Thursday, March 13, 2008

Off To Jail

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?


Mark Terry said...

I hope you paid a lot of attention to the relationship between the deputies and the prisoners.

My wife's cousin (female) is a deputy at the Oakland County Sheriff's Department here in Michigan, working in the jail, and I've always been fascinated by her relationship (as I am by many cops' relationships with criminals) with the inmates. TV and movies and a lot of books would suggest it's all just one hostile thing, but apparently most law enforcement types learn that you de-escalate by being polite and treating inmates as human beings. Sometimes the relationship seems almost motherly and/or babysitter-ish, which when you think about it, it probably is.

Joe Moore said...

Great post, Jennifer.

For me, jury duty always leads to an eye-opening experience. I’ve been called a number of times and always go. Not just out of civic duty but to experience a side of life from which most of us are sheltered. And it’s not just the defendants that can grab your attention, it’s witnessing and perhaps taking part in the legal process, another activity most of us don’t experience very often. As a citizen, anyone can take a day trip to the courthouse and watch the proceedings, but when that jury duty summons shows up in the mail, be sure to go and get the inside scoop on a world so different from the norm.

Nina Wright said...

Excellent post. Thanks for sharing, Jennifer.

My parallel experience would be a series of visits to Domestic Violence Court, where I was relieved of my many misconceptons about abuse and abusers. Not only did I listen to a dozen men recount incidents of physical abuse by women, but I also learned that domestic violence is far more prevalent among educated professionals than I had ever dreamed. Moreover, it's not confined to lovers and ex-lovers. And some abuse concerns the destruction of personal property. In fact, the saddest story I heard concerned a woman whose entire lot of worldly goods was tossed into the winds of a hurricane by a mean-spirited relative.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Several years ago, when researching adult web cams for Too Big to Miss, I got a real peek into the adult entertainment world, including interviewing several call girls and men who frequented them out of habit/addiction. It was fascinating to talk to the women and discover how relatively normal they were (these were not street girls with drug problems and abusive pimps, but women we see every day at the bank and grocery store) and it was fascinating to learn how common prostitution is in the suburbs and amongst "upstanding citizens." Guess that's why Spitzer's indicretions didn't throw me. His stupidity did, but not his actions.

I only used a tiny bit of the research in my book, but intend to put it to good use in a stand alone I'm writing entitled Confessions of a Fat Call Girl.

Mark Combes said...

You know, travel does this for me. When you are the only white face on a Caribbean island, you quickly realize how a minority might feel.

jbstanley said...

Wow! You have all had some eye-opening experiences!

Mark, I was amazed at the respect and politeness shown by the deputies toward the inmates. In fact, I was totally shocked by the relative peace inside the jail.

Joe, my once shot at jury duty was brief. They asked how I felt about civil suits and I said I thought that people who tripped and fell and then decided to sue the shopping malls for their own clumsiness were a needless waste of time and courtroom space. obliviously, I was excused!

Nina, I would have fallen apart listening to many of those cases. Only humans can be so cruel to one another.

Sue, I'd sure love to have been a fly on the wall/bed covers/heel of a six-inch pump while you conducted your interviews!

Felicia Donovan said...

Nice post, Jennifer. Whenever someone non-police comes to visit me at work, I always offer a tour including the cells as long as they are empty (for safety's sake). The question many people ask is: "Why is everything pink?" In fact, the entire booking area is painted in a soft, muted pink shade. Why? Because research shows that pink is a calming color and when people are drunk and disorderly, the officers need every bit of help they can get. Even the padded cell And by the way, "padded" is a relative term. It's more like between a rock and a not-as-hard place, but it's far from soft.