Susan Burton’s Prison Book Tour: Federal Correctional Institution, Aliceville, AL

I visited the Federal Correctional Institution in Aliceville, Alabama in July. Miss Alice Johnson had recently been released from there after Donald Trump commuted her sentence, and the women there seemed really really hopeful. But for me, I’m just now able to talk about the trip because it was an extremely hard trip for me. Walking into the prison and seeing the women stripped of their identities, stripped of their individuality, stripped of their humanity hit me much harder than it usually does. Even though the women were trying to have hopel, I recognized those symptoms of dehumanization as I peered from my podium at them. It wasn’t that it was different from any other prison, but some days you have so much more clarity, and that day, it was really apparent to me.

On the way to the prison, I’d driven through woods that seemed like the woods that people were lynched in. It felt eerie and heavy. There was a long, obscure drive to get to Aliceville, and I thought about how hard it must be for family and friends to go and visit the women. All of these things rambled through my brain as I drove.

I left Aliceville feeling really burdened with what I saw, with my soul speaking to me. The next day, after visiting that prison, I went to visit Bryan Stevenson’s Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which remembers the victims of lynching. I could see the parallels between 21st century killings of Black people and what had happened historically in this country. I was just solemn.

Then the next day, I went to Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama to visit Geneva Cooley, a woman I met during a visit there about a year ago. She was handed a 999-year sentence for drug possession. The reality is that she’ll die in prison for drugs if something isn’t done to get her released.

My visit was scheduled for 11:00 am, and I got there at 10:15. I was told I couldn’t see Geneva because I had on a sleeveless dress, so I went out to my car and put on my pajama top. Even though I got there 45 minutes early, I didn’t get in to see Geneva until almost a quarter to noon. I grew more and more concerned as I waited, but I was too scared to ask what was taking so long because I knew they had the power not to let me in. So I just sat it out. The entire process spoke to the powerlessness people have when they’re in prison and that even their visitors have.

When I was finally admitted to see her, Geneva and I went into a room where the paint was peeling and faded, and the desk was all wobbly and broke. Before I arrived, Geneva had asked me to bring a big bag of quarters so she could go to the vending machine. She talked about not having had a visit in seven years and how excited she was to get to some free-world food, even if it was from a vending machine. But the vending machine had not been stocked. I just felt so bad for her. It was so hard.

So today is the first day I was actually able to talk about that visit. The visits get harder because I see the inhumane way that women are held and treated. And I know that we have not moved far from Jim Crow. I know that we have not made the progress that this world thinks we have made. We just don’t want to think or talk about what’s happening to people. And nothing will change until we do.