PM Press Blog, Vic Liu's Blog

Hell Is Real and It Is Beige

Some of the greatest violence of prisons is hidden, in plain view, within their banality.

By Vic Liu
May 7, 2024

There isn’t much on the one-lane highway to Dannemora in upstate New York, except for a staggering plethora of neon signs screaming marijuana innuendos through the dark. After the dispensaries, I drive for hours with nothing but the promise of trees on the side of the unlit road. The United States likes to hide its 2 million incarcerated people behind long hours of empty roads.

I wrote and painted about 200 pages in my upcoming book with James Kilgore, The Warehouse: A Visual Primer on Mass Incarceration, about the U.S. carceral system. During this process, I had three years of panic attacks and the crippling depression that naturally comes with the territory. It should break my brain to try to conceive of the horrors of our country. I am still haunted by stories of correctional officers bribing kids with honey buns to physically assault each other, and stories of the extremely popular Angola Prison Rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary, where people buy tickets to watch incarcerated people, who are paid about 75 cents an hour, get thrown from bulls. I read stories too traumatizing to maintain the attention or mental safety of the readers, and didn’t include them. I tried and of course failed to capture what it is to live in the fully realized dystopia of Omelas.

I am driving to Clinton Correctional Facility to visit someone I’m working with through a nonprofit. We are helping to put together his application for his upcoming parole board.

This is my first time visiting a prison.

The first thing I see of Dannemora is the light. Half a mile out, the road inclines steeply upward toward a cloud of light, a halo that promises a baseball stadium or a soccer field. As I approach, I see a biblically tall wall, an ugly blankness that could only exist in order to cut an impassable schism between two worlds. The lights sprout from a glinting sprawl of barbed wire that coils along the top. Plaster-covered bricks jut slightly out of the wall, and I cannot help but imagine what it would be like to find fingerholds and climb.

Driving along the length of the wall feels like losing sight in my left eye. It is disturbing. On my right are houses. On my left, nothing.

Google informs me that my destination is to my right. One of my team members has found us an Airbnb for only $94 per night that is “right across the street from the prison.” This is not an exaggeration. On my right is the cute little liquor store beneath the Airbnb. It offers wine and spirits and a window display of sparkly snowflakes and plaid. The store is run by Kathy, our chipper Airbnb host. On my left is the white-out blizzard of the wall.

As far as I can see, the town is a cluster of houses with one gas station and pharmacy. Clinton Correctional Facility has been there since 1845, though there are no Google reviews.

The town was formed after, in 1854. Dannemora is small, with a population of 4,037. It is unclear if this number includes the 2,795 adult men held in Clinton Correctional Facility, but it is safe to assume most people in town are connected to the prison in some way.

The Airbnb is up the side stairs and unlocked, with the key in the squirrel bowl inside. Kathy has chosen cabin-themed decor for the Airbnb. Forty battery-powered candles flicker throughout the apartment. There is a cursive wooden sign in my bedroom next to a stuffed bear that informs me: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Unless it’s a bear.” I prefer that sign to the “Peace, Love, and Gratitude” in the bathroom or the “Cake counts as breakfast” in the kitchen. Under normal circumstances, I would mildly dislike the decor choices. Across the street from the prison, the cursive wooden signs rise to the level of satire.

There are windows that face the houses behind the building, but there is not a single window that faces across the street.

At about 8:00 a.m., my two teammates and I cluster outside the Airbnb to stare at the key in my hand. We cannot bring anything into the prison except for a Ziplock bag of cash for the vending machines and our IDs. We lock our phones and car keys in the Airbnb with this key that we cannot take with us either. There are a few moments of fumbling around before I finally just tuck it under the doormat, as in suburban lore.

We agree that we will stay two hours for our first visit. None of us want to be in prison for long, but no one says that out loud. Instead we say that two hours should be enough time to get to know our person a bit and begin to gather information to write an advocacy letter for his parole application. When writing this piece, I’ve struggled intensely with how many personal details to include about him. We as a society have a dire need for more human examples of incarcerated people. In the end, I’ve decided that in order to protect the delicate trust I’m establishing, and because his parole application is still in progress, I won’t reveal any identifying details.

We know to dress modestly and plainly and to wear wireless bras. There are often loose underwires littered on the asphalt in the parking lot outside San Quentin in California, where desperate visitors perform last minute wardrobe surgery. Leggings and graphic tees are verboten and the guards will likely turn away anyone wearing them. I behave myself and resist my nihilistic urge to wear my anarchist prison radio T-shirt, dressing instead in the plain T-shirt that I brought for this very purpose. The prison’s oppressive influence has begun already.

I bring a note from my teammate’s friend, an anesthesiologist in California, stating that I, Vic Liu, have a medical necessity to carry my insulin pump at all times and to wear a KN-95 mask. This letter is my last resort after five days of speaking with different people affiliated with the prison, none of whom had any idea if or how I would be allowed to wear my insulin pump inside, and the failure of my endocrinologist in NYC to respond to my email or phone calls.

Unsurprisingly, prison does not have good wayfinding. On our third try, we find the correct starting point, a beige storage container with two guards. The front desk inexplicably has a cracked mural of a ghost chasing a misshapen and terrified Scooby-Doo with no context. All guards we see today are white. The entry guard is nice enough, which is a relief to me but also feels disturbing, like an undertaker who is too cheery at funerals.

He laughs at us when we realize we have forgotten to write the DIN number of the person we are trying to visit. DIN numbers are more important than names in prison bureaucracy. One of my teammates treks back to the Airbnb for the DIN while we sit and stare at a laminated poster teaching us the mental health signs to watch out for and report, such as someone saying, “You won’t be seeing me anymore.”

Rather than the long lines we expected, there is only one visiting family here, a woman and a young girl, who is maybe three years old. The mother pulls the daughter toward the door and she starts crying as she leaves a princess uncolored, sitting on the table with crayons sprawled haphazardly. I wonder how far they’ve driven.

We proceed out the door and back down the salted stairs. They buzz us in and we push through two doors of metal-gridded safety glass into a cement room that looks like a defunct TSA bunker. There is an unplugged X-ray machine pushed against the wall, and a metal detector. We place all of our pocket contents into a small pail held out by an unsmiling woman in uniform.

Her male counterpart is uncomfortably friendly. My back hurts from yesterday’s four-hour drive and the creaky twin bed, and I bend over to touch my toes. I immediately regret it when he says, “Ow! My back hurts just looking at you do that. Damn, you’re flexible!” and laughs. I force myself to laugh as well. It’s not too different from when you don’t want to make a scene by telling a guy in the grocery store to fuck off, except this guy can tell me to leave.

They confiscate my teammate’s tissues and Tiger Balm. He waves my insulin pump through without glancing at the anesthesiologist’s note, saying, “It’s not like you can take that off, right?” And I say no, though I could unclip it and temporarily suffer the same medical risk and harm experienced by everyone else within these walls.

The female guard initials our sheet of paper with our names and our person’s name and DIN, and the male guard stamps something on my arm that is wet and cold but colorless. I do not ask what it is. He buzzes us through another door. I briefly wonder if there is any door I can open or close on my own. Hopefully the bathroom stall. I feel like I’m on a conveyor belt in a warehouse.

The interior design of the hallways evokes a particular texture of beige latex paint on metal that reminds me of public schools in the 1990s. The color palette is cat food.

We go through three more levels of bored guards who squint at our sheet of paper, the last of whom sits on a rolling office chair in front of a ham-fisted cliche of an iron gate that slices across the hallway. The guard removes a literal skeleton key from his pocket and scoots his ass over to the literal keyhole and pushes the gate open. He tells us to turn right at the Gatorade, the first of many vending machines that line the hallway. We step through, and though instinct wants me to politely push the gate closed behind me, I don’t.

I have been told that prison is a cacophony. It was something I worried wouldn’t come across in the silent pages of the book. Especially in facilities that are overcrowded, with dorms of a hundred people crammed into bunk beds, perpetually lit with blaring fluorescent lights, prison can be constant, unrelenting noise. Solitary can be even louder, as there are fewer humans and soft belongings to pad the echoes. You can go mad listening to someone else go mad four cells away.

It is not loud in here though. Perhaps because the only other visitors are a woman and two children visiting a man with tight braids, glasses, and a scar across his cheek. The girl is around five years old, giggling and kicking her feet at a table overflowing with a bounty of honey buns, instant ramen, and sandwiches sealed in plastic from the vending machines. The boy is rolling around in the corner on a bit of gray carpet.

As we wait, I cannot help but watch the woman and the man, though doing so feels entirely invasive. He is dressed in all forest green but wears a sweater rather than a T-shirt. She has a full face of perfect makeup, foundation and false eyelashes and all. They are approaching the limits of what is possible in human communication and it makes me miss my partner. She will only take her eyes off his face to go to the vending machines. I have written about the people left behind, especially the women, but I have never seen eyes as hungry as hers.

When our person arrives, he is taller than I expected. He too is dressed all in green, and it reminds me of my conversation with my coauthor James Kilgore where we debated whether to make the uniforms orange in the book. Orange is more recognizable to readers, but in reality most prisons use khaki, green, or blue, as it is considered “calming.”

Our initial conversation reminds me of ones I’ve had with my partner’s father. We warn him we are leaving at 1:20, and he says, “Oh, so you’re leaving early?” implying that he thought we would stay until 4:00, when visiting ends, and then I feel like a mercenary piece of shit.

We end up staying an hour longer than we’d planned. At 2:30, we retrieve our sheet of paper from the guards. We say our goodbyes and go toward the Gatorade as our person disappears out the other door, a door we will never go through, walking with guards who follow him as if they all just happened to be heading in the same direction.

We repeat each gate, each level, and each guard in reverse, digging our way out from the center of the Earth. Each person peers at this ridiculous sheet of paper that will carry us back outside. The male guard who remarked on my flexibility shines UV light onto the invisible stamp he put on our wrists and I give in and ask. He explains, “So that we can make sure the people leaving are the same people that went in.” We collect the Tiger Balm and the tissues. We collect our dignity and the fresh air that we left outside. It is only now that I remember that I am somewhat claustrophobic and have been struggling to breathe this entire time.

The key is still under the mat when we return. Previously, we had planned on a hike after the visit “to decompress”—because we know that “nature is healing and prison will be oppressive”—but we don’t go. I don’t feel numb so much as dead. We sit ourselves in front of the TV and achieve five hours of nothingness.

Later, I realize it is the banality that eats everything inside of me. It is the guards who chat because this is just another morning. It is the “turn right at the Gatorade.” It is the sparkly snowflakes in the liquor store window across the street. It is the Google Maps images of the town park that are carefully angled away.

I wrote The Warehouse because it bothers me that mass incarceration is hidden.

I drove four hours to get to Dannemora, jumped through so many bureaucratic hoops, and I still didn’t break through the wall that the United States has built to disappear its prisons.

I feel stupid that I am frustrated. I know that the public is allowed to see very little of life inside prisons. What few glimpses we get are stolen from camera phones sneaked inside or from sanitized publicity stunt tours.

I know of the ways that lives are being decimated by the goings-on behind those walls and through the doors that we cannot pass. I have written about abysmal prison health care, inhumane suicide rates, and the pepper spray guards are directed to use on individuals trying to kill themselves. I know that, while the vending machine eats my $5 and while these guards wave me through, there are people dying and hurting horribly just a few yards away, and this is exactly the furthest I can push the boundary into that world.

But worst of all, I get to leave.

Image: Shiola Odan/Unsplash

Vic Liu Vic Liu is a multidisciplinary information artist and author who uses design to communicate complex information with empathy. With James Kilgore, she is author of The Warehouse: A Visual Primer on Mass Incarceration.