- too casual -- and I don't own anything in camouflage. But what, exactly, is law enforcement or military forest green? How will I know them when I see them? Will the guard at the gate be able to tell the difference if I wear some other shade of green? How much can an article of clothing look like state-issued inmate clothing, blue denim or chambray without resembling it so much that it's prohibited? Do slits in skirts include kick pleats? Do male guards know the difference? Do female guards care? The answers to these questions change with whichever guard happens to be at the gate.
Until recently, San Quentin had some additional rules of its own. They weren't posted online. Instead, they were on a sheet of paper taped to a window in the visitors waiting area, so you could read them when it was too late. In a sort of Talmudic broadening of the basic dress code (or, for Catholics, in an effort to avoid the near occasion of sin), San Quentin turned away pale-blue dress shirts, sleeveless blouses and skirts or dresses that buttoned down the front. It's amazing how many women's skirts and dresses do that. Once, I wore a black wool skirt, forgetting it had buttons down the side. At the check-in gate, I sidled past the guard, trying to keep the buttons out of sight. I lucked out; she didn't notice them.
A few weeks ago, a new memo replaced the older sheet on the window. It says: "Prohibited attire consists of, but is not limited to the following," followed by the Department of Corrections list. "Is not limited to" means the prison can disallow clothing that isn't on the list -- but what kind? The memo doesn't say. I still don't wear button-front skirts.
The oddest rule of all to me is the one against metal underwires in bras. I've never heard the rationale behind it. Sure, metal can be used as a weapon, but the actual logistics of extracting the underwire from a bra while in a closely watched prison visiting room brings to mind something rather Monty Python-esque. Be that as it may, after one summer day at the state prison at Vacaville, when I was one in a long line of female visitors made to remove their bras and walk without them through the metal detector, my personal take was that the regulation was made up by some of the male guards for fun. Perhaps someone else agreed -- the rule now is that women visitors can't go into any prison unless they're wearing a brassiere.
The metal detector at San Quentin is so sensitive that underwires do set it off, so I bought a bra that doesn't have them just for prison visits. It's sturdy and well engineered, like something my grandmother would wear, the sort of undergarment that makes you understand why they used to be called "foundations." One morning, though, as I groped blearily in the dark for clothes to wear, I forgot and put on one of my other bras. I realized, halfway to San Quentin, that that familiar dig in my ribs would be contraband at the prison gate.
I stopped at Safeway, the only store I could find open along the freeway, in a desperate, unsuccessful search for a sports bra. When I got to the prison, I took off the offending garment in the restroom outside the gate and left it in my car, buttoned my jacket and spent the morning with my arms clutched tightly to my chest.
On another morning I forgot completely that I was wearing the wrong bra and strode with oblivious confidence through the metal detector. I realized later, with some surprise, that I hadn't set it off, and that the wires on the bra must not have been metal. But I can't remember which bra that was, so the information has proved useless to me.
Women visiting their men in prison learn to dress to avoid being turned away. I see a lot of long skirts, long sleeves, dark colors (but no green). I have four or five prison ensembles I wear again and again: black raincoat, long knit dresses with full skirts, wool jackets, wool slacks, sweaters and turtlenecks, in cream, gray, dark blue, burgundy and black. For prison visits we dress like Puritans.
Last December one inmate's large extended family drove en masse all the way from the Midwest for a holiday visit. They showed up in a procession of minivans, from which they emerged dressed entirely in white, except for the inmate's mother, who wore a red dress. They looked mysterious and wonderful, like acolytes of a religious sect traveling with their priestess. It seems that the man they were visiting had written them about the dress code, and they were taking no chances.
They made it through, red dress and all.