Inside Those Prison Walls
1931 Wandsworth, London
I’ve never talked to a criminal before today. Well, perhaps I have talked to one before, I simply didn’t know it. Either way, I’m sure I’ve never talked to someone who has done a crime as horrific as the man I’m about to visit. I stop in front of the prison for a second, mustering up the courage to enter. The dreary brown stone of HM Prison Wandsworth doesn’t do anything to reassure the deep sorrow I know I’ll feel when I step inside those walls.
I enter through the visitation center entrance and walk up to the prison guard behind the desk.
“Good morning, ma’am, what can I do for you today?” the man asks.
“Hello, sir,” I reply, “I am here to visit Kenneth Johnson.”
“All right Ma’am, take a seat in the waiting room. I’ll call you when he’s ready for you.” I sit in dreadful anticipation. What will he be like? How will he act? How will I act? My anxieties get worse by the minute. I am swathed with a sense of relief when the guard tells me I can go into the visitation room and sit at station three.
I smooth my pleated skirt as I sit down on the cheap wooden chair, wiping the sweat from my hands on my lap before folding them neatly. The creak of a door opening draws my eyes up, and I watch as my brother walks in.
You’d think committing a crime would change someone, but he looks the same. The same russet-colored hair and adoring smile that brought back memories of days spent playing with each other. His eyes seemed to be the only thing that portrayed the severity of the
acts he had committed. Gone was the wide innocent gaze of his youth that used to look up to me, dreaming of a brighter future. His eyes now hold a deeper understanding of the hardships of life. Kenneth sits down across from me, and for a moment a thick silence hangs in the air. I look around the room, unable to meet his gaze. He folds his arms across his chest, a clear sign that this is no more comfortable for him than it is for me.
“You’re visiting me,” he says, breaking the silence.
“Yes,” I reply, at a loss for words.
“Well, that’s very nice of you, Mary. I mean, all the guys here are great, but I think it’ll be nice to have some outside perspective for a while.”
“The guys are great?” I seethe, “Kenneth, they’re all criminals. Criminals in a high-security prison.”
“As am I, sister.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Sister? But you are my sister, aren’t you.”
“ I don’t know you anymore. A sister should know her brother.”
Kenneth stares back at me with blank eyes. I search for any trace of guilt within them. It was clear that he felt no remorse. I feel my heart fracture. As daft as it may have been, I couldn’t help but hope that he deeply regretted what he did. Or that perhaps it was all a simple mistake and he was in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. But, when I look into his eyes I see black pits of anger, and all my hopes disappear. I take a deep breath and continue.
“Think about what you’ve done Kenneth. It’s awful. It’s horrific. ”
Kenneth continues to stare at me, disgust curling his mouth.
“Guard,” he raises his hand, “I’m ready to go back to my cell now.”
The guard walks to our table, handcuffs him, and gets him ready for transport. Kenneth looks at me one more time before he leaves the room.
“Bye, sister,” he says. As I watch him leave, an ache of regret rolls through my chest.
1936 Wandsworth, London
It’s been five years since my visit to Prison Wandsworth. I’ve done a good job of moving on with my life. I’m married now, but those few joyful moments of childhood my brother and I shared keep haunting me. The other day I ran into Kenneth’s childhood friend. He asked me how he was, and I just stared blankly at him before muttering a lie. It seems that encounter left its mark on my mind because all I’ve been able to think about since is that I have no idea how to answer that question. My deep sudden longing to answer this question seems to be how I’ve found myself once again staring up at this big dark prison. I take a deep breath and hurry in before the rain soaks through my clothes.
The years seemed to have beaten down the inside of the prison; it looks more worn down than I remember. It makes me wonder what my brother will look like. Will the years have done a number on him just like the walls of this jail? I walk up to the guard behind the desk. “Good morning, ma’am, what can I do for you today?” the man asks.
“Hello, sir,” I reply, “I am here to visit Kenneth Johnson.”
“All right, ma’am, take a seat in the waiting room. I’ll call you when he’s ready for you.” As I wait for the guard to tell me that he’s ready, I reminisce about my last visit here. The man I met the last time was nothing like the brother I’d known. In a way, the despicable man I’d
met on my last visit gave me peace for this visit. There was no way for me to be disappointed in the person I would see today. I harbored no secret hope that he had changed or that this had all been some big mistake. My brother had taken the lives of many others and I must live with that. “You may go into the Visitation Room now ma’am.”
I gather my handbag and enter the room. This time, Kenneth arrived there before me. I study him for a moment before he notices me. His prison uniform hangs loosely on his body, as if he hasn’t been eating enough, or at least has lost a lot of muscle. His hair has lost its usual shine and is cut close to his head in choppy strokes. Etched upon his hardened face are wrinkles, and his fingers bear the marks of calluses. They reveal all the labor he must have been forced to do in the past years. The clicking of my heels on the floor draws his eyes up to me as I come closer.
“Mary, you’re visiting,” he says.
I explain that I’d run into his childhood friend the other day, and how the curiosity got the best of me. As I talk, I notice how his gaze seemed desperate to memorize all traces of the outside world. How the fashions of my clothes had changed, the scent of my perfume that permeated the air.
“Thank you,” he says.
“For visiting. After last time I wasn’t sure if you would.”
“Like I said. I was curious how you were. If you’d yet come to terms with the lives you’ve stolen”
“Well, I’m glad you came. Being so detached from the world, I feel as if my humanity is slowly being taken away from me.”
“You mean if your humanity wasn’t already removed by what you did.” A soft chuckle escapes his lips.
“You’re right. I suppose I’d already started the process of removing my humanity myself.”