It always surprises me when I'm reminded that the United States has the largest prison population in the world. And not just the free world, but the world at large.
Right this very second, as my fingers freely press the keyboard of my trusted laptop, over 2.2 million human beings are sitting behind the cold steel bars of jails and prisons.
There is something so sorely dehumanizing about the terms "prisoner" and "inmate." When you attach one of those static words to a person, it’s easy to forget that there is a living, breathing human being, a soul-force with a family and feelings, behind those bars.
I, however, haven't forgotten. Because someone I love, a boy we will call Luke*, had that humanity stripped from him. He’s facing 25- to life in prison.
I'm not going to get into the "hows" or the "whys" or the "what happened" to Luke that made his current state his possible forever state. That's not what this story is about.
This is the story of an experience, an experience that is all too familiar to the forgotten sea of family and friends and lovers of those 2.2 million people.
I’ve known Luke my entire life. We grew up together. He became incarcerated just shy of three years ago, and through this nightmare, we've kept in touch, talking on the phone weekly and exchanging the occasional letter via snail mail.
This past Sunday, I decided to embark on a six-hour journey to visit him in prison. My significant other and I drove to a tiny nameless town so far north of Manhattan that it kisses the border of Canada.
As I peered out the passenger window, I was surprised to see a light snowfall dance out of the sky and fall on the windy country roads that lead to upstate New York. It was the first sign of snow my eyes had borne witness to this year, and I couldn’t help but notice how the purity of fresh, white snowflakes dramatically contrasted with the dark, palpable tension and fear in the car.
I wasn't afraid of prison itself. I was afraid of coming face-to-face with someone I love and accepting that this was his reality. I was afraid of not having the right words, of having to look him in the eye and tell him it was all going to be okay. Because it very well may not be.
Because no matter how intense of an experience this would be for me, I can always shake it off with a run or a cocktail or a nap. But Luke could never shake off this experience. This was his life now.
The correctional facility was tucked away at the end of a seemingly endless, winding road up on top of a grassy hill. It had silver barbed wire and cold cement with a lone crumbling sign. I stepped into the cold air and braced myself.
The underwire of my bra set off the metal detector, and I had to remove it, put on a stained white lab coat and hand it to the guard. Once he assured me it was fine, I put it back on and made my way with a group of 10 people to the visiting area.
It looked like a cafeteria in a low budget middle school, with children's drawings adorned on the paint crumbling walls, a slew of vending machines and a smattering of square cafeteria tables.
There was nothing scary or intimidating about the visiting area at all. If I shut my eyes and imagined different circumstances, I could have been at an airport.
There was a diverse group of people: rabbis, children, men and women of every single nationality embracing a person they love. There were partners intertwined, their eyes glistening. There were kids reunited with parents, parents reunited with their kids.
It was like the arrivals gate.
When I reunited with Luke, it was awkward for the first few moments. But then we eased into natural conversation.
We talked about everything -- love, sh*tty shows on TV, lifestyle -- and I could tell he wanted to get lost in my world, a world that’s connected to something more than the steel walls of prison.
So quickly were we immersed in conversation that we both forgot where we were. We were two 20-something Millennials who have known each other our entire lives, catching up and shooting the sh*t.
Before I knew it, the 3-pm escorts came, and it was time to say goodbye. And suddenly, the crushing truth of reality crystallized in my frame of vision: He was going back to prison, and I was going back to Manhattan.
The entire car ride home was spent in silence. I just kept thinking that could have been me. That could've been me. I could have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We’re so quick to look at those who are incarcerated as criminals. But each of the 2.2 million incarcerated "criminals" has a family and a former life. Each is a person. A human being.
It made me think about how many times I’ve almost crossed that elusive, thin red line that separates me from them.
What if I had taken that one extra pill at that party? What if I had decided to get in that car with that boy who had a pocket full of drugs? What if my parents hadn’t had the means to send me to private school to help me with my academic struggles and instead let me slip through the cracks in public school?
One thing could have led to another, which could have led to another, and I could have been one of those 2.2 million. I could have been rendered a nameless, faceless inmate. Like Luke.
It’s easy to feel removed from the prison system, especially as a white person, since blacks are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than whites.
But once you actually have a friend or family member or lover who gets caught up in the system, you see how much it strips people of their humanity, and you can't help but feel caught up in it, too.