Life Without Parole: When You Know You'll Spend Your Whole Life in Prison
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Shawangunk Correctional Facility sits on a long swath of land in Wallkill, NY, just west of the Hudson River, and about an hour and 45 minutes north of New York City. Opened in 1985, last year marked the prison’s 25th anniversary, which was celebrated at Shawangunk’s “clubhouse” by some 200 officials. The local Wallkill High School Choir sang the national anthem and the prison was bestowed with the “Pride of Ulster County Award,” a recognition of its benefit to the community.
For prisoners’ families living downstate, Shawangunk is nothing to celebrate. Getting there can be prohibitively costly, especially if you don’t drive. Buses to nearby New Paltz cost more than $40 round-trip from Manhattan and leave you ten miles away. A train to Beacon, across the river, is cheaper, but cabs have been known to charge $40 to take you to the prison. The “free bus” that brings New Yorkers to upstate prisons only visits Shawangunk once a month, and getting a spot can be tricky. Inmates must put in a request for a limited number of tickets well in advance.
Most people visit on weekends. On this particular Sunday, a piece of paper taped to the wall in the visitor’s office announces that the free bus is being suspended for the next two months.
“Where’s the ID for her?” a young, white officer asks a very pregnant African American woman as she prepares to take off her shoes to go through the metal detector. “Her” is a young toddler in pigtails, shuffling around in her snow boots. Her mother runs outside, exasperated. She’s forgotten the birth certificate in the car. It’s lucky she has it. People have been refused visits for far less.
We fill out the usual forms—name of the prisoner we’re visiting, car model and plate number, relationship to prisoner and “reason for visit.” We get a key for a small locker, where we put items we’re not allowed to bring in. Today, these include a pen, my sweater (no zippers allowed) and my knit hat. “An inmate could use it to escape,” says a guard with a sardonic smile.
Yet Shawangunk seems more relaxed than other maximum security facilities. No one is making me take off my underwire bra here (although that has been known to happen) and, today at least, no one is being searched for drugs. With the exception of the man at the desk who seems to relish his little perch of authority, the guards are respectful of visitors.
The visiting room is full. As in every other prison I’ve gone to, visitors are mostly women, most of them non-white. There’s an outside area with picnic tables available for warmer days. Like the rest of New York, it is currently covered in snow.
It’s the second time I’m visiting Nick and I’m feeling bad. He has written me many time since the summer and I have not been good at keeping up. He is serving life without parole for a grisly rape and murder on Long Island that he says he did not commit. I’ve met too many men exonerated for similar crimes in New York not to take his claim seriously. But that’s not the point of my visit; he does not expect me to help him get out. As a leader within the prison’s Lifer’s Association, he wants to talk about sentencing reform, and so do I, along with two other visitors, a woman who works for an organization that provides re-entry services, and a social worker I’ve known for years.