Stillwater Prison, built 1910-14 in Bayport, Minn., is on the National Register of Historic Places. Picture the stereotype of any movie prison you’ve ever seen, from White Heat to Shawshank Redemption, and that’s Stillwater State Prison. If you’re lucky, you’ve never been in a place like this.

For the past three years I’ve been a regular visitor to Stillwater Prison as a volunteer with Amicus, a secular non-profit that has been offering friendship to incarcerated people for more than 50 years. The Amicus friendship program is called “Re-entry Mentoring” although in the case of me and my incarcerated friend there is no real mentoring, because there will be no re-entry. People my age in prison have usually been there a long time and will likely die there.

To visit someone in a Minnesota prison you must first get on their approved visitor list by submitting an application to the Department of Corrections (DOC). Once approved you just show up and sign in, show your ID and grab a $0.25 locker because nothing goes in with you except the dress-code-compliant clothes on your back.

The big-screen TV in the waiting room is usually running something like Finding Nemo for young visitors. I look at the children, and the sadness that emanates from their mothers, and it just about breaks you to think about it.

Next to the big TV is a small bookshelf holding mostly magazines, including back issues of Stillwater’s own The Prison Mirror. Founded in 1887, the Mirror is the oldest continuously published inmate newspaper in the country, and one recognized often for excellence.

The entire waiting room and visitor registration process is supervised by uniformed guards who draw the line on the rules for anyone in doubt. In my experience of some 30 visits, they draw it with courtesy and consideration.

The loud speaker announces, “Visit for Ture,” so it’s time to get locked up with him for an hour or two. 

Empty pockets, remove eyeglasses, negotiate metal detector, get a hand stamp a la the Cabooze on a Saturday night, and wait for the series of steel-barred doors to clank and grind open.

I was socialized through love and support; Joe through abuse and abandonment.

Entrance into the visiting room is like any other secure transfer operation, like an air lock on the Space Station. A barred door slides open, you walk through, it closes behind you and another in front of you opens. This too closes behind you as you step up to the one-way glass of the control booth, display your hand stamp under the ultraviolet light, and drop your driver’s license in the tray. There’s one more loud clank and a third door opens into the secure visiting room.

There’s a 3-by-5 floor mat immediately to the right as you enter, adjacent to one of the two guard observation platforms in the room. This is the one and only authorized spot for brief physical contact — a handshake, a quick hug or a peck on the cheek — allowed only first thing upon arrival and last thing when leaving.

Inmate artwork adorns the walls. There are clocks here and there to keep track of visiting time. Halfway along the far wall on a five foot raised level behind glass is a row of glass booths with telephone handsets hanging on the outside for restricted visits. Throughout the main room rows of fold-down stadium-type seats face each other about six feet apart. Inmates sit on the south side, visitors on the north. 

At our age neither Joe nor I hear as well as we once did, and my practiced technique of leaning in to hear better violates prison rules of separation. 

Joe likes to talk about two things: sports and his innocence. I represent myself to Joe as his friend and I take that seriously. I think when a friend tells you something, it’s to be believed. Otherwise, you’re not much of a friend. 

Reconciling the dichotomy between Joe’s “innocence” and his lifetime of convictions and incarceration is something I think about a lot. The cliché that every man in prison is innocent according to him weighs against my understanding that the criminal justice system does indeed get it wrong sometimes — if not intentionally, then carelessly. Joe offers support for his claims of innocence that — when viewed with an open mind and an understanding of how the real world works — is not entirely implausible.

Try to imagine yourself in prison for most of your adult life, and for crimes someone else committed. This is the big “what if” that I ponder. What if Joe’s truth is the truth? We know it happens. What if that’s what happened to Joe? What if it happened to you? 

Joe’s story is complicated. I was socialized through love and support; Joe through abuse and abandonment. Joe appeared as that quintessential suspect that everyone can accept — the stranger, drifter, itinerant mechanic living out of his car. A non-person. As his friend, treating Joe like a real person is really my only goal.

Joe had been in Amicus’ files for 20 years by the time I came along. There are never enough volunteers, and there are more sympathetic characters than Joe to choose from. I think he was looking for that tireless advocate and crusader on the outside who would finally get him a hearing on his claims of innocence. That’s not what Amicus does and I’m not that guy, and I told him that. “I don’t believe you and I don’t not believe you, I just don’t care.” I said he’d been judged enough in the past by the system, and I just cared about him as a person now and how he was getting along.

Joe loves baseball, and so do I. We talk about the Twins all season long. He told me when he was a kid he went to old Met Stadium for the Twins open tryouts. Anybody could show up with a glove and they’d put you on the field, hit fungos, play a little pepper, and if you showed up with some obvious untapped talent they might even offer you a minimum minor league contract. Joe went by himself. He knew he wasn’t any kind of ball player, but he just wanted to be there, to walk out on the outfield grass of a major league ballpark with a glove on.

So what is it like to live year after year after decade in prison? Mopping the cell hall for $0.50 an hour. Living in a cage under constant eyes and being escorted everywhere you go. Getting a flashlight in your face from a female guard while sitting on the commode for a midnight nature call. Necessary? A lot of it is. I don’t think the general public thinks much about prisoners as complete people … thoughtful, sensitive, human.

In prison a person is allowed an activity in their cell called “hobby craft”: beadwork, crochet, or in Joe’s case, hand-drawn greeting cards. I mail Joe pictures from the internet that he uses to make cards, mostly Disney characters or other cartoons, sports logos, stuff that is near impossible for him to acquire on his own. It’s a small thing for me to do but a big contribution to his quality of life. Occasionally he’ll send me a gift … a beaded Twins logo on a beaded chain, a crocheted bear, things he trades for with other inmates. Once upon a time cigarettes were the inside coin of the realm. These days, smoking isn’t allowed, so it’s coffee.

I never thought I’d be visiting someone capable of extreme violence, that being so far from who I am, and I was apprehensive the first visit, with no idea what to expect. Now some 60 hours of face-to-face conversation later, I stand as the one and only un-incarcerated friend of a convicted serial killer. Most people don’t ever expect to make the acquaintance of a Joe Ture, but it’s not unlike getting to know someone of an ethnic or religious background different from your own, where familiarity dispels prejudice. It’s like extreme diversity, building a personal relationship with someone whose entire life is contrary to your own experience. It frees you from pre-conception and stereotypes.

A guard lets us know when there’s 5 minutes left in our two-hour visit (the maximum allowed). We get up and walk to the official “mat of familiarity,” shake hands again and bid each other well until the next time. Leaving is the same series of barred doors in reverse, picking up my driver’s license on the way. Joseph Donald Ture Jr., OID#118968, exits through a similar setup on the other side of the room leading back into the cellblocks. The biggest difference in our departures, besides our distinct destinations, is that I won’t be strip-searched on the way out.

For more information about Amicus, go here.

Don Lehnhoff
Donald Lehnhoff is a semi-retired marketing professional and musician living in Minneapolis. He volunteers with AMICUS and We Are All Criminals in pursuit of social justice and criminal justice reform.