Goldilocks Goes to Jail, Part III — Behind the Red Door

    Part of a continuing series of posts about the time I spent 24 hours in jail as a journalist...


    “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.

    [to be continued…]

    For an excerpt from Unlawful Contact, the I-Team novel inspired by my years of prison reporting, search this blog or go to my website at

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