Short Time - A Soccer Mom Goes to Jail
It was still dark when I boarded the Greyhound Bus that would take me to jail. And while I am all for other people using public transportation, deep down I just feel that busses are below me. I don’t know where this snobbery comes from, but I am so above busses. The couple that took the seats across the aisle reinforced my prejudice. She was a skinny white teenager with bad skin and stringy Cloroxed-yellow locks falling from dishwater roots. Her makeup was simple - a thrice over with face powder offset by black liquid eyeliner. Her mate was at least double her age (and weight), but that didn’t keep him from wearing a giant black Stone Cold Austin t-shirt, with a slogan that included the word ASS in glittery capital letters. He was carrying a surprisingly attractive baby called "Bubba", and when he turned and leaned over to pass the baby to its mamma, he shoved a good length of his hairy butt crack directly in front of my face. Just a few moments before, through quiet tears and "I love you"s, I saw a shared hurt in the eyes of my husband and our nine-year-old son, and knew I was the cause of their pain. Right then, with that man’s bare ass only two inches from my face, I felt so low that I knew I deserved to be on that Greyhound Bus.
Seven hours later I got off the bus, walked to a cheap motel, checked in, and then walked to my lawyer’s office. For more than a year he’d been telling me I wouldn’t see jail time. But the week before my court date he changed his tune and told me to prepare for a twenty-one-day sentence. "Not to worry though, because Good Time is one day off for every three days served. Also, when they check you into jail let the guard know you’ve already served a day in jail on this matter and they’ll apply that to your sentence. So, in the end that’s what? Six days off for Good Time and a day already served. Hell that’s only thirteen days. And you may get kicked out early if the jail over crowds. You’ll be out in no time. Now, sign here to indicate you understand the judge can sentence you to up to two years in jail no matter what the DA recommends." I also signed papers saying I was pleading guilty and that I understood all the rights I was giving up by doing so. On the way to court the next morning, my attorney realized he was missing some important paperwork. Never mind, he’d get it from the District Attorney. Except that she didn’t have the paperwork either and sent someone to fetch it. This meant instead of having my shameful situation laid out in front of six people who were, like me, in court for sentencing, I was put off until the next session, where there were more than 50 people waiting to plead not guilty to traffic violations. In front of a packed courtroom, my name is called.
I stand and plead guilty to two felony charges, admitting I had embezzled $22,000 by changing the "Payee" portion on a number of checks coming into my employer. The DA pointed out that on top of that I had conned the banks and police when questions arose, by making them believe I was following directions given to me by my boss, who just happened to be overseas and difficult to contact. When the forgery specialist from the police department showed up unexpectedly at my office wanting to discuss some altered checks the bank had alerted him to, I didn’t bat an eye. My demeanor was so cool under questioning that soon the officer was empathizing with my situation. Just look at me! A suburban Soccer Mom with a part-time job who is only trying to do her boss a favor.... by juggling her funds. What a silly situation. As the cop and I emerge laughing from a private office after twenty minutes, I called out teasingly to my co-workers, "Tell the officer what a nice person I am." Laura and Susan fall over themselves defending my goodness. "Christine?! Oh my gosh, she’s just the sweetest thing." "Christine is wonderful. She’s so good. She would never do anything wrong." They look, because they were, sincerely horrified that anyone could even think I’d done something wrong. My tale too audacious to have been made up. My performance so fine, that nobody bothered to pick up the phone to verify my story. I continued to alter checks for six more months, when I finally stopped myself by leaving the job. The DA recommended 80 hours community service, twenty days in jail, a repayment plan, and two years probation, during which I could not take a job handling other people’s funds. Then it was my lawyer’s turn. In all honesty, I think that I got a very good deal, but still desperately wanted to stay out of jail and had paid my attorney $5,000 to do it. I expected him to explain my mental illness, the fact that I’d brought the theft to my employer’s attention on my own, that I went to the police on my own, got a shrink, etc. Instead, my attorney said, "Well your honor, it’s a strange case because no one knows where the money went. She and her husband were both working, and didn’t need the money. The husband never saw a dime of it and was unaware of her actions. As for the probation, it will be difficult as a felon for her to find new employment. I don’t think it’s fair to further narrow her options by forcing her to find a position that doesn’t require to handle money." What?! The previous afternoon, I sat in his office and heartily endorsed the "no other people’s money" clause. I hoped I wouldn’t take someone else’s money again, but why even have that be an option? The DA got everything she asked for, with the exception that I would be able to handle other people’s money. I was to report to the jail by noon. My lawyer told me to think of my twenty days in jail as a vacation from doing dishes.
Upon my arrest several months ago, I spent 28 hours in jail. With the information I gleaned from my previous stay, I prepared for my adventure as best I could. I deprived myself of rest in hopes of sleeping the first couple of days away. I figured out how much cash I’d need to purchase shampoo, deodorant, and a deck of cards. When you are booked into custody, all monies you have on your person go into an account for you to purchase commissary items. You don’t want to bring too much cash with you because upon release your balance is returned via a check that has PRISONER’S TRUST FUND emblazoned on it. I’d be too mortified to cash it. Commissary is ordered once a week and received four - five days later. If order day is Monday, and you arrive on Tuesday, you’re waiting eleven days for shampoo. I had planned to get my hair cut short before my incarceration but had been too depressed to leave the house long enough to get it done. I took the wires out of my bra so they would let me wear it. I plucked my eyebrows and prayed I’d be able to find the pluck lines when I get out - it took years to get my eyebrows right. I applied several coats of deodorant. I wore the clothes and shoes I wanted to wear on my bus ride home after my release. I chose comfortable socks and planned to tell the officer checking me in that I suffer from athletes’ foot, so she’ll let me keep them. The thought of putting my bare feet in community plastic sandals, even though I’ve just watched them come out of the disinfectant bath with my own eyes, gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’ve got a thing about bare feet anyway, but please.... After my sentencing, I go to a pay phone and let my husband know what happened. I get my period, three weeks late, on my walk to the jail. I arrive in the lobby 34 minutes early, check in with the receptionist and sit down in the lobby. The guard who calls me in seems nice enough even as she rolls here eyes after seeing I have two bags of stuff to be searched and checked in. We step into a small cement room and she tells me to get undressed and put my clothes in a bag. She has me lift my arms and breasts. She looks behind my ears and under my tongue. I bend over, spread my cheeks and cough. The guard then clamors over a cement partition and asks me what size clothes I need. I am issued a pink Hanes t-shirt, granny-style pink Hanes underwear and a patched army green prison outfit. Clothing is exchanged twice a week. She hands me disinfected plastic sandals. I shudder when I put them on even though I have been allowed to keep my socks. I ask if my day served months earlier will apply to my sentence. "Only if the judge specifically ordered that. Your attorney should have taken care of that at sentencing. Too late now." My picture is taken and the photo becomes part of the plastic bracelet around my wrist. My extra clothing is checked in and bagged. The guard begins to go through my purse. In jail, the things you come in with are called your "property". For example, if you and another inmate are being processed out at the same time they may ask you, "Do you have a cigarette on your property?". I brought my birth control and my sanity pills. I ask if I will get my meds during my stay. "It’s a case-by-case basis." I am allowed to write a note to the jail doctor explaining I will get violently ill if I’m pulled off my meds suddenly. We run into the doctor in the processing room and he assures me I can have my drugs. All the paperwork done, I am issued the following items.
1 hand towel to be exchanged twice a week.
1 hotel sized bar of soap
1 Bic razor - ?!
1 black pocket comb (Handy Tip! Break teeth off the comb and insert in tongue piercings to keep them from closing!)
1 tattered rule book
1 thick aqua melamine cup
1 short handled toothbrush and a tiny tube of toothpaste
2 pieces of paper, 2 envelopes and a golf pencil
1 mattress, a kind of lumpy plastic gym mat
1 pillow, a smaller lumpier plastic gym mat
2 hole filled sheets.
I expected to go into a quad cell. A quad cell is a big cement room with a shower off to the side. The room has a wooden bench, bolted to the ground, facing a television that’s bolted to the ceiling. There is a stainless steel table with four stainless steel stools also bolted to the cement floor. The whole front wall is glass, like at the zoo. There are four cells off the main room. Each cell has a bed and a stainless steel toilet and sink. My plan was to keep my head down and read the time away in the room.
Instead of a quad room I’m led to a double. One cement room with a bunk bed, a stainless steel table and stools, and a television. There’s a cubby off to the side with the toilet, sink and shower in plain view. Good things about a double room: Only one personality to live with as opposed to three. There is an actual door with only a small window instead of a whole wall of glass. Bad things about this: No privacy - no room to keep to oneself. Also, the toilet is in plain view of your roommate (or roommates as the jail overcrowds) at all times. I can’t go in front of other people. I’ve spent up to five days in a row at my parents-in-law’s house and never pooped once. But twenty days seems a bit of a push.
The most serious issue in jail is of course The Roommate. What if she’s scary? What if she’s just been pulled away from her crack, alcohol and/or tobacco and wants to take it out on me? Unlike the Loony Bin, where I’ve also been held against my will, county jail doesn’t provide tranquilizers or nicotine patches to its inmates. Suddenly the positive side of the window-as-wall concept becomes apparent.
Lucky for me, one look at my roommate puts me at ease. Her name is Stacy and she smiles as she jumps off her bottom bunk to help me heave my mattress to the top bunk. Stacy is twenty-three years old and is here for a PV (parole violation). She’s been in and out of jail for years due to drug arrests. Her dad is a "chef" (meth cooker) who spent his life in and out of jail. Her single mother, a recovering addict, is a recent born-again Christian who sometimes preaches at the jail. Stacy and her older sister were both born drug addicted. Stacy is the lucky one - her sister is blind. Stacy has pictures of her puppy and her boyfriend by her bunk. The boyfriend is a drug dealer missing a front tooth. There are no photos of her six-year-old son. Stacy’s son spends half his time with his dad and the other half at Stacy’s mother’s house. The boy has been told Mommy is just too busy to see him - he doesn’t know she’s in jail. This ploy might have made sense if Stacy was just in jail for a couple of weeks like me. But Stacy has been in for three months and has three more to go. "My mom says my boy is really mad at me. He doesn’t even ask for me anymore," Stacy cried one night after phoning her mother. I say, "Maybe someone should explain to him that you want to see him, but you’ve been naughty and got a time out. You’ll see him as soon as you can and you won’t be naughty anymore so you won’t be taken away again." "No. Then his dad will figure out I’m in jail and will try to get full custody." Stacy has told me that the boy’s father is drug free and from a loving and supportive family. He has a good job and takes great care of the boy, even sending him to private school. I don’t say so to Stacy but I think the boy would be better off if his daddy got him full time.
There are twenty beds for women in this county jail and Stacy seems to know most of the women in them. She peers out of our window and makes silly faces at her buddies in other cells through the glass. Her friends make silly faces back. She holds up signs, "The Simpsons are on channel 13", "Is there an AA meeting tonight?", "Who’s coming to visit you this week?" Stacy says she liked jail the first few times she was here. It was never longer than a couple of weeks and she got to see all of her friends. I tell Stacy I am taking copious mental notes because this experience is so foreign to my social group that my friends are curious to know what it’s like. She ponders this. "Jail’s not a bad place. It’s just a place to hang out for awhile. There’s nothing wrong with being here." She tells me about her friends and why they’re here. "This one buddy of mine upstairs is going away for a long time. He was out on probation and he cut this guy’s tongue off. He’d cut someone’s tongue off before, but he gave the tongue back so the guy could get it stitched back on. But this time he wouldn’t give the tongue back. Fuck, he made his point, give the tongue back. The guy deserved it though, he was always talking shit about people. You should hear him try to talk shit now - can’t do it without a tongue can he?" Even though I am wincing at the story, the comment makes me laugh. Stacy has a speech impediment herself. She sounds like Gilda Radner doing Babwa Wawa. Even her most squalid stories have a child-like quality to them. ("One time when my giwlfwiend and me stayed awake thiwty-thwee days stwaight on cwack.....")
The first four days are just me and Stacy. I was hoping I could stick my head in a book and read some time away, but unfortunately I arrived on a Wednesday and library day was Tuesday. Stacy offers me her library books, Women Who Love Too Much, The Baby Trap, and two new aged versions of the Bible. No, thank you. The television is allowed to be on from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., but this is really Stacy’s room, I’m just a visitor, and she has her television schedule pretty well mapped out. It consists of a lot of reality television - Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Cops, all the judge shows, America’s Most Wanted - sprinkled with sitcoms like Who’s The Boss?, The Nanny and Three’s Company. With nothing to read and mind-numbing television I try to sleep. No luck there either. I am getting bruises on my hip bones from laying on my hard bed. I spend the first two nights on the top bunk. But the bunks are metal, and there are no rungs to help me up. I’m five foot, two inches and have no upper body strength, so getting up to the top is a bitch. After the first night, I have bruises on the inside of my thighs and all over my shins from pulling myself up over the metal bar at the top. On the third day, I give it up and pull my mat to the cement floor and sleep there. Aside from hand washing my t-shirt and socks everyday, and tending to a messy period armed with nothing other than generic brand maxi-pads, only the jail schedule interrupts the monotony.
7:00 a.m. Overhead lights are turned on.
7:05 a.m. Door is opened and cleaning bucket on wheels with cleaning supplies balanced on top is rolled in from outside and door is shut.
7:30 a.m. Beds must be made. You may lay under a sheet, but you must be on top of the wool blanket, between 7:30 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.
7:30 a.m. Breakfast is served through a slot in the door. More on jail food later.
8:00 a.m. Medications are served through a slot in the door.
11:30 a.m. Lunch is served through a slot in the door.
5:00 p.m. Dinner is served through a slot in the door.
11:00 pm. Overhead lights are turned out.
There are outings as well - AA and NA meetings, visitors and library once a week, recreation and church twice a week. I skip all offered outings for a few moments of private bathroom time. Stacy gets out of the cell as often as she can. She applies makeup for her outings. Since makeup is contraband, she’s forced to be creative. Stacy scoffs at the amateurs who use Skittles candies (ordered via commissary) for makeup. Red Skittles for lipstick, purple for blush, green for eyeshadow, won't due for Stacy. She takes her golf pencil and rubs the lead furiously on the rough cement cell walls, and then rims her eyelids with the lead dust stuck to the pencil’s point. She carefully smears a bit of toothpaste on a lipstick ad she’s ripped from a magazine and transfers the color from the magazine lips to her own. She does the same with blush and eyeshadow advertisements. The results are surprisingly good, especially considering she’s done it all in front of a streaked plastic mirror which reflects a yellow, wavy image. She has to be careful - if the guards catch her wearing makeup she can lose any Good Time she’s earned, as well as her visiting privileges. Someone gets sent back to her cell every visiting day due to obvious Skittle face.
Stacy is a fount of jail information. In her Babwa Wawa accent she tells me how to make wine out of bread, orange rinds and sugar. How to smuggle in crank. How to empty the toilet water so you can talk to people above you through the pipes. Stacy informs me that Good Time is not one day off for every three served, like my attorney said, it is one day off for every ten days served. You have to be a Trusty (say: trust-tee) to get the 1:3 ration. Trustys wear white clothes and do the prison laundry and cleaning eight hours a day. They earn $2 a day as well as earning Good Time. I "kite out" (shove a note under the door for the guards) everyday asking to be a Trusty, but my kites are ignored.
I don’t write letters home because you have to include your name and Jackson County Jail in the return address, and I don’t want my mailman to know I’m in jail. A phone is brought to our cell once a day and we are allowed to make collect calls (phone cards won’t work). When the person you’re calling answers the phone, they are informed they are receiving a collect call from the county jail. I call my husband after I settle in. I know he is distressed over my situation, but I am not thinking about his hardships, I am feeling sorry for myself when I call. I tell him how awful it is and wait for his comforting words. "Good!" he says. "I’m glad you’re miserable. Don’t disappear in your head Christine. Experience this. Use this experience to deter you from doing wrong in the future. I love you Christine, but I don’t feel sorry for you. I am pissed that you are not here. I’m stressed out, working full-time, as well as doing the parenting and housekeeping without help. I am also dealing with an emotionally raw, insecure child. Now, I’m going to put him on the phone, you’re going to smile through your tears and reassure him." I call home every other day. The first few calls are more of the same. My husband is angry at the situation I’ve created. He can’t vent at our son. He can’t discuss it with his friends or family because they don’t know I’m in jail. My friends and family know, but they are more concerned with my situation than with his. The tone of the calls softens after the first week. He still tells me I deserve to be where I am and need to learn from the experience, but mostly he tells me he loves me unconditionally, and that my little family can’t wait to have me home where I belong.
On my fifth day in jail, Stacy goes to church and I am enjoying a private shower when the door opens. It is a large, hard-looking woman, suffering from the shakes. She is easily six feet tall and has used her few remaining teeth to gnaw her chipped red nails to the quick. She’s been here before and knows the drill. When Stacy returns to the cell she immediately recognizes a fellow crank-head by the shaking.
"How long since you’ve slept?" asks Stacy.
"About nine days."
"Yeah, sometimes it’s good to come to jail just so you can get some sleep."
"I just wish I knew where my kids are. My old man and I were busted together and I don’t know whose got my kids."
The next morning I wake up and, after a moment, remember that it is my birthday. I am turning thirty-five in jail. How did I ever get here? This is not supposed to be where my life went. My depression lifts momentarily when I hear that the jail is overcrowded. I overhear the guards say my name and I’m hopeful I’ll be let out early. The perfect birthday gift for every inmate - Early Release. My roommates tell me I’ll never get out so early. They’ll ship me to the jail in the next town. It’s for people who have been sentenced and are serving less than a year’s time. Most of the women I’m with now are drunks and druggies waiting for their court dates. A guard comes to our door and barks my name. "Roll it up! You’re moving!" My heart sinks. I gather my stuff, say my goodbyes to Stacy and the new girl and go stand by the door. It opens with a loud buzz and I’m led down a long hall. I put my bedding down and turn over my razor, bedding, etc. I enter a room full of male inmates. There is one other female inmate in there as well. Her name is Theresa and she is flirting shamelessly with the male prisoners and guards. I am handcuffed and connected to the other inmates by a chain around my waist. I tell a guard that I have an extra bag in storage and ask if it will follow me. They’ll send it if they can find it. We are herded onto a van. There is a fence in the van that separates the men from the women. I cry quietly. I have no idea where I’m going or what I’ll find there. We drive for twenty minutes, Theresa happily chatting with the men in the back of the van the whole time, and end up at what’s called the Work Center.
The Work Center
We are herded back off the bus and told to grab one of the garbage bags piled up on the wet ground. They are filled with our Property, which has followed us from County. I pick up one that smells of sour beer and stale cigarette smoke. There is one extra bag - which means both my bags made it over. Theresa and I are taken into a small cement room. As we get undressed I noticed Theresa’s right breast has a tattoo of Daisy Duck on her knees giving Mickey Mouse a blow job. The guard processing us, Marge, is short and pudgy. Her ugly brown uniform, with its thick belt, bulging pockets, and flat black shoes wouldn’t flatter anyone. I don’t understand why some people choose to work in this sad, angry environment, but I’m telling you, no matter what the perks of being a jail guard are, they can’t make up for the uniform. Marge has a short, tightly curled permanent. She wears no makeup but is drowning in fake Obsession perfume, the kind that comes in an aerosol can. I ask her questions while I’m getting undressed. Will I be working here at the Work Center? Will I go to the 3:1 ratio for Good Time off? No. The Work Center is only a portion of the jail - not my portion. Can I be a Trusty here? I can put my name on the list but with all the inmates here being long-timers it will be a couple of months before there’s an opening. "Come on," Marge barks, "you can do better than that!" I have not pulled my butt cheeks apart far enough for her to get a good look. "Sorry." I say, bending over again as tears fall off the end of my nose and splash onto the cement floor. We are issued blue clothes (including a luxury item - an XL t-shirt to sleep in), a razor, bedding, etc. After putting on another pair of plastic sandals I am taken to my new home.
This place, called The Pod, is totally different from the last. It is a giant, cement, two-level room that houses twenty-one women. There are two toilets and two showers on each side of the room. They are underneath cement stairways, but still in plain view of everyone. The second story houses ten metal bunk beds and juts out halfway above the first. Each bottom bunk has two metal drawers underneath it for our personal items. There is a single bed on the main floor. There is a television mounted on the wall underneath the second story. There are six plastic tables scattered around the room and plastic chairs stacked to the sides. The two-story front wall is a two-way mirror. There are several cameras monitoring the room. It is not so bad being watched when you can’t see the people watching you. I put my bedding on a top bunk. A Trusty comes over in her white uniform. Her name is Ellen and she’s the "House Mouse". She earns her two dollars a day cleaning our toilets and mopping the floors. She’s also the Pod Mediator. If I have a problem with any of the other girls, I’m to go to her before the deputies. She goes over the rules with me, but the most important thing Ellen tells me is that I can go to COG (a cognitive skills class) and get the 3:1 Good Time ratio. Sign me up!
The first thing I notice about the jail population is that, with the exception of one Mexican, everybody is white. There are only a dozen or so black people in the local community, but a lot of Mexicans live around here. I’m surprised my 1/4 Mexican ass is the second most ethnic in here. The second thing I notice is, a good third of these women are obese. I don’t even know how this can be because JAIL FOOD IS INCREDIBLY BAD.
Here is the scoop (and a lot of it is served by the scoop) on jail food. First off, every meal is served on a tin cafeteria tray and eaten with a spork. The bowls, sporks, and cup I was issued upon arrival are all formed from the same 1970-something aqua colored thick melamine. Trays must be emptied before we give them back. When I roomed with Stacy, we dumped everything down the toilet. At the Work Center, there are large buckets made available in which to scrape our food. The male prison population prepares the food so even if the food was appetizing, I don’t know that I would eat it. The male prisoners I’ve seen don’t look clean. Breakfast at the Work Center is served at 5:30 a.m. The fake scrambled eggs are a neon yellow color. Grayish breakfast gravy is served once or twice a week. Lunch is always last night’s dinner. The kitchen has added water and now it’s called soup. On Fridays, fish night, they serve creamed fish with peas on top of gluey egg noodles. Saturday’s lunch: a bowl of creamed-fish-with-peas-on-top-of-gluey-egg-noodles-and-hot-water soup. Salt and pepper are available through the commissary in tiny two-cent packets. Sometimes a sandwich comes with the soup. There is the occasional Unidentifiable Meat Mixture sandwich, but most often the sandwiches are peanut butter and jelly. Smack in the center, between one slice of white and one slice of wheat bread is a 2" x 2" glob of purple-gray goo. The goo is a mixture of peanut butter and "jelly". This "jelly" sometimes comes on the breakfast trays where it jiggles and shimmers with a kind of eerie glow. It doesn’t come from fruit. It is (I’m sure a generic brand of) Kool-Aid with Sure-Jell. Kool-Aid comes with every meal. It’s called juice when served with breakfast, but they’re not fooling anyone. After you get your food tray, you hold your plastic cup under one of two labeled spouts. In the mornings the labels read "Milk" and "Juice". At lunch and dinner, the choices are "Purple" and "Blue". I stick to water. Sometimes, not one of the twenty women I live with can tell me what the food is even trying to be. Mostly, it is out-dated food from grocery stores. The dinner rolls have a moldy greenish fuzz. Fruit is served frequently, but it is way past its prime and edible only half the time. Big cookies are served every few days and they’re good. I live on the cookies, any edible fruit, and the packets of stale soda crackers that come with the soup.
Life in The Pod
My first meal in The Pod was lunch. I took my tray and sat at an empty table. Ellen sits across from me. Then another woman comes and stands at my chair.
"It’s okay, she didn’t know." says Ellen.
"Am I in your place? I can move. I’m sorry." I sputter
After a few deep breaths the woman by my chair says, "No, I’ll be okay. I’ll pull another chair up. I’m Michelle." Ellen and Michelle each take one of my hands, bow their heads and start to pray over their food. From then on I get in the back of the line so I will be the last to sit down and won’t make that faux pas again.
The florescent light three feet above my bunk is switched on at 5:30 a.m. sharp. A big galoot of a guard named Ray bangs his keys noisily as he opens the door. Ray sticks his head in the Pod and bellows, "Breakfast!" Half the girls get up to eat. The other half sleep, covering their faces with their scratchy wool blankets to escape the lights. I peek over the rail to see if they are serving fruit. If they are, I change from my nightshirt to my blues, don my plastic sandals, and get in line downstairs. I take my fruit and offer up the rest of my food to the others, before dumping it into the bucket by the door and stacking my tray. I pee in front of the eight to ten women eating their breakfasts and go back to bed. Most of the Trustys head out for a day of laundry and mending leaving Ellen the "House Mouse" to start mopping up downstairs. At 6:30 a.m. Ray comes back into the cell and barks, "Meds! Bring your water!" Fourteen of us gather downstairs. We all hold identical plastic cups. Some of the cups are decorated with Dole banana stickers to make them easier to identify. The jail doctor pushes his cart into the doorway and calls us up by name. He hands out tranquilizers, anti-depressants, birth control pills, and Anabuse. Jane gets methadone.
Jane has been a heroin addict for years. Her boyfriend, Ed, is on the men’s side of the jail. Jane has written "I (heart) Ed" and "Jane + Ed 4 Ever" on her white tennis shoes. (Commissary price $17.50. Velcro, no laces.) Jane looks forty-six, but with heroin users it’s hard to tell, she could be twenty-four. She has wiry feathered brown hair that falls to her shoulders. Her face is sunken and her eyes look like they’re set way back in the hollows of her skull. Jane is suffering from a miserable toothache and holds her jaw all day. She won’t see the jail dentist because she would have to foot the bill. The jail deducts 50% of any funds put on your books until the bill is paid off. Jane only has a couple of weeks left here but is thinking ahead. "Fuck man, I don’t want to have to pay off a dental bill next time I’m in here. I’ll be back on welfare when I get out and can see a dentist for free. Shit, this ain’t nothin’. I already got one tooth on my property. It came out the first month I was here. It’s got screws in it and shit." One night Jane tells a story about the time she had just shot up and was giving Ed a blow job. The next thing she remembers, "I wake up with my head in some strange guy’s lap. I got his fucking nasty balls in my mouth, and pube marks on my face from sleeping on his dick for so long." Good Lord. "Jane," I say, "That story should be used for anti-heroin public service announcements all over the country."
After the morning drugs are passed out I go back to bed. This time I lay on top of my blanket and under a sheet. At 7:00 a.m. a guard comes in, climbs the stairs and makes sure no one is still under their blanket. Someone somewhere cranks the upstairs heat. Soon the bunk area feels like Bakersfield in August. It is so hot my commissary Chapstick melts. My nostrils turn into a patchwork of painful scratches and scabs due to the arid environment. The women who sleep all day coat their nostrils with Neosporin to avoid serious damage. I’m usually forced downstairs by 7:30. I shower every morning and notice a lot of these women have tattoos on their boobs. You can tell who has top bunks by the bruises on their legs. If I have a saved cookie or piece of fruit I have it with water for breakfast. I try to drink water all day to fight the dry air. At home I only drink filtered water. In jail I have to stand next to a woman on the pot while I fill my plastic cup from the bathroom tap. After breakfast we all try to kill some time. The television is reserved for months in advance. During the day it’s turned to soaps and court shows. At night it’s reality shows. There’s an ongoing card game at one table. A woman named Debi sits alone and draws amazingly detailed fantasy scenes, which she trades for four candy bars a piece. For six candy bars she’ll draw elaborate hearts with your old man’s name inside. Again, I’ve arrived just after library day, but there are some books scattered around. I pass on Chicken Soup for the Soul and AA for Inmates, and settle on a Danielle Steele book. When I finally do get to the jail library I choose some heartier fare: The Wives of Henry VIII, and works by P.C. James and Toni Morrison. I find it impossible to give these books the attention they require, while maintaining the heightened sense of awareness I need to feel safe here. So I go back to Danielle Steele, who turns out to be perfect for jail. I can escape into her well-written fluff and stay on high alert at the same time.
The COG classes are held weekday mornings. We line up and are escorted to the library for class. The instructor, Tammy, is a beleaguered, pear-shaped woman in her mid-twenties. She is friendly and personal with the inmates, and you can see the toll that has taken on her. Her eyes are tired and they look older than they are. The library has glass walls. When the men are paraded by on occasion, Tammy shouts in exasperation, "Do not look at the men! Keep your eyes on your work! Stop looking at the men! For God’s sake ladies please! Jail is not the place to look for a boyfriend!" Each day we sit down at long tables and she asks how things are going. She commiserates a bit and then we do the day’s activity. When Tammy is tired, class consists of a movie. "Pay attention to the importance of the female friendships." she says putting a copy of Steel Magnolias in the VCR. Sometimes she is excited about a new activity she picked up at some workshop. "I’ve written down a bunch of titles and am going to tape them to your backs. People will read your back and treat you accordingly. You try to guess what you are." Someone reads my back and asks me, "Can I take out a loan?" Gee, am I a banker? There is a rapist, drug dealer and murderer as well. After we’ve made our guesses we have a discussion about how people’s perceptions of us affect our lives. There is much talk about the erroneous and hurtful perceptions of felons and convicts. Tammy says that everyone is a human being and should be respected as such. To emphasize this point she asks, "Who here knows a murderer?" I count eight raised hands. "Now, you know that murderers aren’t scary people. They’re just people. Sometimes things happen." I’m waiting for more, a caveat re: murderers, but that’s the end of the conversation. Tammy seems satisfied with herself and moved on to assigning homework. Each of us is to fill a page on things we like about ourselves. The women groan, "That’s impossible!", "Will we still get our time off if we can’t do a whole page?", "I hope we can write big and skip lines.", "There’s no way I can do a whole page." We are escorted back to the Pod in time for lunch.
I pretty much keep my head down and stay by myself, but one day after lunch Anna decides to befriend me. Anna is about my age, with dark hair, ruddy olive skin and a raspy voice. She’s doing ten days on a PV for violating a no contact order with her husband after he got arrested. Anna is ON EDGE. She is going through heavy meth and nicotine withdrawal. She paces. She sits down at my table and begins to speak rapid fire...
"Fuck, I can’t believe I’m in here. My poor dog man. She’s the sweetest thing, she just loves me so much. I got her from some niggers for some crank a couple of years ago. She wears an eye patch and someone has to empty her bladder. It’s not that hard. You just have to hold her up and push on her sides like this. Fuck! Who’s gonna empty her bladder? How much time is my old man gonna get do you think? He’ll get at least fifteen years don’t you think? God, who’s taking care of my dog? I can’t believe my old man is gonna do so much time. He must be freaking out. How much time will he get do you think?"
"What did he do?" I ask.
"He was babysitting some kids and he tied them up with duct tape and put a mattress on top of them."
"I hope he gets at least fifteen years."
"God!" she exclaims with indignation, "Why is everyone judging him?" Anna takes a drink from my cup. My germ alarm goes off. What is she doing drinking from my cup!? Why is she touching my cup!? I don’t say anything just spray it with disinfectant when she’s left the table.
The long-timers here do not like Anna. I would never complain about this place to someone who has ten months left, but Anna never shuts up. She constantly bemoans the fact that she has to stay in this hell hole for ten days. Time is a very sensitive issue in jail. In The Pod, the majority of the women are there for six months to a year. They watch wave after wave of short-timers like me go home before they get to. They really don’t want to hear your bitching. Everybody says it’s best not to think about your time - it will drive you crazy. But everyday, alone or in groups, they pull out their handmade calendars. They figure in how many days they’ll get off if they become Trustys by a certain date. They consider each possible factor and add and re-add the numbers. I do too. One way I work the numbers shows my release date on a Sunday. They don’t release on the weekends, so would that put me out on a Friday? But, will they take my COG days away from the Sunday release date, or Friday’s date? I sit down on my bunk and rework the numbers.
Three o’clock in the afternoon is recreation time. A door opens right off the cell into a caged 20' x 30' concrete slab. There is a bent basketball hoop with no net, some flat balls, and a sagging ping-pong table. There is a rack of different sized tennis shoes with a can of disinfectant spray nearby. Women hang on the fence and look out at the highway. Some walk around the perimeter of the slab. Some shoot hoops with the flat balls. Some just sit in the fresh air. Half an hour of natural light and we’re shuttled back inside to wait for dinner.
When Taco Night arrives, my diet of cookies and rotten fruit has left me craving protein and I am determined to eat dinner. I get my tray. A loose scoop of ground meat floats in a pool of orange grease. The lettuce is dry and crunchy on top, and baked to the tray on the bottom. White cheese has melted and taken on the shape section of the tray. I want to cry. I pull the sweaty trapezoid of cheese out of its mold and take a nibble. I can’t attempt the meat, but there are lots of takers and someone trades me for their corn.
After dinner we draw our chairs into a circle for the nightly Pod meeting. Ellen, the mediator, begins. She holds a piece of paper with two columns of emotions. "I’m Ellen, and I feel," pause to scan the list of words, "sad and lonely." She passes the paper. "I’m Susan, and I feel... angry." "I’m Joanne and I miss my children." Aside from these meetings, children aren’t talked about much here. Most of these women are mothers who have lost custody of their children. There is only one inmate, aside from me, whose child will still be there when she gets home. After everyone in the circle has expressed her feelings with a word or two from the list, the mediator goes back to touch bases with the obviously distressed. The angry women are encouraged to talk to defuse the situation before it boils over and Pod privileges are lost. There are complaints about the noise level while they’re on the phone or trying to sleep. And there are missing commissary items. Who would have guessed there would be thieves in jail? Sometimes things get heated and I always look at Penny when they do. Penny just turned eighteen and looks like Pippi Longstocking, all elbows and freckles and bright orange hair. She is doing a year for planning a botched robbery at an espresso stand two years ago. Penny is such a little girl, she checks out "Chose Your Own Adventure" books at the library. When the words start flying, Penny’s eyes get wide as saucers and her mouth forms a perfect circle. Her hand goes over her mouth in disbelief and soon she’s laughing uncontrollably. These childless mothers have taken Penny under their collective wing and their fondness for her prompts them to laugh too. There is genuine concern and empathy for each other at these meetings. Women hug each other and offer encouragement. Some make promises to help each other stay clean and sober when they get out. It kind of reminds me of my Women’s Studies discussion groups in college.
After everyone’s emotional wounds have been tended to, it’s time to get down to Pod business. First the House Mouse speaks. Among the highlights (lowlights), "Wrap up your pads and tampons before you throw them away." "Don’t leave skid marks on the toilet seats." "Don’t blow your nose in the shower, there are boogers all over the walls." Then the Laundry Trusty stands to speak. "Someone has a nasty yeast infection. See the doctor while it’s free. In the meantime wear a fucking pad, I don’t want to touch that nasty green shit." Meeting adjourned. The women spend the rest of the evening playing cards, watching television, writing letters, talking on the phone and drinking commissary instant coffee.
Lights are out at 11:00 p.m. There are three or four women who suffer from intestinal problems. Farts have waked me up in the night. During the day the stench will clear a whole floor. Some of the women carry on like third grade boys. There are giggles and laughs and running around shouting about the smell. Just when the place settles down someone makes a loud farting sound starting the mayhem all over again. It seems to never get old. The farting I can ignore - I sleep with my t-shirt pulled up over my nose. It’s the night talking that gets me. There are whimpers and moans throughout the night. I hear, "No Daddy, don’t make me," and other things that make me pull my knees to my chest and hold myself tight. The woman in the bunk below me tosses and turns. Every night she pleads with someone named Paul to let her go. Every night I jump down from my bunk and shake her gently until she wakes up, happy and relieved to be safe in jail.
The days drag on, each longer than the last, and after two weeks they all seem to run together. I read at least one Danielle Steele novel a day, glad the woman was so prolific. I take comfort from being in the homestretch. Then, unexpectedly, while on a fifteen minute break from COG, I hear Ray shout my name. "Roll it up!" he yells. I’m being kicked early do to overcrowding. I give away my playing cards, deodorant, shampoo and wireless bra. In a small cement room I turn in my cup, razor and rule book. I change into my street clothes and hurl my plastic sandals into a vat of disinfectant. I’m issued a check for $3.29 and congratulate myself on my estimating skills. I have no cash and I am 297 miles away from home. I’m issued a bus token and sent on my way. I call my husband from the lobby. I walk to the highway and wait for the bus. By the time I’ve made it back to the county courthouse and completed my exit paperwork, my husband is there waiting for me, arms open wide. I climb into the truck, put my head on his lap, and he pets my hair the whole way home.
follow me @ open.salon.com/blog/a_girl_named_michael