|Our Visit with Veronza
U.S. Federal Prison, Coleman, Florida
June 27, 2002
I was telling a friend about my visit with Veronza Bowers Jr.
the other night. I was trying to convey to him the feelings and
emotions that I was experiencing through out our eight-hour visit
with him at the federal prison. But I realized that no one can
truly grasp what I was feeling that day without experiencing it
themselves. I could only tell him about what I saw, heard, smelled
and what emotions felt that arose. I wish that every person in
the world would to spend a day in a visiting room of a prison,
just observing the inmates, visitors and guards and how they interacted
with one another. They would not return home the same. I would
hope they would find compassion and pity for the inmates, families
and friends that have to faced the harsh reality of having loved
ones shut away from you, both physically and emotionally.
we first arrived at the prison in Coleman Florida, we had to wait
in a room for an hour before we were allowed to enter the visiting
hall. I had imagined the waiting room to be big, cold, uncomfortable,
depressing and silent. To my surprise I did not find this. The
room was warm, small and personable. People were talking with
one another and greeted others that they recognized from previous
visits. It was definitely depressing that we in this one room
because all of us were here to see someone in prison. One thing
that really stuck out for me was wondering whom everyone was here
to see. Was it a father, husband, boyfriend, brother or friend?
There were mostly women and it was the children that brought the
most warmth and happiness to the room. What I realized is that
this was their reality. This process was normal for some of them.
They weren't completely aware of what was happening, which is
probably they continued to play, laugh and horse around. I remember
watching a little girl, maybe two or three years old, run around
the room, laughing, dancing and jumping about. This little girl
brought so much joy into the room that you forgot where you were.
When we were finally permitted to make our way into the visiting hall, I could tell who had done this numerous times before. Some of the women had their own plastic see-through bags, so the guards could see what was brought in, where as I carried my belongings in a "zip-lock" bag. They knew when and where to get in a single-file line, where as my family and I had to be directed.
The visiting hall was large and crowded. It was extremely noisy
because sound echoed off the tall walls and ceiling. Vending machines
that served microwavable and junk food were lines against one
wall. For the inmates and visitors there were little low coffee
tables with four chairs surrounding them. My family and I slowly
made our way over to a table in the back corner of the hall. As
we waited for Veronza, we sat and watched. I made note of the
people that I saw in the waiting room and who there were here
to see. The image of the little dancing girl shrieking for joy
and running across the hall towards her father will always stay
with me. I looked around me and realized all the love and happiness
shared among the inmates and their visitors. They were making
up for the time that they were torn apart from each other. Why
spend that time angry and sad?
After about a half an hour of anxiously waiting for Veronza
he arrived. He walked in looking sophisticated and determined.
His dreadlocks reached to about his knee and he wore an olive
colored uniform and a beaming smile. I was so flustered and excited
that I couldn't talk for about the first hour. After about three
years of writing letters and talking on the phone, I was finally
getting to meet him. For the first time I was able to look into
his eyes, watch him speak and feel his physical presence.
Within the five or six hours that we spent with Veronza he shared with us his stories, experiences, advice and jokes. I can not even begin to tell you the extent of his knowledge, compassion, thoughtfulness and generosity. On a personal level, I can say that Veronza has changed my life. When asked who has had the most significant impact on my life, Veronza is one of them along with my parents. I feel so lucky to have Veronza as a friend, mentor and role model. He has always treated me an equal, never like a 17-year-old, but at the same time shared with me his experiences and knowledge. He has always made me feel that my opinions, thoughts and ideas were always valid.
During our visit I was reminded of how truly amazing Veronza
is. I watched him work to get my little sister to open up and
succeed. At times when around new environment and people, she
becomes shy and is lost in her silence and aloofness. I think
that people tend to forget about her. May be it was curiosity
and interest that drew him in, but I saw that he had touched her
inside. He made an impact, and not only on her. He greeted and
talked with many people around us, no matter if he knew them or
not. Children would come up and stare at his long dreds. He would
always coax them over and let them touch his hair. With other
inmates, it was quite clear that they respected and looked up
to him. My attention was brought to how many people Veronza has
a positive influence on, either through music, conversation, healing
arts or meditation. What Veronza has made of his life is astounding.
He has done, in a hostile and abusive environment, more than most
people outside of prison. He has created something grand out of
When our visit started to approaches it's end, I told Veronza of the love and joy I saw shared between inmates and visitors. He told me that it was indeed true and genuine, but there is always a flip side to it all. Eventually everyone has to leave one another and face to sadness, disappointment and frustration alone. I started to see it with my own eyes. Children started to cry and clinch onto their fathers refusing to let go. I saw the pain in the faces of the mothers, sisters and wives. I could relate with all of them. I didn't want to leave and felt angry. We were all escorted out of the hall and just as we all lined up outside of the waiting room to leave, it started to pour. Within minutes there were hug rain puddles and everyone was drenched. Everyone was brought back in the visiting hall to stay dry, while groups of ten were allowed to leave. We got to share a few more word with Veronza and our final good-byes, but something about the storm, all the rain, lighting and thunder, told me that we would be seeing Veronza soon and to stay strong.
During our recent trip to Florida, I had many amazing and unique
experiences. Flying in from California, we first visited Naples,
a rich, mostly Caucasian-populated, impeccably clean city with
gated communities everywhere. This was a stark contrast to the
prison in Coleman where we visited Veronza - a hot, racially-diverse,
depressing, confined place, unlike anywhere I've been or imagined
being in my life.
Before leaving on this trip, my father informed me that we were to visit Veronza Bowers Jr. in federal prison, but I didn't have to go if I didn't want to. At first, I had mixed feelings as to whether it would be deathly boring, too uncomfortable, etc., etc. Although I wasn't sure at all what to expect, I did, indeed, want to meet Veronza, the amiable intelligent voice I briefly heard once in a while when answering the phone. I thought about it and decided to join the family, figuring it might be interesting and I would finally be able to meet Veronza in person.
the visit to the prison was one of our highest priorities, I have
to say, I was very distracted by the "environment" in
Naples. I wasn't really thinking about what it would be like inside
a federal penitentiary, being occupied by the beach and in awe
of a town that has more billionaires than most other places in
the USA. Soon enough, however, I found myself in a 180-degree
position. I was in the prison waiting room not thinking about
Naples, but thinking how I would make it through this whole visiting
Before long, a blonde female guard called out our last name. I shuffled out of the waiting room, avoiding the stares of others around me, most of whom appeared to be family members or close friends of inmates at the prison. I placed myself in a single file line leading through a metal detector and hoped that I wouldn't have too many metal objects on me. When it was my turn, I ended up walking through several times causing a loud buzzer to sound with each pass. Finally, one of the guards realized it was the studs on my belt loops that triggered the alarm. Although I hadn't done anything wrong, it felt like I had. This process was rather uncomfortable and gave me an odd sense of what it must be like for the little kids and wives who visit here on a regular basis. Most of them were prepared in advance with see-through purses and knew exactly where to go. I thought to myself how difficult it must be to maintain a steady and healthy relationship with someone who was in a prison - probably neither very easy nor enjoyable. When all the visitors were finished being "detected", we made our way through a heavy gate onto the prison grounds. We were told to stay in line and walk on the left side only of a very wide path. (The exact reason for this, I do not know). We finally reached a large building the size of a school cafeteria where we were seated to wait for our designated inmate to arrive. During this time, I observed how normal everything seemed to be. There were little kids climbing all over their fathers and holding hands. There were girlfriends or wives cuddling with some of the men. With each group I watched, I tried to imagine what had happened in their lives that made them deserve this isolation and seemingly everlasting confiscated freedom.
After waiting a very long time, I caught a glimpse of a man coming our way. I figured this was Veronza. He looked exactly like his pictures, although a little shorter than I expected. His extremely long hair was in dreads and he wore an olive green uniform. Immediately, his personality and kindness radiated so strongly, it brought my family to tears. I think I was the only one who didn't cry, simply because I haven't known him nearly as long as my dad who told me he first began corresponding with Veronza in 1987, a year before I was born. We sat and talked for a bit until some of us started to get a little hungry. I was told by Garfield (our friend in Naples who had visited here several times before) Veronza really likes the chicken they have in the vending machines, so I casually brought that up. I guess that the quality of the frozen cellophane-wrapped food is much better than what the inmates are served in the prison. Trying to imagine that was very hard as my mom is a great cook who works hard to feed our family healthy and tasty meals. If you think about eating "plastic" food all the time, imagine the effect it would have on your body - not very good at all.
During lunch, I didn't say much because I was so caught up in observing everything around in the visiting area. At one point, Veronza seemed to take a special interest in me and asked, "A penny for your thoughts." He wanted to know what I liked to do in school and I told him that I was on the basketball team. He asked what I do before I shoot free throws. I told him that I always took five dribbles, got set, then shot. He told me how important breathing is and if I take a deep breath and slowly let it out, I will make almost every shot. (This is something I plan to take into account next season.) He also mentioned that this simple technique would help me to relax at night because sometimes I have trouble falling asleep. Just lay there and concentrate on steady breathing and soon enough sleep will come. Although, at first, the visiting situation was a bit awkward, Veronza's presence was so strong, he made me feel very comfortable and our time together really worthwhile. It was as if we weren't in a prison visiting room surrounded by guards and tall gates and walls, but at a "normal" place just talking with an old family friend. I couldn't even begin to imagine having to be locked up in a prison for a day, let alone 32 years.
We were notified that visiting hours were over and it was time to say goodbye. A wave of sadness seemed to wash over the room as everyone would have to go their separate ways. Veronza mentioned something that seemed very true: when prisoners are visiting, everything is just so happy and joyous, but as soon as it's over they enter the other side of the door again where everything is sad and nostalgic. As we said our goodbyes to him, I handed Veronza my bracelet. It was just a simple bracelet with small blue-green glass beads. I wanted him to remember me, even in the slightest way, because I know that I will always remember him and my trip to the prison. As we were leaving, I had the strangest urge to cry, although I didn't feel that before when we first met. Just listening to what he had to say really affected me a lot. I wanted to cry for everything that I have been given that others haven't and I wanted to cry for not realizing it very much until then. I have to say I had very confusing and mixed emotions in this short period of time.
Since that visit, a little more faith in the human race has been restored for me. Seeing how strong Veronza can be in a grueling 32 years, and him still being extremely intelligent and determined, has really made me believe that "good people" really do exist is this complicated society.
Who Needs Prisons, And Who Do The Prisons Need? Part 2 (with Veronza Bowers, Jr.)