A reflection on the 24 hours I spent as a journalist behind bars
As a journalist, I’ve spent my career focusing on women’s issues. Somewhere along the way, I took an interest in the experiences of women in prison, which eventually became a specialized focus of mine, together with American Indian issues. While looking into overcrowding at the county jail, I decided I needed to experience life behind bars to better understand it.
I worked out an agreement with the county sheriff to be booked and locked up on bogus felony charges- ‘murder’ sounded really exciting – so that I could spend 24 hours as an inmate in the women’s unit. It was a negotiation process that took a couple months, eventually resulting in my signing an agreement not to sue the county if I were beaten, injured or even killed while in custody.
The result was the 24 scariest hours of my journalism career – and perhaps the most eye opening. The time I spent in the women’s unit gave me a look into the system I never would have had if I’d stayed on the outside of those concrete walls. I came away feeling sympathy for the guards, who deal with difficult personalities and struggle to retain their compassion, as well as for the inmates, so many of whom need drug treatment and mental-health intervention that they never receive.
But I also left jail with my imagination firing. And now, a decade later, my experience reporting on prisons and my 24 hours in jail have rolled together to form the research behind Unlawful Contact, the third book in my continuing I-Team series. To celebrate the release of the book, I put together my recollections of staying behind bars from my notes and posted the results – a series of blogs titled, “Goldilocks Goes to Jail” – on my blog. The posts were carried simultaneously on The Good, The Bad and the Unread (goodbadandunread.com), and generated a healthy discussion on the topic of women in prison.
I’ve put the posts together into one long document and offer them here on my Web site.
“Put your toes on the line and look up at the camera.”
Panels flash bright, fluorescent light, then fade.
I’ve already been handcuffed, searched and fingerprinted, and now I follow the guard. The floor is cold on my stocking feet. My shoes have been taken away. In fact, everything I arrived with, except for the clothes I’m wearing, has been taken from me and placed in a black plastic bag with my name on it – earrings, bracelet, lip balm, wallet, pager.
The guard directs me to a small cement-block room called a safety cell, which is equipped with a stainless-steel toilet, sink and shower, as well as a small bench. In the guard’s arms is a stack of jail clothing.
“You’re coming in as a felony arrest, you know,” she says.
I nod. It was my choice – felony or misdemeanor. I have chosen felony, hoping that the additional indignities will help in some small way to make up for the psychological benefit of knowing that I will be leaving in 24 hours. Most inmates have no idea when they’ll be going home again.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” the guard says.
At the moment, neither can I.
Then she switches to a voice that means business. She knows she’s supposed to treat me as she would any other inmate.
“Take off your clothes, turn them inside out, and shake them.”
I do as she says, handing my clothes to her one item at a time until I stand naked on the cold, cement floor.
“Lift your arms. Turn around. OK, face the wall. Now lift your hair and shake it. Let me see behind our ears. Now I need you to squat on the floor facing away from me and cough.”
Cringing, I comply.
“OK, you can get dressed now.” She leaves, locking the door behind her.
I turn and find the small stack of clothes on the bench – white underwear, socks, black tennis shoes, a white T-shirt, loose blue pants and a matching smock. All of the items are numbered, and labeled BCSD JAIL. It’s cold so I dress quickly and am ready by the time the guard unlocks the door again.
“This is your bedding and personal items,” she says, handing me a stack of blankets, a change of underwear, a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste and a plastic ‘spork’ – a utensil that looks like a cross between a fork and a spoon.
She leads me through a labyrinth of hallways – you’d have to know where you were going to find your way out, I realize, imagining inmates thinking of escape – to a heavy red door inset with thick, Plexiglas windows. From behind the door, I hear a cacophony of women’s voices.
My stomach does a flip. Earlier this morning, I signed a waiver drawn up by the county attorney in which I’d agreed not to sue should I be injured or even killed during my stay. I don’t anticipate conflict, but then I’ve never been in jail before. I have no idea what to expect.
“If someone jumps on you, we won’t be there to pull them off right away,” one of the lieutenants warned me earlier.
Though guards monitor the women’s unit from the control station outside, there is not usually a guard in the unit. And because of the overcrowding problem, guards assigned to the women’s module are often called down the hallway to help with male inmates.
The guard unlocks the door. The key is about six inches long, the lock sunk fist-deep into the concrete wall. She opens the door and motions me inside.
“You’re in 17,” she says pointing to my cell – or ‘room,’ as they call them. Room? Who are they kidding? This isn’t the Hilton or some kind of youth hostel. It’s a jail.
But I’m not thinking about that so much as I am the fact that I’m about to spend the next 24 hours locked in the women’s unit with complete strangers, most of them repeat offenders, many of them waiting to be transferred to state prison. My heart is pounding. There’s no spit in my mouth.
I am scared out of my mind.
Behind the red door
“You’re in 17.” The guard points to my cell.
And then the guard is gone.
The door closes with a heavy, steel sound somewhere between a click and a clang. It’s an ominous sound, not a sound you’d associate with anything good.
I stand there in the entryway with my arms full of stuff. The first thing that hits me is the smell – air freshener pumped into air that is anything but fresh, only vaguely masking the odors of so many functioning bodies. Overhead, fluorescent bulbs make a mockery of the thin shaft of daylight coming from an almost opaque skylight, its view of the blue sky marred by bars.
I make my way across the crowded dayroom, a space smaller than the newsroom at my newspaper, to my cell. Inside the vault-like door – no bars – is a nine-by-nine space with a steel shelf that serves as a bed. Above it is a slit of a window about a foot wide and three inches tall that offers a tiny glimpse of the foothills if you’re tall enough to see outside.
Right in front of the door is the toilet, placed where women using it can be seen by any inmate or guard looking her way. I dread having to use it. Next to it is the sink. I drop my pile of stuff on the thin gray plastic pad that serves as a mattress.
My first order of business is getting a drink of water. I’ve had nothing to drink since I ‘self-reported’ for arrest three hours ago and am very thirsty. I leave my cell in search of the drinking fountain. I ask a passing inmate, “Where is the drinking fountain?”
“Drinking fountain?” She laughs at me. “There isn’t one.”
I see two options: get water from the sink in my ‘room’ or get water from the tap at the front of the dayroom. Feeling disoriented and not terribly social at the moment, I opt to avoid the dayroom and head back to my cell.
I push a button and a little trickle of water emerges to dribble down the side of the sink. I think of all the inmates who’ve used this sink, washing their hands, spitting out their toothpaste, and I decide to try the tap in the dayroom instead. Besides, I can’t hide in a cell all day.
In the dayroom, a handful of women are watching Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman on the TV, which sits high above where anyone can get to it on a shelf. Another group sits around a table talking, their voices all but drowning out the TV. Still others sit talking in chairs on the upper level. So many voices in such a small space feels deafening.
I fill a little paper cup and sit down, thinking that I’ll observe and get my bearings that way. I don’t sit for long.
“Your fat ass is in my chair!” shouts a woman who is sitting in another chair – perhaps she lays claim to several – around the table.
She gets up and stomps over to me.
I sit for a minute just to prove to her that I’m not afraid, then slowly stand, shrug and step aside.
“Yes, this is me, and I’m not afraid of you,” I try to say with my body language.
I decide not to point out that her ass is far fatter than mine, and with no place else to sit, go to stand near the sofa, where women sit watching TV.
For a moment, they completely ignore me. Then one looks up and asks, “Why are you here?”
Why am I here? To learn about the experiences of women in jail. But I can’t really say that. So I tell the most unconvincing lie of my life.
“Murder,” I say.
Yeah, I bad. (Hey, if you’re going to do it, go all the way, right?)
Except that I’ve never done this before, and the word –murder- comes out like I’m telling her my astrological sign.
One of the woman’s eyebrows shoots upward in surprise, but her face stays cool. I don’t think she’s impressed.
No one else says anything.
Because that woman is still making eye contact, I pop my first question: “Does this place seem really crowded?”
This – not my murder confession – gets their attention.
They tell me it’s not too crowded today but that there are times when the module is so full that the dayroom is filled with ‘boats’ – plastic beds used as sleeping places when cells are all full to capacity. When that happens, the guards consider placing the women on 23-hour lockdown just to keep order.
I try to imagine spending 23 hours locked with another woman in my cell with one hour a day to shower or walk around. That’s 23 hours of drinking water that dribbles down the side of a sink, of using the toilet with another adult only feet away, of smelling another person’s bodily smells, of mind-bending boredom.
Then a very young woman introduces herself as Marie and tells me that her boyfriend is in Intake, where the men are always on lockdown because there are so many of them. The two have a 5-month-old baby who was taken away by Social Services, she says. Then, fidgeting with her jail wristband, she tells me she is three months pregnant. She hopes to go home after a court hearing today, but she isn’t sure what will happen. The uncertainty is clearly making her very anxious.
She doesn’t tell me why she’s here, but I see that her wristband is yellow, signifying high-risk status. I glean from a few hints that she and her boyfriend beat up on some guy and his girlfriend and that this isn’t her first arrest. She can’t be much more than 20.
The women drift back to watching Dr. Quinn, while I think hard about a little problem I have. In my short conversations with two inmates, I’ve discovered that I stick out like a sore thumb. With most of a master’s degree and years of writing behind me, I have a very different vocabulary. Not only that, but I have all my teeth. I have all my hair. I have healthy skin that isn’t yellow from chronic alcoholism or pale from heroin addiction.
I can’t do anything about the hair or the skin or my teeth. But I can change the way I talk. I need to break the ice somehow, if only to make myself feel more at ease.
Dr. Quinn’s lover, Sully, takes up the screen, and the women give a little moan in unison.
It gets quiet, and I say, “I want to do that man!”
There is a flurry of giggles, and I sense a slight thaw.
Lunch arrives – it’s not yet noon – and women line up single-file to pick up closed meal trays. A cooler full of grape Kool-Aid is put next to the sink under the TV. There is no milk, no fresh ice water. I ask and am told milk is served only with breakfast and supper.
I follow the other women’s lead, giving the guard my name and cell number. My name is checked off a list. I take my tray to a table, sit down and open it. Immediately I lose my appetite. Peas, rice and beans float in brown sauce, looking more like vomit than food. Two slices of salami lie between two pieces of white bread. There are potato chips, a wrinkled apple, salt, pepper and mustard, but no mayo. Calories, but little nutrition.
“What do you think of the food?” asks the woman sitting next to me.
“I think I’ll stick with the potato chips,” I say.
I watch the women eat and trade food. In defiance of racial stereotypes associated with jail and prison, most are white. There are two American Indians, two Latinas and one black woman. Judging by their speech, most seem to have left high school before graduating. I wonder what role economics or lack of education might play in their situation.
“The food makes you fat,” says the woman beside me.
I focus on my potato chips.
Broomsticks and bibles
By the time the lunch trays have been cleared away, the thaw I sensed has frozen over again. Most inmates ignore me, but the one who yelled at me for sitting in her chair – Ms. Fat Bottom – tosses me a few angry glances, her friends doing the same.
While they go back to talking, the TV drones on.
“Shut the fuck up!” one of the TV watchers shouts. “We can’t hear!”
“Fuck you!” one of the women at the table shouts back.
That’s what I like to see – people listening to one another and working together for the common good.
I start to notice things I hadn’t noticed before, perhaps because my adrenaline level has settled down a bit. One of the cells remains closed, a woman periodically looking out the window at the rest of us. Some inmates stay in their cells with the door open, talking. Somewhere, a woman is crying.
Then the woman to whom I confessed my homicidal tendencies jumps up from her spot in front of the TV and begins pacing the dayroom, an angry look on her face, seeming to talk to herself. Actually, she is talking to herself. I hope for her sake that it’s a good conversation.
Then the door to the unit opens and a young woman with long brown hair walks in, her arms full of personal items.
“Hey! I thought you were out of here!” one of the women calls to her.
She laughs. “I thought I was, too. Got picked up last night.”
Squeals go up from a few of the other women, who seem delighted to have their once-free friend back in the pokey with them.
This strikes me as patently absurd, and something of my feelings must show on my face.
“They’re friends,” says an older woman, who appears at my side.
Yeah, I got that part. What I don’t understand is why they’re happy to see her, rather than bummed for her sake.
The older woman, who says her name is Renee, asks me why I’m there.
I give up the murder ploy and, in keeping with my new vocabulary, say, “Just some shit.”
She accepts that and tells me she’s waiting for a spot in the state women’s prison. It seems she’d once been a registered nurse but had gotten in the habit of writing prescriptions for narcotics for herself – a serious felony. She’s already served a couple of years in prison, she tells me. She was out on parole until she tested hot on a UA, a situation she blames on her father, who used to sexually abuse her and who drove her to drink this past Thanksgiving when he showed up at her door. I can tell it’s upsetting for her, and I wonder if that’s why she was taking narcotics.
I listen to her story, walking with her as she makes her way to the upper level. We sit on the floor, looking down at the dayroom below. While she talks, a guard comes in and opens what looks like a broom closet. And inside is, indeed, a broom, but it is padlocked in place.
“Why is the broom locked up?” I ask.
“Broomstick parties,” she answers.
“Broomstick parties?” I’ve never heard the term before.
“That’s where a bunch of women gang up on someone they hate and rape her with the broom handle.”
For a moment I really can’t say anything, the image in my mind so revolting I don’t know what to think. I’ve heard of male inmates assaulting each other, but never female inmates.
“That could kill a woman,” I say when I find my tongue again.
“Yes,” she says, explaining that lifers in prison (this is jail) especially get away with that kind of thing.
I am appalled.
Then from beneath us, a young woman is led forward by two guards. She’s very young and wearing four-piece restraints, her wrists and ankles in shackles.
Before I can ask, Renee tells me that the girl is 17 and that she was brought in on a minor offense, but was now facing several major felonies after going berserk one afternoon and beating the crap out of guard. She was now on lockdown, free to leave her cell for only an hour each day. I think of the cell that was closed and the shadow I saw inside the window and realize that this is the person I saw.
“She jumped on the guard’s back and just started pounding on her,” Renee says.
“Why?” I ask.
“No one knows.”
The young woman looks around, says hi to a few people and is led toward what I now realize is a shower. I stare. The shower is visible to everyone on the upper tier.
The guard leads her through a door that looks like a saloon door in an old Western movie – a door that might as well not be there – unlocks her restraints and then steps aside to give her the four minutes she’s allowed to wash her naked self.
From all around come the sound of catcalls and shouts, as some of the other women gather on the balcony to watch.
“I don’t think I’ll take a shower,” I say, blown away by the sight and sound of women acting like frat boys.
“After a while you don’t mind it,” Renee tells me, laughing at some of the more outrageous calls of “hubba-hubba.”
I look at the broomstick and can’t find it in me to feel amused at all.
The afternoon drifts on. The young woman is now back in her cell, her hour of mobility passed. Then the red door opens again and a guard shouts, “Bible study!”
“What’s that about?” I ask, watching as a handful of women line up near the door, as if they think they’re going somewhere.
“Bible Betty,” Renee tells me. “Let’s go.”
If it means getting a break from the boredom and noise of the women’s unit for a while, I’m all for it.
We head down the stairs and join the line, and soon we’re locked inside what looks like a conference room – a big table surrounded by chairs. But this conference room is surrounded by walls of Plexiglas. The air is fresher and much, much quieter. A nervous tension I hadn’t realized I was holding inside seeps away.
Across the table from me sits a little woman with a strong Texas accent. She welcomes the women by name, then looks at me.
“What’s your name, honey?”
“Pamela,” I say.
“Hi, Pam,” she says. “Pam is here because she wants to learn about God.”
Actually, I’m there because I’m a journalist.
Betty’s hands are gnarled by arthritis. With fingers that can’t straighten, she opens an envelope and begins sorting out crosses made of crocheted string that she herself has made for the inmates. The women, most of whom are in their twenties, squeal with delight.
“Who wanted the pink one?” Betty asks. “What about the blue and white one?”
Soon the crosses are distributed and placed in envelopes with the women’s names on them. Unable to take them back to the unit with them, the women will have to wait until the guards inspect the little crosses before they’re distributed.
A black cross laced with green, blue, yellow and red string is left over. Betty puts in an envelope for me.
She gives the women updates about friends in other facilities.
“Cindy’s doing much better,” she says, referring to a woman who’d recently shot and killed her allegedly abusive husband. I remember the headlines, remember the articles in the newspaper, none of which I’d written. “She’s getting the help she needs.”
The women constantly interrupt Betty and one another, often not even following the train of conversation, their energy strangely frenetic. But nothing seems to irritate Betty. She remains patient and jovial long after I want to shout, “Shut up!”
Then Betty passes out paper and pencils and asks us to outline our hands. Feeling like I’m in first grade again, I do as she asks. Then she tells us to write a reference from the Bible on each finger, distributing various Bible verses written on note cards. As the inmates work on this project, they begin to settle down, some of the tension dissolving into camaraderie. And I realize that they need this time as much to get a respite from one another as they do relief from boredom.
“I know you don’t have a lot while you’re in here,” Betty says as the lesson draws to a close. “But you do have hands. And when you’re sitting around and you see your hands, I want you to pray.”
The thought of human beings reduced to having only hands to divert themselves strikes me suddenly as very tragic. My throat tightens, and I find myself fighting tears. Betty asks us to fill out index cards with the names of people we’d like her to pray for. Pretending to be engrossed in my own handwriting, I blink the tears away and write down the names of my two sons.
Then the lesson is over. Betty gives everyone a hug and tells them she won’t be back for two weeks. The disappointment this brings is palpable. Then the guards lead us back across the hallway and in through the red door again, locking it behind us.
Back in the women’s unit, Marie, the young pregnant woman, is bustling in and out of her cell, getting ready for her hearing. She thinks she’s going to be allowed to go home and is all but telling everyone goodbye. But then I notice that everyone seems to be in a flurry over something. One woman is wearing rollers in her hair. (Foam rollers are available through the commissary, along with some basic forms of make up.) She wears them for a while and then passes them on to another woman, who runs squealing back to her cell.
“What is going on?’ I ask Renee, still my mentor in this bizarre otherworld.
“They’re getting ready for recreation hour,” she says.
I have no idea why an hour in an enclosed gym would make anyone put rollers in her hair, but I don’t say so. Instead, I sit quietly and watch as the women run about, trading contraband pencils, passing out Jolly Rancher candy and generally acting as if they’re about to go on a date.
The No. 2 pencils they use as eyeliner. A coveted red pencil is being used as blush and lip liner. And the Jolly Ranchers? One by one they melt them using paper cups and warm water from the dayroom sink, and then they flick the syrup into their hair using their toothbrushes.
One inmate sees me watching her with what must be an utterly confused look on my face. She explains that the syrup acts as a sort of styling gel.
Then a male guard opens the red door and shouts that it’s time for a shift change and afternoon count. Everyone must be locked down. Women shuffle into their cells, me included, and the doors, controlled by the guards, swing shut and lock with a series of metallic clicks. I imagined that it would be silent in behind all that concrete and steel, but it’s not. I hear women’s voices all around me.
While in the middle of count, a guard announces that when the doors open, anyone who wishes to go to the gym can line up for recreation hour, while anyone who remains in the unit, must stay locked down. Not surprising, most of the women choose recreation.
We line up in the hallway, the women smiling and laughing, the excitement palpable. We start down the zigzag hallway, and soon I understand what the fuss is for. As we pass the kitchen, several dozen male inmates suddenly appear at the windows, big smiles on their faces, their mouths shaping words we can’t hear. But their gestures – hip-thrusting, hands moving up and down at the their crotches in imitation of a hand job, hands squeezing imaginary breasts – say it all.
One woman desperately wants to pass a note to a particular man. She lags behind hoping the guard won’t notice, so that she can tuck the note someplace the male inmate, who is apparently watching, can retrieve it. But the guard isn’t fooled, and, disappointed, the woman is forced back in line.
“As if you’re going to meet Mr. Right in here,” I say.
“You never know,” she says.
“Yes,” I say, “sometimes you do.”
When we reach the gym, which is about half the size of a high school gymnasium, the younger women scatter, running their hands along the edges of mats, looking under the weights, checking beneath the drinking fountain. (A drinking fountain!)
“What are they looking for?” I ask Renee.
“They’re looking for notes. The men are sometimes able to hide them in the equipment,” she says.
I walk laps with Renee for a while, then decide I really need to talk to other women. I join some who are lifting weights. There’s Donna, a mother of five including an infant, who is serving a year for her fifth DUI. This time she got into a car crash with her kids in the vehicle. She was injured, as the bruises on her face attest. Another, Michelle, is serving time for deeds she won’t disclose. She’s American Indian, and very good with a basketball. I can tell she hates being here. Then there’s Cassie, who also has five children, all by different fathers, and who also bears thick scars on her wrists for what could only be multiple suicide attempts. She’s got AIDS, too, as if years in prison (that’s where she’s headed) weren’t enough to contend with. Then there’s Stacy, who’s serving 10 days for having been caught for the third time without car insurance, which she says she can’t afford. She could have gotten off by paying a large fine, but she didn’t have the money for that either.
I look at the wristbands and see a mix of low-risk, medium- and high-risk inmates. Because there are so few women, and the jail is so crowded, there’s no way to separate more violent female inmates from those that are not violent. Stacy, the women busted for not having car insurance, is locked up with women accused of fraud and assault.
Then a fight breaks out over foosball – who would have thought it’s a contact sport? – and a guard has to intervene. Soon it’s time to head back to the unit. Women line up again, and we make our way back down the hallway, past the kitchen where the men gather once again to ogle the women in their colored-pencil, Jolly Rancher glory. Then we’re locked behind the red door.
The afternoon wears on, and tempers flare. A shouting and cussing argument has broken out over who’s being louder, the women talking at the table or the TV.
“Turn that goddamn thing down!”
“We can’t hear anything because you’re making too fucking much noise!”
“Would everybody just shut the fuck up!”
Up on the screen, Vanna is turning letters.
Marie comes back from her hearing in tears. The judge won’t let her out on bond, so she’s stuck here for at least a month. She can’t quit crying, and some of the older women go to comfort her.
Then the guard comes in with the day’s mail. Anger and boredom shifts into another kind of tension, as women gather in an anxious knot to see if they’ve gotten anything today. The guard opens each letter or package and inspects the contents for contraband before passing it on to the recipient. A deck of tarot cards is confiscated along with Ms. Fat Bottom’s book of stamps.
“Why are you taking my stamps?” Ms. Fat Bottom protests. “Why can’t I have my stamps?”
I see another chance to make myself fit in.
“Because it might be blotter,” I say.
“What’s ‘blotter’?” one of the younger women asks.
An older inmate slaps her on the arm. “LSD, stupid!”
Those who didn’t receive mail are visibly disappointed. They feel forgotten, an entire world beyond the walls that didn’t remember them today. Those who did sit to read letters from family and children, huge smiles on their faces. One holds up a Valentine her children made for her. “We love you, Mommy!” it says in bright red crayon. Another has received a couple of new photos and shares those with everyone.
“It must be hard to be away from them,” I say.
She bursts into tears and collapses into a chair.
And then everything changes.
Two new inmates arrive. Word passes quickly that they’re still coming down off of meth and that they were arrested for trying to pass forged money orders in K-Mart. They look angry, and they’re both wearing high-risk wristbands.
For some reason, I attract their notice. I wasn’t watching them; I didn’t try to talk with them. But when I pass by to get a drink of water, one of them slams me in the chest with her shoulder, the look on her face angry and aggressive.
Out of the blue, I remember what I know about mountain lions. If you look them in the eye, they’re more likely to attack. So I refuse to take the bait, acting as if nothing has happened. I get my drink and go back to my seat by a different route.
But that doesn’t stop them.
As I sit talking with some of the inmates about their kids, I see the two meth heads watching me. Adrenaline punches through my system as I wonder what in the world I did to piss them off.
“You need to stay away from them,” Renee whispers.
But I’ve figured that out on my own. And so every time they walk toward me, I manage to be someplace else. When I have to pass them, I’m suddenly too far away to slam into. I don’t make eye contact, pretending never to see them. They are invisible, and so, I hope, am I.
Soon, they’re embroiled in a shoving match with someone else.
A night of screams
“This is still jail,” says one woman while we eat our supper, “but it’s a lot nicer than some jails.”
There are general nods of agreement, and the women begin discussing different jails like most of us might talk about different shopping malls or hair salons or restaurants. Greeley sucks, they agree. So does Arapahoe County. JeffCo isn’t too bad.
I sit and listen and eat my somewhat palatable supper – meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, mixed canned veggies, and chocolate cake served frosting-side down – while they compare notes, and I’m astonished at how many jails and prisons these women can describe. And then comes the revelation: I am the only one in the unit who has never been in jail before.
The one with AIDS spent several years at the California Institute for Women. Renee has served two years in prison and has been in jail again for several months. Even the woman who’s there for failing to have car insurance has served jail time before.
Now I know why I stood out to the meth heads. I must have looked like a deer in the headlights to them.
Soon the woman are talking about which guards they like and which ones they don’t, arguing amongst one another about who treats them like garbage and who sees them as people. Though I haven’t seen any abusive behavior, I’ve noticed that the guards seem to look down on them, an absolute separation from ‘us,’ the law-abiding, and ‘them,’ the inmates. I don’t know what to think about it.
Then the conversation drifts to health care and the women start yelling about a guard who last week supposedly ignored their calls for help when Beth, a young woman who’s no longer there, fell down on the floor and had a grand mall seizure. Standing over her, the guard allegedly watched her twitch and jerk and froth and said, “Nice acting job.” Only hours later, when Beth still lay on the floor, now in her own vomit, did she get medical attention.
Renee turns to me and says, “If you think you might have a headache tomorrow, you’d better order an aspirin now.”
I already know from my pre-‘arrest’ briefing that most medical requests are dealt with via kites. An inmate fills out a kite, and it is reviewed by jail staff. If a true emergency occurs, like a seizure or high fever or some other health crisis, the guards are supposed to evaluate it and respond.
“In jail, there are inconveniences,” one of the jail staff told me.
But lying in your own vomit after having had a seizure isn’t an inconvenience. It’s neglect.
One of the meth heads joins in the conversation.
“I’m not a fucking addict!” she shouts. “When I get out of here, I’m going to sue the county for this! They’re forcing me to take methadone!”
Except that one doesn’t take methadone for meth addiction, and the jail isn’t authorized to distribute it. Someone has apparently not yet come down to earth.
Dinner is over, the trays are taken away and the evening drags on. Supper is followed by card games at the tables and – NYPD Blue, – which, oddly, seems to be everyone’s favorite TV show.
A handful of women take late showers to the sounds of hoots and hollers from women who’ve gone upstairs to watch. One woman indulges them and does a little stripper routing, shaking her bare butt for her viewers.
Then suddenly it’s 11 p.m. and time for lockdown. It happens fast. One minute you’re being bustled into your cell. Then next the door swings shut with loud click – and the fluorescent lights that have blazed all day are shut off.
I feel a sense of relief to be alone. I’m locked behind six inches of steel, no need to watch over my shoulder, no chance that I’ll say something really stupid and get pounded. I lie on my completely uncomfortable steel shelf on my skinny ‘mattress’ pad in the dark and realize how tense I am. Every muscle in my body feels knotted. I breathe deeply, ever conversation I’ve had, every sight, every smell, jammed together in my mind, demanding consideration.
Then I start to drift asleep – but it doesn’t last for long.
Screaming wakes me. It isn’t any kind of screaming I’ve heard before. It’s an insane, animal screaming, and it makes chills skitter down my spine.
I sit up, listen. It’s not a woman’s voice. Then again it doesn’t really sound like a man’s voice. I’ve never heard sounds like that coming from a human throat before.
Yaps, growls, howls, screeches draw together for a moment and form words: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
Then the words fade back into insane, animalistic howling.
I have no clock, no watch, no cell phone, but I lie there in the dark unable to keep from listening as this sound goes on nonstop for hours.
Some male inmates, separated from us by thick concrete walls and steel, take up the screecher’s cause and howl and scream with him. When that doesn’t seem to make enough noise, they begin to pound on their cell doors with their feet, a sound like metallic thunder. And it just doesn’t end.
Around me, I can here women whispering and talking.
No one is sleeping.
Is it like this every night? I have no way of knowing.
I try to sleep, can’t. Some human being has gone off the deep end, and it feels like he’s trying to take everyone in the jail with him. Now profanity has joined the yaps and howls, and it sounds like the jail is haunted by a foul-mouthed poltergeist.
Then I hear two male guards walking along the corridor.
“She’s a journalist,” one says. “You want to see her?”
At the time, it doesn’t dawn on me to think who else might have heard these words. I close my eyes, lie still, wondering if I heard that correctly. Footsteps approach, and I tell myself to stop feeling so jumpy. The last person in the world the guards are going to harm is a working journalist.
A bright flashlight shines through the window in my door and pans me – head to toe and back again. I lie still, pretend to sleep, feeling like a zoo exhibit. And in the darkness by myself it occurs to me how easy it would be for someone to open the door to a woman inmate’s cell and do whatever he wanted to do, particularly if he were in on it with his buddies. I tuck that idea away in my mind.
Apparently, sleeping journalists aren’t all that exciting because within a minute, the two male guards have moved on.
Sometime after 3 AM by my guess, the screaming stops. I wonder if the guy lost his voice or whether they took him down to psych and sedated him. I don’t care as long as he’s quiet, and, exhausted, I fall asleep.
The lights flash on with a metallic whir, fluorescent light jerking me from a restless sleep. A guard enters the women’s unit to say that yesterday’s commissary orders have arrived.
The cells are opened and sleepy women drift down to grab their lip balm, tea bags, soda, stationery, stamps, potato chips, Jolly Ranchers and tampons. (The jail supplies only maxi pads.) I watch them, feeling as if I’ve been hit by a bus. I see the clock in the dayroom. It’s 5 AM.
But the word is out.
“You’re a journalist.”
“Yes.” I wonder if the answer will get my teeth knocked into the next century.
“Why are you here?”
I have everyone’s attention, even the meth heads. “I wanted to know more about what it was like for women behind bars.”
For a moment I worry that they might find that answer patronizing. I don’t mean to turn them into specimens. I just want to understand.
But they seem so astonished that anyone would care that I sense only warmth from them.
Suddenly, they can’t talk fast enough or tell me enough. Abusive boyfriends. Incestuous daddies and uncles. Husbands who drink all their money. Kids they miss, kids they love, kids they may never see again.
The meth heads, who less than 12 hours ago kept trying to pick a fight with me, are now my best friends. The come sit down beside me and tell me a story of Law Enforcement Gone Bad. I wonder if they could see themselves through my eyes what they would think.
Someone takes a precious tea bag, makes me a cup of tea and brings it to me unasked. This tiny gift, given to me by someone who has nothing, touches me deeply. I thank her and sip and listen.
And it hits me as it never has before that each one of these broken women is someone. Many of them have no family who love them. Many have kids who are ashamed of them. But each one of them is someone, and the actions that have defined their lives have led them to this place. Most of them have been in trouble with the law since they were teenage girls, each one of them representing a host of things that went wrong – in their families, in their minds and souls, in our society.
I fight like hell not to cry and just listen.
Then morning count comes and the women are hurried off to their cells. But not me.
“Captain said to get you, ma’am,” a male guard says.
And that’s it.
I grab my bedding and personal items and follow him toward the red door.
“Don’t forget to write about the medical care!” a woman’s shouts as the cell doors slam shut.
“Goodbye!” come several other shouts.
The red door opens, and I am free.
I’m taking to booking, given my belongings and allowed to dress. I slowly put the pieces of myself back together, feeling that I’ve been through an emotional wringer. I hold it together through a meeting with the jail captain, who, by allowing me to be there, has left himself open to media exposure.
I mention Beth and her seizure and he tells me the incident is being investigated, but says that the women cry wolf a lot making it very hard for the staff to distinguish a true emergency from a woman who’s lonely and wants attention and a change of scenery. I can sympathize with that challenge – I believe in my gut he is sincere – and I ask about the screamer.
“Took him down to psych and sedated him.”
I tell the captain I’ll be calling with more questions once I’ve had some sleep. Right now I’m planning to head to the gym to wash the stink of jail off my skin and then in to the newspaper for a day’s work. No sick days today. I’ve got a newsroom to run and several colleagues who probably worried about me all night.
He shakes my hand, tells me he thinks I’m brave and let’s me know that I’m the only journalist to have stayed in his jail as an inmate. I take some perverse pride in this and thank him for watching over me, as I’m sure his guards have done.
Then I pack up my stuff, walk out the front door, and find the mountains bathed in the pink light of sunrise. The snow even seems to glow pink. To me, it looks like hope.
I take a deep breath and walk to my car, the breeze icy. But as I pull out of the parking lot, the weight of the past 24 hours hits me. I think of the women inside – pregnant Marie, Cassie with AIDS, the woman with five kids, Renee, the meth heads. I pull over, stop the car, and let the tears come.