On Saturday, January 23rd, I stayed the night in the new Springfield Municipal Jail along with 80+ others. For the opportunity, I filled out an application, underwent a background check (looking for outstanding warrants, etc.), and paid $20. In exchange, the Springfield Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association (SCPAAA, hosts of the fundraising/protocol practice event) promised to provide a tour of the facility, dinner, breakfast, and a bunk in a cell under lockdown. What’s more, they promised to give out event T-shirts and souvenir mug shots to participant ‘inmates.’ Even with all that hospitality they still warned: Don’t expect to be comfortable.
I wasn’t, but not in the ways that I’d anticipated.
The event started at 6:00pm in a conference room on the second floor of the municipal building attached to the jail, a room reminiscent of library reading rooms and college classrooms, concrete block walls, well-lit, AV projector, podium up front. To get to it, each participant had to show an ID, have their name checked from a list, promise not to have a cell phone, electronics, weapons, or food (bare essentials only, toothbrush, washcloth, etc.), then have bags searched for contraband. If we were actual inmates, we were assured, the search would've been much more, ahem, thorough. Participants then changed into the blaze orange t-shirts given, entered the conference room, and divided up among the tables according to the letter on their nametags. I was D, D pod. I sat between people I’d never met, wearing the same shirt.
While the room filled up, there was no shortage of what-are-you-in-for and Shawshank Redemption quotes. Then 6:00pm struck, and the room quieted, as though we were already assuming our roles.
I had remained purposefully ignorant of what was in store, so as to absorb the experience authentically, and as our night was explained to us I took it as it came. The jail was built to house 100 male inmates. With 80+ it would be at near capacity. It was not built for females or a mix of the sexes. Line of sight issues made it so the female participants would be wholly divided from the male population and housed together in out of the way pods. Or, really, vice versa. We would be led to our pods, where we could choose our cells and bunks, a luxury actual inmates don’t have. They are assigned. In the pods a stack of bedding would be waiting, two sheets, a pillow, a pillow case, a blanket, and a bath cloth. We were to make our beds and unmake them in the morning. Inmates get new bedding every week. We would eat dinner, a meal prepared by Washington state correctional inmates. A whole day’s worth of food costs less than $5.00, contains 2400 calories and over a week cycle is nutritionally balanced. The jail is not staffed with custodial workers, so we would have to clean up after ourselves. Lucky participants would get to mop and wipe down the eating area, clean the windows. For the opportunity they’d get benefits or ‘bennies,’ such as extra food or, if they were actual inmates, extra out-of-cell time -- officers’ discretion. We would then be led from our pods to the booking area, where we would be processed and photographed in inmate stripes. Sizes run small. We would receive a tour of the facility, led back to our pods, put into our cells, and closed in for the night. Lights out at 10:30pm. Lights on at 6:30am. Yet, there is no actual darkness. In each pod, the lights never dim, and in each cell in each pod, the light at night switches from full power to 5 watts, enough to read by. The philosophy behind the jail, it was explained, was to provide the minimum mandated by federal law. No TV, no music, and 23 hours a day on average in the cell.
After the introduction, we lined up single file according to our pod letters and were led around the building toward the jail entrance, where a paddy wagon or police cruiser would enter a tall, solid black gate that the staff had dubbed the Jurassic gates. This entered onto a concrete lot separated from the main jail building by a steel, roll down gate. The concrete walls were at least three men high. Inside them was the last glimpse of unobstructed sky I’d see until the next morning. The roll down gate opened onto another concrete lot inside the building, separated from the booking area by a locked door. The hinges on the doors aren’t like the hinges on your doors at home. They look like thick bolts from bolt action rifles, and they’re supplemented by an inner hinge that runs the full length inside the door, so there is no empty space between door and doorframe. The locks are electronically controlled by a central system. To unlock them, officers have to radio in.
Then we were inside. It smelled like fresh paint, which I was assured would change in time to the smell of sweat and cleaning products. The booking area was a narrow room, with an alcove outfitted by a small, railed bench, to which incoming inmates could be handcuffed. Inside, there are no open spaces. Every place is like a corridor, ending and beginning with a locked door. It was pleasantly warm and the air circulation made a lulling white noise, all intended to sedate inmates.
From there, we were led through the main processing area, past the holding cells, the central command, other pods, the ‘rec yard’ and into our own pod. D.
The front of pod D is a wall of bulletproof glass over three men tall with a heavy door. Bulletproof glass doesn’t sound like glass when you tap on it with a knuckle. It sounds more like concrete block. The windows look out onto a corridor with pods A, B, & C on one side and the central command on the other. Central command is mostly windows of bulletproof glass, behind which sit multiple computer monitors that can access the intercoms connected to each cell and each pod as well as all the surveillance cameras throughout the facility. There are no surveillance cameras in any of the cells or in any of the pods. Those manning the central command and the floor walkers watch everything.
Pod D is divided into two levels. The ground floor has several steel picnic tables with rounded edges and attached circular seats enough for every inmate in the pod, a wall of cells, a shower stall, a sink, and a row of three phones along the outer concrete wall. The phones can only make collect calls. Inmates aren’t allowed coins. Calls are around $4.00 a minute, and they announce that the recipients are getting a call from a Springfield Municipal Jail inmate before charges are accepted. A set of concrete steps leads to a narrow walkway with a seven foot railing and another wall of cells and shower stall. The shower curtain is clear plastic. The doors to the cell are solid steel with two vertical strips of clear bulletproof glass. The cells themselves contain a stainless steel toilet, no lid, a push button sink with water fountain spigot (H or C; in my cell they were reversed, H was cold), a polished sheet of stainless steel for a mirror, two bunks bolted to the back wall covered with stiff sleeping pads, and a small steel table and circular seat. Two strips of thick, frosted glass line the top of the back wall. Through them, nothing can be seen but a muted tone of light that doesn’t even compete with the light encased against the ceiling. Beside the table, a steel ledge is bolted to the wall, beneath which are four straight, blunt prongs, none of which can hold more than the weight of a towel or jacket before hinging downward and dumping what it held onto the floor. That’s it.