In the night of 17th October 2015, I reported live on Instagram my 8-hour bus ride to a state prison in northern New York, close to the Canadian border, in order to interview an inmate for a story on his previous exoneration.
The ride is unique in the sense that there are bus companies operating specific routes between different prisons and New York City, regularly bringing inmates’ family members to their loved ones every weekend. One of such companies is called Upstate Family Transport, but I took another one called Operation Prison Gap. Many people travel every weekend for visits, and most passengers are women and young children.
I began taking notes on my observations as soon as I boarded the bus, thinking that I might write an independent story on this experience itself. However, remembering the pile of notes on stories that I worked on but never end up reporting, I decided to spontaneously report the trip via a live Instagram feed hashtagged #NYPrisonRide, within my social media circle.
Live Twitter feeds are common place, but less so on Instagram. Here is the full feed.
Photos are taken by my Samsung Galaxy Express 2 cellphone, and edited using the VSCO Cam app.
[ Photographer Jacobia Dahm published a photo essay on the same kind of prison bus rides in New York, and she spoke about her insights and experience in an interview published on Medium.com. ]
10:10pm. Tonight I will be reporting live my 24-hour journey to a prison in upstate New York. I will try to be consistent in the update, as long as I'm awake and not within the confines of the facility. I reserved my seat by telephone two days before the trip, with a bus company operating different routes from different boroughs of New York City to dozens of New York State prisons. The ride costs $65 for an adult, and $25 for children. The pickup time was 10pm. I arrived to Columbus circle at 9:40pm, roaming around for 20 minutes trying to find the bus that is supposed to be by 58th street and Broadway. I found the car after roaming 20 minutes in the block and asking from two halal food vendors. The guys seem to know the bus very well and pointed it out right away. "just go straight and you'll see lots of people waiting, " one of them said with a heavy Hispanic accent. "I know what you're talking about. The prison bus." I walked a block but saw no one insight. I asked a second vendor. He pointed at a black van parked 10 feet away in silence. "the black van?", I asked. He nodded, again in silence. The interior of the vehicle was completely dark, its exterior sports no sign of the company name, nor anything remotely referring to prisons. I tapped on the window. The driver rolled it down, "where are you goin'?" "Orleans", I answered. I used the short form of Orleans Correctional Facility, like a frequent visitor of the medium security prison would say. It is located in the Orleans Country of northern New York state, not far from the Niagara Falls and close to the Canadian border near Toronto. "get in," he said. I opened the back door of the van and find several pairs of eyes looking at this newcomer. #NYPrisonRide
11:00pm Four women were in the van before me, one had a toddler with her. It was almost too dark to discern but it seems most were of African American decent. A woman talked on phone. A mother yelled at her kid, "will you stop moving? What's wrong with you?" A father played on his tablet game and the young toddler around 3 years old move up and down the seat, making weird noises and occasionally talking to himself. "I'm sleepy", he said. "i know," the father replied. We waited until 10:30pm when the van was full. It carried a total of 8 women (including me), 2 men and 2 young children under 5. Each adult has to pay $65 for the round trip and each child $30. The van got to the busy junction at 7th Avenue and west 34th, where we stopped in front of Modell's, which seems to be a discount fashion store. We waited until the driver announced that people headed to Albion and Orleans state prisons can get off the van to transfer to a travel coach. I wondered if people on the street wondered as well, whether this big group of coloured people are headed so late at night. I followed other people as they filed in, and asked the bus monitor if this went to Orleans. I got on to the bus already half full. #NYPrisonRide
11:30pm The bus started and the monitor, in his deep and textured voice, made announcements and gave precious advice through the microphone. Aside from the usual "switch off your phones" and "don't spill your drinks", he has a few more special ones to offer. "no smoking at the lavatory or on the bus," said the black man in his late fifties, with long silver dreadlocks all the way down his back. "there was once i said the same thing to the passengers, and this guy came up to me and asked 'can I smoke some crack in the toilets?' please, folks, no smoking, no crack, no drugs". He also strongly recommended that we wash our hands several times at each rest station. "at the facilities, they will sometimes ask you to rub your hands with a solution that tests for illegal substances," he warned solemnly. "i know not all of you do drugs, but once you touch a dollar bill, you might get traces of drug on your hands. If they found you with drugs on your hands, you will be banned from visiting for 30 days and your inmate will be in trouble," he paused. "this has happened to several of my passengers. I know they probably never did drugs. An old lady. But it happened." Tap on the photo for audio. #NYPrisonRide
12:00am As the bus headed for New Jersey where there will be another vehicle change, a young lady came to collect the fares, and I asked her for a receipt. "Im travelling for work, I need a receipt for reimbursement," i explained. She looked at me in bewilderment, before it dawned on her. "you're a reporter?" "yeah, sort of. I'm a student reporter," I answered. Fifteen minutes later she handed me my "receipt". #NYPrisonRide
1:40am what's in my #NYPrisonRide bag : – water, 2 apples, manousha for snacking, cereal bar and biscuits for breakfast, camera, laptop for writing on the way back and doing readings, photo ID, Ipod, a printed book for the inmate, contact lenses & solution, notebooks and pen, which I negotiated with the prison general counselor that I can bring in during the visit; purse with small amount of cash, a bunch of quarters for renting a locker, phone charging battery. Other stuff: -down Jacket & warm clothes to brace for the Canadian weather (-2 to 5°C tmr), converses (no Nike or addidas, they are forbidden as they are sometimes used as gang signs), & no bra worn (might set off metal detector and lead to further body search. People may be required to take their bras off for independent scanning). #NYPrisonRide
1:50am I prepared to get onto the third vehicle of the evening, and it is past midnight. The bus is expected to arrive at 8am. Passengers got off with their belongings and register names and seat numbers with the bus lady with her note board. As we got off, the little girl in front of me was yawning. She was eating grilled chicken wings with her mother earlier. I imagine for many young children whose parent is incarcerated, this is their typical family weekend outing. It isn't their fault, but it is the only chance they get to see their mother or their father for an hour or two per week. #NYPrisonRide
2:00am we got onto the next and the last bus in which we will get to the final destination. Passengers who travel alone were given two seats, so the bus wasn't full. Passengers seem to be well prepared to get cozy. Seeing that, I'm also teary eyed. I'll drop off here and take a nap until the stop in Pennsylvania. #NYPrisonRide
3:36 am First stop in Pennsylvania. The white bus on the left is The Bus. People get off to use the toilet, get food or use the change machine to get quarters, so they can rent lockers when they arrive at the prison. Internet connection is unstable, I am often on Edge network. I tried to rub my hands with soap and water to wash away the alleged invisible drug substances on my hands. #NYPrisonRide
7:45am several prisons surround a handful of small towns in northern Northern New York State bordering Canada. The first stop is Wendy Prison. The next stop, "Attica, Attica! Make sure you have your ID folks. But you can leave your pillows and blankets here, I can get a good price with those. And yup, that's snow. Boom. You don't have to dream of a white Christmas here cos it's gonna happen," the bus monitor's wake up call. #NYPrisonRide
9:00am first stop of Orleans Correctional Facility is the visitor's center. The center is detached from the rest of the facility where visitors can take a rest after their long ride, wash up a it, arrange the items they'd like to take to the inmate, leave personal belongings in the locker, and fill in all administrative forms. #NYPrisonRide
9:30am "get yourself together before you go," said the lady registering visitors. We just arrived after a ten-hour overnight bus ride and everyone looks quite exhausted. Ladies want to look good for their husbands, even when they are incarcerated. A woman sprays on her perfume before leaving the center, others wash up in the bathrooms. Some people take their bras off in advance to avoid setting off the metal detector. #NYPrisonRide
1:40pm came back out from the visiting room, which looks much like a big cafeteria with vending machines. Family members of the inmates talk around a chosen square table, they can hold hands, eat together, talk, kiss and take photographs. Some women sat on their men's lap and went all out as if she was going to eat him alive. Prison guards are cool with that. I initially called the prison office and spoke with the general counselor to give me special permission to bring in a pen and paper to take notes, but he apparently didn't do the paper work needed. So I went in without any of that. As I was waiting, I noticed the guard post of the visiting room gave out small pencils and small pieces of scrap paper, perhaps for people to note their card game scores, so I also asked for some of that to write my notes on. We were sometimes interrupted. Once by the prison roll call, the second time another inmate who came to say hi to my subject. In his tattooed arms was a beautiful young girl with blond Bob cut, maybe around six or seven years old. #NYPrisonRide
1:50pm now I'm back in the facilities visitor's center waiting for the bus to come pick us up and back to New York City. The women who sprayed perfume before visiting is now lying on a couch to take a short nap before the bus arrives. None of the other visitors are back from the facility yet, and I imagine this is because they would like to stay with their family for as long as possible. I wonder if this woman had an unpleasant experience, and argument with her inmate husband, therefore she ended the visit earlier than she could have. #NYPrisonRide
02:20pm the bus arrived and we're boarding. A woman was complaining how the prison guards wouldn't let her bring in frozen meat ribs and string cheese her husband, saying they were not double wrapped, even though she saw other people bring in exactly the same thing and never encountered trouble like she did. From here we leave the US state prison housing over 1000 inmates in the northern tip of New York State. #NYPrisonRide