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Life in Prison: It's Not a Nice Place to Visit and You Wouldn't Want to Live There

by on July 23, 2014 6:15 AM

It's a lovely half-hour drive to Huntingdon from Pine Grove Mills on Route 26.

After climbing Tussey Ridge to the Jo Hays Vista and passing the turnoffs to Shavers Creek, Whipple Dam and Greenwood Furnace, you drive through rolling farmland until you get to the cluster of brick buildings that define downtown Huntingdon.

Then, if you cross the Juniata River and hang a right on Pennsylvania Avenue, you come to the high fence topped with coils of razor wire that encircle the state prison.

Subramanyan Vedam made the drive from State College 32 years ago. It was a one-way trip. He was 21 when a Centre County judge sentenced him to life without parole after a jury found him guilty of murdering 19-year-old Thomas Kinser. He's 53 now.

I went to see Vedam with his mother, Nalini Vedam, whom everyone calls Mrs. Vedam. She's too regal a person to be addressed or referred to by her first name. Mrs. Vedam acquired a following in State College among those who took Indian cooking lessons from her. She used to bring food to Subu, as she calls him, before outside food was prohibited (to the sorrow of the guards, who enjoyed Mrs. Vedam's cooking as much as Subu did).

Visiting the prison is a three-stage process. First, you line up in a room like an old bus station and wait for a sergeant in a glassed-in booth to check your photo ID against a list of authorized visitors submitted by the prisoner you want to visit. Mrs. Vedam doesn't need to show her driver's license: The sergeant knows her.

As per Mrs. Vedam's instructions, I had left my money, my phone and even my pen in the car. A man ahead of us who walks with a cane is told he cannot bring in his cane unless he has a doctor's note. He hasn't. (A friend told me she was turned away when her underwire bra set off the metal detector.)

The sergeant draws an invisible circle on the backs of our left hands and gives us a form. Now we can enter the prison proper through a loudly clanging metal door. "This is a prison," it seems designed to remind you. "You don't want that door closing behind you like it closed behind whomever you're visiting today."

Inside, a guard takes the form, checks the circle on our hands that now shines Gummi worm-green under an ultraviolet light, and waves us through the metal detector. Another clanging door and we are in the prison courtyard.

Next we present ourselves in a small guardhouse where three officers cultivate the bored and put-upon look they think people in their positions are supposed to have. One of them wands our hands and pockets with the same appurtenance they use on your luggage at the airport. Then we go through our third clanging door into the visiting room and present our entry form to another guard.

The visiting room is a long rectangular space with an impressive lineup of vending machines on one wall, a shelf with games on the other and four rows of upholstered wood-frame chairs. The room is dingy, but not dirty. The system seems to be that visitors arrive first, then the prisoner joins them.

The prisoners wear chocolate-colored jumpsuits with D.O.C. (Department of Corrections) in yellow on the back. They all appear to be in robust good health. Whatever the flaws in America's penal system, those who are in its grip get plenty of exercise and three squares – though one of the prisoners eats a stack of vending machine pancakes and syrup that a woman who appears to be his mother has bought for him.

The man with the cane makes it to the visiting room without his cane. A prisoner who may be his son shows off his shiny bald head, newly shaved, apparently, since the man's last visit.

A woman with four young children pulls Sorry! ("The Game of Sweet Revenge") off the game shelf. The prisoner they've come to visit – her partner and co-parent, probably – hugs each of them. One of the boys looks like he does not especially want to be hugged.

After a five-minute wait, Subu enters. He has a close-cropped white beard, close-cropped white hair and wire-rimmed glasses. How do you start a conversation with someone who has been in prison for 32 years? I start by asking him what he's reading currently. Answer: Thomas Piketty's 700-page surprise blockbuster, "Capital in the Twenty First Century."

On the drive to Huntingdon I had asked Mrs. Vedam what she thought her son would have done with his life if he hadn't gone to prison. Without hesitation, she said, "He would have been a physicist like his father."

In prison, though, Subu mostly reads nonfiction about politics, economics and law. Not surprisingly, he sounds pretty expert on the subject of sentencing laws and how they have changed – mostly tightened -- since he has been in prison.

Subu maintains his innocence. So do a lot of prisoners. After 32 years, the truth of the matter may be unknowable. A question to consider for next time, when I delve into his case, is whether the truth of the matter even matters anymore.

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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