Goldilocks Goes to Jail, Part V — Jail Romance and Meth Heads

    Part of a continue series of posts sharing my recollections of the time I went to jail for 24 hours as a journalist…

    Someone please lock me in a cell with him.

    Back in the women’s unit, Marie, the young pregnant woman, is bustling in and out of her cell, getting ready for her hearing. She thinks she’s going to be allowed to go home and is all but telling everyone goodbye. But then I notice that everyone seems to be in a flurry over something. One woman is wearing rollers in her hair. (Foam rollers are available through the commissary, along with some basic forms of make up.) She wears them for a while and then passes them on to another woman, who runs squealing back to her cell.

    “What is going on?” I ask Renee, still my mentor in this bizarre otherworld.

    “They’re getting ready for recreation hour,” she says.

    I have no idea why an hour in an enclosed gym would make anyone put rollers in her hair, but I don’t say so. Instead, I sit quietly and watch as the women run about, trading contraband pencils, passing out Jolly Rancher candy and generally acting as if they’re about to go on a date.

    The No. 2 pencils they use as eyeliner. A coveted red pencil is being used as blush and lip liner. And the Jolly Ranchers? One by one they melt them using paper cups and warm water from the dayroom sink, and then they flick the syrup into their hair using their toothbrushes.

    One inmate sees me watching her with what must be an utterly confused look on my face. She explains that the syrup acts as a sort of styling gel.

    Then a male guard opens the red door and shouts that it’s time for a shift change and afternoon count. Everyone must be locked down. Women shuffle into their cells, me included, and the doors, controlled by the guards, swing shut and lock with a series of metallic clicks. I imagined that it would be silent in behind all that concrete and steel, but it’s not. I hear women’s voices all around me.

    While in the middle of count, a guard announces that when the doors open, anyone who wishes to go to the gym can line up for recreation hour, while anyone who remains in the unit, must stay locked down. Not surprising, most of the women choose recreation.

    We line up in the hallway, the women smiling and laughing, the excitement palpable. We start down the zigzag hallway, and soon I understand what the fuss is for. As we pass the kitchen, several dozen male inmates suddenly appear at the windows, big smiles on their faces, their mouths shaping words we can’t hear. But their gestures — hip-thrusting, hands moving up and down at the their crotches in imitation of a hand job, hands squeezing imaginary breasts — say it all.

    One woman desperately wants to pass a note to a particular man. She lags behind hoping the guard won’t notice, so that she can tuck the note someplace the male inmate, who is apparently watching, can retrieve it. But the guard isn’t fooled, and, disappointed, the woman is forced back in line.

    “As if you’re going to meet Mr. Right in here,” I say.

    “You never know,” she says.

    “Yes,” I say, “sometimes you do.”

    When we reach the gym, which is about half the size of a high school gymnasium, the younger women scatter, running their hands along the edges of mats, looking under the weights, checking beneath the drinking fountain. (A drinking fountain!)

    “What are they looking for?” I ask Renee.

    “They’re looking for notes. The men are sometimes able to hide them in the equipment,” she says.

    I walk laps with Renee for a while, then decide I really need to talk to other women. I join some who are lifting weights. There’s Donna, a mother of five including an infant, who is serving a year for her fifth DUI. This time she got into a car crash with her kids in the vehicle. She was injured, as the bruises on her face attest. Another, Michelle, is serving time for deeds she won’t disclose. She’s American Indian, and very good with a basketball. I can tell she hates being here. Then there’s Cassie, who also has five children, all by different fathers, and who also bears thick scars on her wrists for what could only be multiple suicide attempts. She’s got AIDS, too, as if years in prison (that’s where she’s headed) weren’t enough to contend with. Then there’s Stacy, who’s serving 10 days for having been caught for the third time without car insurance, which she says she can’t afford. She could have gotten off by paying a large fine, but she didn’t have the money for that either.

    I look at the wrist bands and see a mix of low-risk, medium- and high-risk inmates. Because there are so few women, and the jail is so crowded, there’s no way to separate more violent female inmates from those that are not violent. Stacy, the women busted for not having car insurance, is locked up with women accused of fraud and assault.

    Then a fight breaks out over foosball — who would have thought it’s a contact sport? — and a guard has to intervene. Soon it’s time to head back to the unit. Women line up again, and we make our way back down the hallway, past the kitchen where the men gather once again to ogle the women in their colored-pencil, Jolly Rancher glory. Then we’re locked behind the red door.

    * * *
    The afternoon wears on, and tempers flare. A shouting and cussing argument has broken out over who’s being louder, the women talking at the table or the TV.

    “Turn that goddamn thing down!”

    “We can’t hear anything because you’re making too fucking much noise!”

    “Would everybody just shut the fuck up!”

    Up on the screen, Vanna is turning letters.

    Marie comes back from her hearing in tears. The judge won’t let her out on bond, so she’s stuck here for at least a month. She can’t quit crying, and some of the older women go to comfort her.

    Then the guard comes in with the day’s mail. Anger and boredom shifts into another kind of tension, as women gather in an anxious knot to see if they’ve gotten anything today. The guard opens each letter or package and inspects the contents for contraband before passing it on to the recipient. A deck of tarot cards is confiscated along with Ms. Fat Bottom’s book of stamps.

    “Why are you taking my stamps?” Ms. Fat Bottom protests. “Why can’t I have my stamps?”

    I see another chance to make myself fit in.

    “Because it might be blotter,” I say.

    “What’s ‘blotter’?” one of the younger women asks.

    An older inmate slaps her on the arm. “LSD, stupid!”

    Those who didn’t receive mail are visibly disappointed. They feel forgotten, an entire world beyond the walls that didn’t remember them today. Those who did sit to read letters from family and children, huge smiles on their faces. One holds up a Valentine her children made for her. “We love you, Mommy!” it says in bright red crayon. Another has received a couple of new photos and shares those with everyone.

    “It must be hard to be away from them,” I say.

    She bursts into tears and collapses into a chair.

    And then everything changes.

    Two new inmates arrive. Word passes quickly that they’re still coming down off of meth and that they were arrested for trying to pass forged money orders in K-Mart. They look angry, and they’re both wearing high-risk wrist bands.

    For some reason, I attract their notice. I wasn’t watching them; I didn’t try to talk with them. But when I pass by to get a drink of water, one of them slams me in the chest with her shoulder, the look on her face angry and aggressive.

    Out of the blue, I remember what I know about mountain lions. If you look them in the eye, they’re more likely to attack. So I refuse to take the bait, acting as if nothing has happened. I get my drink and go back to my seat by a different route.

    But that doesn’t stop them.

    As I sit talking with some of the inmates about their kids, I see the two meth heads watching me. Adrenaline punches through my system as I wonder what in the world I did to piss them off.

    “You need to stay away from them,” Renee whispers.

    But I’ve figured that out on my own. And so every time they walk toward me, I manage to be someplace else. When I have to pass them, I’m suddenly too far away to slam into. I don’t make eye contact, pretending never to see them. They are invisible, and so, I hope, am I.

    Soon, they’re embroiled in a shoving match with someone else.

    [to be continued…]

    For an excerpt from Unlawful Contact, visit my website at

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