From processing, we were led through a series of windowless corridors and shown the jail's inner works, a behind the scenes tour. The order of what room was where has become confused for me, was confused for me even then, and I apologize if while describing one room I mentally place it where it isn’t. The jail is disorienting. Most doors look the same, thick steel inlaid with a strip of bulletproof glass. For the most part, only the labels stenciled over the doorways are different. Moreover, every corridor not only has the same dimensions, a couple people wide with high ceilings, but the walls are all the same white, painted concrete block that glistens like its plasticky, the same as in the pods, the cells, everywhere. If that wasn’t enough, the layout was designed so that if a fire broke out, there are numerous fallback points into which the inmates could be herded. It was designed to avoid chasing fire and billowing smoke.
There was a conference room, outfitted with a video monitor, webcam, and chair, all set toward the back wall. The largest of the rooms we entered during the tour, with exception, maybe, of the kitchen, the conference room was for tele-arraignment.
A much smaller meeting room, smaller, it seemed, even than the individual cells, was for in-person meetings with lawyers or psychologists or teachers, etc. Inside, a comically large red button waited on the wall near the door, the panic button.
In another room, a bank of closed-circuit phones with handsets on either side of bulletproof glass hung along a wall with seats for each separated from one another by short blinders. This should be familiar from movies scenes where inmates talk to lawyers or family members from behind glass. There is little privacy to be salvaged from others using the room at the same time, and, regardless, officers have access to all conversations. The touching movie scenes in which children press their hands up against the glass are rare, if not pure fiction, we were told. Veterans of jail work, officers told us that, no, they don’t see children there. Most inmates don’t get visitors at all, no matter how much they write.
Outside the phone room, is a waiting room for those who want to talk to inmates, a place inmates wouldn’t see until their release. It had a water fountain, which was popular. As tourists, we hadn’t yet realized how little water we were drinking, though, when we saw the bubbler, we recognized our thirst. As if the cup we got with dinner was all we’d chosen to drink, most people hadn’t refilled. We drank from the fountain. Opposite the fountain, set into a wall abutting the central command, was a ‘double blind’ steel door about two feet square. Through it, visitors would surrender their belongings before entering. It opens onto a chamber between central command and the waiting room. Both sides of the chamber can’t be opened at once, so as to avoid people reaching through, or worse. Only one side can be opened at a time, much like the locked doors at the entrance and exit of every corridor.
The kitchen was clean, all gleaming stainless steel. Heating cabinets and something that looked like a miniature conveyer toaster were all the cooking elements that I spotted. They had barely been used. Except for a few municipal support staffers from the police department across the street, there is no employee kitchen staff. The kitchen, and every other function of the jail, is supposed to be run by the inmates. As an inmate, to be employed within the jail takes good behavior. The benefits are out-of-cell time, mingling with folks who you wouldn’t otherwise see, and, possibly, extra snacks. Exceptionally good behavior, say, volunteering to clean up what others wouldn't want to, could even lead to more ‘rec yard’ time. What’s more, the officers said, since coffee has no nutritional value and isn’t supplied by the city, inmates who participate in the running of the jail may get to share some of the officers’ joe, a carrot, they say, that is extremely convincing.
The library holds donated paperbacks, all of which are fiction. Weekly, a cart is brought around to each pod, and inmates can borrow books. Some inmates go through several books a day. Others, none, ever. Hoarding, we were told, is a problem among long term inmates, since they’re trying to claim something as theirs and stake their ground. But within the jail, inmates own nothing, can own nothing. Everything is property of the jail. Even the cell in which an inmate is housed is not the inmate’s, and if turf is claimed, the inmates can be moved.
The commissary sells candy bars and chips, etc. to inmates at exceptionally high prices, like what you’d see from a vendor at an airport, but more egregious. Inmates, we were told, love candy bars. The proceeds from the commissary go into a general fund for the jail, and are accounted for according to who buys what from what pod. The pods (not the cells) are all wired for TV, but since the city won’t pay to buy television sets for inmates, the inmates must pay for them themselves. The commissary is how they accumulate enough to buy one. It’ll likely take over a year before even one pod saves enough through commissary purchases for a TV. Even then, the pod must be exceptionally well-behaved for the privilege of having a say in where the money will go.
The ‘rec yard,’ back near pods A thru D, is a wide open, concrete-floored space with high concrete walls and a ceiling of grated steel open to the sky. The ceiling is grated more so that nothing can be thrown in than to keep people from getting out. The walls are sheer, and it’d take at least three, maybe four men standing on each other’s shoulders to even reach the grate. The space is vaguely shaped like a coffin. A grated drain sits in the center of the floor to receive rainwater. No basketball hoop, no weights, no windows. There is nothing with which to compete and create winners and losers. It’s not a natural space to run in. Mandated by federal law, each inmate gets at least one hour per week in the ‘rec yard,’ rain or shine.
On the way to the ‘rec yard,’ we passed through the staff break room, where a pan of brownies sat on a counter. It was surprising how covetous people were of it, how much chatter it produced. On the way back to our pods from the ‘rec yard,’ we passed the central command, where a pair of soda bottles sat on the opposite side of the bulletproof windows, as if taunting our thirst.
Then we were back in our pods, back in our cells, and the doors were closed. Night-night. The light in the cell went off completely for about a minute, then the low, 5 watt light came back on. I was silent, listening to the muted laughter and chatter from the cells abutting my own while really scrutinizing the space I was going to sleep in for the first time. Where corners met, there are no right angles. They’ve all been caulked smooth with a kind of concrete filling, as if every joint was soldered. Everything that was metal was soldered in place, and bolted. The bolts were rounded, their screwdriver fittings impossibly small and awkward. There was nothing to get my hands on, even if I'd wanted to. I lay on the top bunk. The pillow was small, the sheet and blanket were thin, the sleeping pad stiff, reminiscent of bad camp experiences. The light was just about level with my head.
I tried tapping on the wall, got a few tap responses, then things quieted down and I talked with my cellmate. There are no surprises in jail. Everything runs on a schedule and after seeing it once, there isn’t variation. Everything is meant to stay the same, as it is. Everything except the inmates. They are the one surprise, and a cellmate, who is a stranger, is the one variable inmates can’t count on staying static, or, for that matter, even pleasant. Luckily for me, my cellmate was friendly. We were there under amenable circumstances, after all. We talked until conversation dozed off, then the room checks started.
Every hour on the hour throughout the night, it is the law that an officer checks each inmate for respiration. What they’re looking for, they said, was hair and the rise and fall of the sheets. This is much noisier than you’d think. With everything constructed of concrete and steel, sound echoes. The locks in the doors, all controlled by central command, are tested every hour. They’re tested sequentially, and the sound is like someone walking along a metal fence and banging a baton against its poles. The heavy door entering pod D also clomps shut with a resonant bang. Every hour, on the hour. Then there was the snoring. It could be heard through the walls, muted, but heard, then, right when I’d thought that the others’ snoring had abated, my cellmate started in. Stiff bedding, light in my face, thin sheets, banging every hour with it signaling that someone was looking in at me, and intermittent snoring. I lay halfway between sleep and wakefulness, counting the number of times the locks popped and the door banged shut. When I reached eight, the intercom told us good morning.
We gathered our bedding, stepped bleary-eyed from our cells, and piled everything along the bulletproof glass at the front of the pod. Breakfast came. For most, the main item was a breakfast PB & J. For me, and a couple others, it was Butter Bun, along with the apple sauce, Cheerios, powdered milk, and a powdered packet with the plastic cup for a searingly sweet fruit punch drink. Everything, again, had been freeze dried. The Cheerios had an odd, spongy consistency, which wasn’t made any better by the fact that the common faucet only gave hot water to make the powdered milk. The apple sauce was quite nice, much better than the bun, which tasted like saccharine cardboard. I tasted the jelly someone else had, and it was so mind-blowingly sweet, like a Jolly Rancher melted down then stirred into a fructose broth, that I winced. It was grape. I didn’t have an appetite, but I ate the cookie I’d pocketed the night before.
Then we they were collecting cups and garbage and opening the pod door for us. Minutes later, we were filing out into the waiting room with our souvenir mug shots. People said good-bye to their cellmates, wishing them good luck, as if they’d shared something odd and special, then I left.
I got in my car, drove to get coffee, then drove home. At home, I opened several cabinets, the fridge, and several drawers, compiling the components for a salad. It was more doors than I’d opened for myself in a day. I made myself a meal, poured myself a cold glass of soda, and savored my food.
While in jail, my preconceived notions of the world into which I had blithely entered crumbled before the reality of the place. In short, my research, or what I had thought passed as research (movies, TV shows, books), didn’t pass the visceral test of my senses and ring true. There was a value to being there that I hadn’t or I couldn’t glean from another source. The compilation of the place’s minute details were far more than their parts. Without having experienced them firsthand, the world of jail, jailers, and inmates would have remained an abstraction about which I should never have written, a world I otherwise would never has seen truthfully. And all it took was for me too look at an odd opportunity and say yes, not no.