Art on the Walls
By Jesse Duthrie
I drive an hour-and-a-half to get to the Danbury Federal Prison from my office in New Britain. The long commute from Eastern to Western Connecticut fills me with anxiety; this is my first time visiting a prison. Off the exit, I’m expecting to find a large, industrious building reminiscent of the prison in Shawshank Redemption. Even though it’s a prison for women, even though I’m going in with total supervision, I’m still nervous at the idea of being around a large group of criminals.
Instead, I drive up suburban back roads until I reach a long, sprawling green being mowed by several people. Upon taking the right at the wooden “Danbury Federal Prison” sign, I notice more hills. I would later find out that the prison is located on over 350 acres of federally owned land. The yellow sunrise is still coming up over the hills and there’s a refreshing smell of fresh cut grass. I think for a moment that I’ve taken a wrong turn; I must be at a state park.
Then I see a police cruiser on the left and high barbed wire above the next rolling hill.
A group of employees from the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy (IMRP) have gotten together to tour the prison with Jennifer Amato, a federal probation officer. A large number of her clients come in and out of the Danbury prison, and her knowledge and experience of the prison shapes our tour.
Upon entering the front entrance, we sign in and wait for our second tour guide, Debrah Cowan-Watree. Once she arrives, we take off our shoes, belts, and metal items and pass through a security scanner.
We walk through a set of steel double doors and are approved by the guards for entrance. We line ourselves upon the wall before Jennifer opens the door to the center courtyard. Looking out is nothing like I had envisioned on my way here. Stereotypical prison courtyards portrayed in movies are generally asphalt and basketball courts with little to no walking room. This courtyard is immaculate. The perfectly trimmed grass inside is similar to the sprawling fields outside. Intersecting pathways divide the manicured lawns made of white cement and tall trees in full foliage line the pathways.
Our group moves across the courtyard and through the commissary where the female prisoners must stand against the wall as we pass. There is no racial majority that I can find. I would later discover that unlike men’s prisoners, where African American males are the majority, in women’s prisons there are relatively equal numbers of the three major ethnicities (Caucasian, African American, Hispanic). The women stare me directly in the eyes, and even though I’m not intimidated, I still feel the hardness of their characters.
We are directed to Unicor, the manufacturing center. Before entering, Jennifer gives us a brief background to Unicor. The manufacturing positions at Danbury prison are some of the best work positions available for the female prisoners. The wage is high, and there is competition to receive a work slot. Criteria for getting the job ranges extensively: no lifetime sentences, good behavior, and recommendations all play a factor into getting a position on the manufacturing line.
Inside are long rows of benches where women in brown jumpsuits sit hunched over as they perform one of many tasks required to manufacture parts used primarily by the U.S. military. Large green center consoles are imported into Unicor and the women work them down the line to make them fully operable to the military’s humvees. “Most times you see a humvee on T.V. in Afghanistan,” our director adds proudly, “odds are that center console came from here.”
The women work diligently. Most are sitting glued to their workstation while they perform small operations like soldering the wires to the consoles. Every now and then a women gets up from her post to ask a question of another women down the line, but for the most part they remain quiet and steadfast.
A women in a brown jumpsuit walks by us with a black lab that can’t be older than one year. With puzzled looks from our group, Jennifer quickly tells us that Danbury federal prison runs a dog-training program for bomb and cadaver dogs for the CIA and other military branches. The pups walk around from person to person in our group, smelling our legs for traces of dog hair and look up at our faces with a half-grin. Jen tells us we will see more of them later.
Back outside we make our way through the courtyard and into the mental health wing. This wing is specifically used to hold women with mental illness that cannot be part of the general population. The cells inside are crammed: bunk beds, toilets, and minimal floor space. It’s a claustrophobic person’s worst nightmare.
Interestingly, there is art painted on the walls between cells. Quotations from Emerson or Thoreau, written sporadically in pink and orange paints, mingle with landscapes drawn in an array of warm inviting colors. The furthest cell back in the hall of cells is designated the “Relax Room.” I peek in and see purple and pink walls painted with flowers. There are no bars on the doors, rather a metal door with a small window for observation.
Leaving the mental health wing, we shift to the dog-training unit, which is more of a large dorm room with six sets of bunk beds, several dog crates, and chew toys strewn across the floor. Female prisoners who show good behavior are selected to take part in this program in training the dogs. All the dogs are labs. One dog wagging its tail fanatically reminds me of my dog Jake. He runs right up to me to smell my shoes, and I scratch him on the forehead like he was my own.
Leaving the prison we walk away from the barbed wire, the cold cement, the straight-faced guards. We look ahead to the rolling green hills, towards the main road and beyond. I breathe in deeply, getting a fresh taste of the humid summer.