Saturday, October 18, 2008

County Jail

And now for something completely different...

Since my life is currently exceedingly uninteresting (thank you God!!), I am falling back on past writing.

This is an essay I wrote two years ago while I was in graduate school (be prepared, it's a little long):

Outside, there was the illusion of the Emerald City, lit and sparkling in the dark. Oz with barbed wire. Our graduate class in Research was here for a tour. We would be writing observations and then adding personal commentary, prior to applying the data to research projects on prisoner’s rights. Most of us, ranging in age from early twenties to early fifties, had never been in a jail before. Either as visitors or residents.

I expected it to be cold inside. And it was, briefly, in some spots. But mostly it was suffocatingly warm. It has the initial, off-kilter atmosphere of institutions that run 24 hours a day: remnants of meals being eaten at odd hours, a whiff of cedar from somewhere, aftershave when you don’t expect it. At one point, for only a few seconds, an inmate passed with a barrel full of wet mop heads and there was the sour smell of cleaning fluid and dirty water. Otherwise the air was innocuous. We would be told, numerous times, that the Sheriff was very proud of the smell, or lack thereof. He frequently reminded us that this was thanks to his innovations and general excellence.

The visitor orientation was meticulously managed and we observers were as carefully watched as we were watching. Perhaps even more so. In a large, utilitarian, ersatz courtroom, students’ faces were studied by five men. Each one of them had a clearly defined role. The guards postured aggressively. Our initial greeter, the Undersheriff, was smooth and impeccably dressed. The Lieutenant gave a practiced speech. The Captain seemed uncomfortable, either about speaking in front of a group or because his suit and shirt were two sizes too small. For whatever reason, he appeared less than happy about visitors.

I could not have anticipated that I would ever contemplate using the phrase “I wanted to puke” in any assignment for graduate school. However, that was my frequent sense while we were being treated to this performance.

The Undersheriff was a small, natty man who looked something like Ed Sullivan. I actually even wondered, looking at him closely, if he was wearing makeup. He efficiently rattled off statistics advising us the jail, between volume and revenue, was one of the biggest corporations in the County. At first, for about 2 minutes, I was impressed by the smooth and professional presentation. Then I realized that before our eyes an extraordinary PR juggernaut had begun to roll.

The theatrical build up as each official was put forward to give his spiel was unintentionally hilarious. The Undersheriff introduced the Sheriff so effusively that if he had been introducing God Almighty Himself, I still would have thought he was little over the top. The only things missing were drum rolls and strobe lights.

The officials’ poses demonstrated an almost cartoon-like aggression, a complete waste of energy for the majority of the credulous and benign graduate students they had in front of them. The Sheriff was articulate and has the mannerisms of a movie Mafia Don. His favorite words were “I” and “me”. I knew we were observing major ego issues when the Sheriff proudly regaled us with tales of all the celebrities he had “worked” with at the jail, ticking them off on his fingers like virtual trophies.

Blustering emphasis on improvements, advances, humane treatment, concern, money saving, money earning. We were frequently told what we would see. Or what we were being ordered to see? Subtle suggestions? Not so subtle suggestions? A great deal of testosterone and self-congratulation throbbed through the air.

I kept wondering who they thought we were that they had to sell us such a bill of goods regarding their beneficence and exemplary management. We were a bunch of goofy grad students for Pete’s sake!

Our tour commenced.

Impressions of pipes, cinder blocks, purely functional industrial fixtures, gouged layers of heavily waxed linoleum. Bleak fluorescent light flickering. The sound of doors slamming over and over and over again.

We were corralled through dingy corridors and down dark stairs to the booking area, which is incongruously painted in salmon and teal. Alongside state of the art fingerprint identification technology sits an ancient, battered, wooden fingerprinting stand. Plastic chairs, metal desks. Buzzers, doors, doors and more doors. Painfully young new inmates stared at us through glass. Boxes of latex gloves sat on a desk, a reminder of rampant HIV and hepatitis. No other Universal Precaution interventions, such as masks, were noted, despite a recent upswing of tuberculosis.

There were no clocks anywhere. Except in the Control Room. Right above the shotguns holstered to the wall. Endless barren halls, battered, pock marked floors, mirrors mounted to reveal hidden corners around a chimney. And then, the prisoners.

Could there be a more hopeless sound than a metal door closing irrevocably on your freedom? I could not bring myself to do anything more than glance at the inmates. It seemed the most obnoxious invasion of privacy to gaze at them as if they were animals in a zoo instead of respecting the fact that they were human beings at their most vulnerable. Before we entered the common area they were chased back away from us, not unlike a lion tamer beats back the beasts at the circus. This, it was emphasized, was for our safety.

The pods in the jail are three tiered and color-coded. Each has an individual gym and a shared outdoor exercise space, perhaps 20 by 30 feet. The cells have metal doors with glass windows. Meager mats cover stainless steel bunks. Chips of paint and stains from dried fluids dappled the floors.

Some inmates ignored the visitors entirely, continuing to watch TV, lie in bed or talk on the multiple payphones. Others taunted and jeered. And there were those who simply stared.

I had the absurd impression of the movie set from Jailhouse Rock and half expected Elvis to slide down one of the metal poles. The way the evening was orchestrated, I would not have been one bit surprised if the prisoners had formed a chorus line and burst into song.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a state of delirious happiness in every aspect of your life, and possibly even having magical powers, and 10 being a slow, painful death, jail would have to be a 9. So the incongruous absurdity of being cheerfully ushered into the guard’s dining room for cookies and drinks at the end of the tour was especially offensive.

And then receiving “gifts”, like kindergarteners after visiting the firehouse?! It defies imagination to think what people do with the things they handed out, which included a Monmouth County Sheriff Department patch. It was a farcical touch that befitted a Saturday Night Live sketch.

I can’t help feeling anybody who thinks they are that wonderful is heading for a fall. Because there but for the grace of God goes any of us.

And so we headed back to our lives and academics. We left behind a desolate stronghold and two unique populations, one smugly superior and one grounded in defeat.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Thanks a lot Marie. Your words drew me right along with you. Just where I wanted to be this morning -- in jail with you and all those thugs! ;)

(Great post)

Bimmy the Bookish said...

Oh, what area of work are you in to be doing this for an assignment Marie?
your despcription of the smell took me right back -
Just over ten years ago I worked as a prison officer in a men's prison. No matter how much they cleaned the place, it always smelled of sweaty trainers and overboiled cabbage. not that we ever had any boiled cabbage being cooked, but there is that pervasive institutional smell, as you so rightly say.
The regime where I worked was quite unusual and not like the other "system" prisons, but it was a tough place to be. Most people never get to see what it's like inside a prison, so you have a rare insight, which I think is good to share.

Marie said...

Hi Helen!

I got my Master's in Communication. A required course was Research Methods. Our professor was (is!) a wonderful woman who teaches in prisons and is dedicated to human rights awareness.

So that was the focus of all our research and assignments that semester.

I am actually a nurse but I have worked in senior management and administration for years. No prisons, thank goodness!! Unless you count Corporate America.