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The Young Lords swagger in for drug testing and look around proudly. They are Men and this is Proof. Anyone here who can admire them? Tuesday is visiting day, and what they see this evening is a room with several dozen cream and green plastic chairs, 15 people scattered about, and a jabbering TV set bolted close to the ceiling, fixed on one sitcom station.

A grandmother in a wool cap and old blue coat is hunched sadly in one of the chairs, holding a garbage bag of clothes. Two watchful children, the girl about 6, the boy about 5, sit nearby with their harsh father and frightened-looking mother. The father’s voice rises in irritation as he makes his son repeat over and over again: “Smoke detector.” A handsomely dressed woman in her 40s restlessly checks with the guard: “When will he be released? Do you have any news yet?” And she reports back to her grown daughter and son-in-law, “Computers are down. Maybe an hour. They have to do everything by hand.” The daughter, listening to music through her earphones, rocking slightly with the rhythm, looks resigned. She’s been through this waiting game before….

Wacked out, talking “street” slow and loud, two women sway through the door. The tall one has red zip-up boots. They take chairs against a side wall, apart from the nice people who are hunkered down for a long wait. Their boastful, slurred dialogue is a separate sitcom, and folks keep their ears open but their eyes averted.

It’s easy to tell the first-timers: the shy minister and his wife, Bibles in hand, who try to go through the security gate without doing the card routine—write down the inmate’s name, hand it off to guard, step back to be called. Sternly, the guard points to the cards and the chairs. Everyone has to wait. A bewildered suburban couple stands close to the door, blinking in all directions, trying to get the hang of what to do.

By contrast, the Young Lords who come often for drug testing whip off their belts with a flourish, throw down their change and heavy keys, and swagger through the gate when they are called. A beautiful brunette, perhaps 18, walks in tight jeans and with a model’s poise, smiling at everyone. The Beauty gracefully fills out her card. In deference to her charms, the guard calls her behind the gate quickly. Some Warlord’s current favorite, no doubt.

A burst of noise brings in five Latinos, there to greet their comrade when he’s released. The most fluent in English gets the bad news from the guard: Computers are down. It will be at least an hour and a half. The men take the news in good humor and hang together on the opposite side from the folks on chairs—back against the lockers, near the sign above a locked box that says:

Money Order Deposits

All money orders to be made out to:

Prince Georges County for inmate’s name.

Please deposit money orders here.

No cash or checks.

Thank you.

When a young Latina enters with babe-in-arms, the men fall silent and stare solemnly at her. She looks like Madre Maria in a white sweater and golden velvet slacks, paying absolute attention to her baby. Of course, she must walk back and forth, back and forth in front of the men, as she crosses from the chairs to the women’s bathroom. Diapers and such…The men watch her longingly, respectfully.

Big, hot boxes of pizza are hauled in for the crew behind the gate. The hardy, patient folks who are waiting sag with hunger as they smell pepperoni and imagine melting cheese. They dare not leave their chairs to search the countryside for food for fear the guard will call their name when they are gone and they will miss a visit to their disorderly uncle or fail to pick up their pal. Those who wait are caught between the TV, a literature shelf full of the Watchtower, and an architect’s drawings of the very jail they are sitting in. The crew behind the glass window open the steaming pizza boxes and bicker happily about who gets what.

Behind the window are three columns of color-coded identifiers that entering visitors must clip on: “Official Visitor,” “Testing,” and “Property.” Posted on the window is a list of 30 men and women who have “abandoned property,” and who must claim it by the end of the month. On the wall is a “NO LOITERING” sign. (Are Loiterers different from Those Who Wait?)

A chubby woman with long red nails suddenly sees a friend she knows through church:

“Why you here?”

“To get my son.”

“How your daughter doin’?”

“We don’t know yet. She supposed to go to court. I brought sweat pants for her.”

And then the guards begin to escort out a few lucky released prisoners. They have fistfuls of court and jail paperwork. The grandmother in the wool cap and old blue coat meets a fine-looking man with curly gray hair. Without touch or glance or word, they walk out together, past rolled barbed wire fences, into the rural night. —Judith Larsen