This past Tuesday was a big day for me. Why was it special? Because I had a date at our county jail.
Where I grew up, the county jail was a small affair and even though I’d never been inside the building, it didn’t seem threatening. Now I live in Richmond, Virginia. It’s not a small town and it has several large and imposing jail facilities. Again, I’ve never been inside one of these structures. I’ve gotten my share of speeding tickets, but I plead guilty (because I always am guilty!), write my check, and hand the whole thing off to the mailman.
But I’m halfway through my current manuscript (tentatively titled Path of the Wicked) and my amateur sleuth needs to visit the incarcerated son of one of the victims. The problem: With the exception of what I’ve seen on TV, I have no idea what a visitation area looks like. I also had a list of procedural questions for any sheriff’s deputy willing to talk to me, so I made an appointment to get a tour of the jail.
I have to admit—I was a bit scared come Tuesday morning. I wondered what to wear. (Look professional, but not too attractive. I imagined that the inmates might be more vocal in their catcalls than a group of construction workers. This was stereotyping at its worst on my part, as the only inmates that actually talked to me were extremely polite).
Bearing two boxes of bagels to show my gratitude (even though my friends dared me to bring donuts. I refused!) I waited on the check-in line in the lobby until Major Talley sought me out.
I’m not going to repeat the entire experience, as much of it will appear in my book, but I was amazed at how many facts I would have gotten wrong had I not made that visit. I didn’t realize that prisoner’s scrub colors indicate how much freedom they have to move around the jail. I also didn’t know that those in white were often within thirty days of being released. Their faces certainly looked more cheerful than the inmates in beige (the color assigned to the general population).
The sight that effected me the most was of the cells. Now, a cell is not a cage with two cots a dirty toilet, and rows of iron bars as often portrayed on TV, but a large, brightly lit room meant to house four men. It held thirty-five instead! And man, was it noisy!
“Why are you so overcrowded?” I asked my guide.
“Because the state penitentiary can refuse an inmate if they don’t have a free bed. We can’t, so these men sleep on the floor. We’ve got 190 men that should be at state.”
“Why don’t they build another prison?” I inquired naively.
“They’re building one,” my patient Major answered. “But the problem is that as soon as they finish, it’ll fill up. Build another one. It fills up. That’s the real issue.”
Boy, those words and the sights and sounds from that morning are still echoing in my mind. I can’t shake the image of the mother trying to convince a deputy to bring her son his reading glasses or the wife of an inmate holding their infant son up to the glass so that her husband could see his baby or the string of angry curses a girlfriend heaped onto her hostile-looking boyfriend on the other side of the glass wall. When he slammed down his telephone headset, I thought a gun had been fired. How often I have written about criminals, but they had never been so human until I spent some time around them!
I wonder if you’d share a time when you stepped out of your comfort zone. Did you ever serve a meal at a homeless shelter? Visit an elderly person you didn’t know? Go to court? Be the guest speaker at a school? What did you take away from that experience?