“This is still jail,” says one woman while we eat our supper, “but it’s a lot nicer than some jails.”
There are general nods of agreement and the women begin discussing different jails like most of us might talk about different shopping malls or hair salons or restaurants. Greeley sucks, they agree. So does Arapahoe County. JeffCo isn’t too bad.
I sit and listen and eat my somewhat palatable supper — meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, mixed canned veggies, and chocolate cake served frosting-side down — while they compare notes, and I’m astonished at how many jails and prisons these women can describe. And then comes the revelation: I am the only one in the unit who has never been in jail before.
The one with AIDS spent several years at the California Institute for Women. Renee has served two years in prison and has been in jail again for several months. Even the woman who’s there for failing to have car insurance has served jail time before.
Now I know why I stood out to the meth heads. I must have looked like a deer in the headlights to them. (Note to self: Do not attempt to go undercover among people who will kill you, such as drug kingpins, Mafia types or international spies.)
Soon the woman are talking about which guards they like and which ones they don’t, arguing amongst one another about who treats them like garbage and who sees them as people. Though I haven’t seen any abusive behavior, I’ve noticed that the guards seem to look down on them, an absolute separation from “us,” the law-abiding, and “them,” the inmates. I don’t know what to think about it.
Then the conversation drifts to health care and the women start yelling about a guard who last week supposedly ignored their calls for help when Beth, a young woman who’s no longer there, fell down on the floor and had a grand mall seizure. Standing over her, the guard allegedly watched her twitch and jerk and froth and said, “Nice acting job.” Only hours later, when Beth still lay on the floor, now in her own vomit, did she get medical attention.
Renee turns to me and says, “If you think you might have a headache tomorrow, you’d better order an aspirin now.”
I already know from my pre-“arrest” briefing that most medical requests are dealt with via kites. An inmate fills out a kite, and it is reviewed by jail staff. If a true emergency occurs, like a seizure or high fever or some other health crisis, the guards are supposed to evaluate it and respond.
“In jail, there are inconveniences,” one of the jail staff told me.
But lying in your own vomit having had a seizure isn’t an inconvenience. It’s neglect.
One of the meth heads joins in the conversation.
“I’m not a fucking addict!” she shouts. When I get out of here, I’m going to sue the county for this! They’re forcing me to take methadone!”
Except that one doesn’t take methadone for meth addiction, and the jail isn’t authorized to distribute it. Someone has apparently not yet come down to earth.
Dinner is over, the trays are taken away and the evening drags on. Supper is followed by card games at the tables and “NYPD Blue,” which, oddly, seems to be everyone’s favorite TV show.
A handful of women take late showers to the sounds of hoots and hollers from women who’ve gone upstairs to watch. One woman indulges them and does a little stripper routing, shaking her bare butt for her viewers.
Then suddenly it’s 11 p.m. and time for lockdown. It happens fast. One minute you’re being bustled into your cell. Then next the door swings shut with loud click — and the fluorescent lights that have blazed all day are shut off.
I feel a sense of relief to be alone. I’m locked behind six inches of steel, no need to watch over my shoulder, no chance that I’ll say something really stupid and get pounded. I lie on my completely uncomfortable steel shelf on my skinny “mattress” pad in the dark and realize how tense I am. Every muscle in my body feels knotted. I breathe deeply, ever conversation I’ve had, every sight, every smell, jammed together in my mind, demanding consideration.
Then I start to drift asleep — but it doesn’t last for long.
* * *
Screaming wakes me. It isn’t any kind of screaming I’ve heard before. It’s an insane, animal screaming, and it makes chills skitter down my spine.
I sit up, listen. It’s not a woman’s voice. Then again it’ doesn’t really sound like a man’s voice. I’ve never heard sounds like that coming from a human throat before.
Yaps, growls, howls, screeches draw together for a moment and form words: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Then the words fade back into insane animalistic howling.
I have no clock, no watch, no cell phone, but I lie there in the dark unable to keep from listening as this sound goes on nonstop for hours.
Some male inmates, separated from us by thick concrete walls and steel, take up the screecher’s cause and howl and scream with him. When that doesn’t seem to make enough noise, they begin to pound on their cell doors with their feet, a sound like metallic thunder. And it just doesn’t end.
Around me, I can here women whispering and talking.
No one is sleeping.
Is it like this every night? I have no way of knowing.
I try to sleep, can’t. Some human being has gone off the deep end and it feels like he’s trying to take everyone in the jail with him. Now profanity has joined the yaps and howls, and it sounds like the jail is haunted by a foul-mouthed poltergeist.
Then I hear two male guards walking along the corridor.
“She’s a journalist,” one says. “You want to see her?”
At the time, it doesn’t dawn on me to think who else might have heard these words. I close my eyes, lie still, wondering if I heard that correctly. Footsteps approach, and I tell myself to stop feeling skittish. The last person in the world the guards are going to harm is a working journalist.
A bright flashlight shines through the window in my door and pans me — head to toe and back again. I lie still, pretend to sleep, feeling like a zoo exhibit. And in the darkness by myself it occurs to me how easy it would be for someone to open the door to a woman inmate’s cell and do whatever he wanted to do, particularly if he were in on it with his buddies. I tuck that idea away in my mind.
Apparently, sleeping journalists aren’t all that exciting because within a minute, the two male guards have moved on.
Sometime after 3 AM by my guess, the screaming stops. I wonder if the guy lost his voice or whether they took him down to psych and sedated him. I don’t care as long as he’s quiet and, exhausted, fall asleep.
* * *
The lights flash on with a metallic whir, fluorescent light jerking me from a restless sleep. A guard enters the women’s unit to say that yesterday’s commissary orders have arrived.
The cells are opened and sleepy women drift down to grab their lip balm, tea bags, soda, stationery, stamps, potato chips, Jolly Ranchers and tampons. (The jail supplies only maxi pads.) I watch them, feeling as if I’ve been hit by a bus. I see the clock in the dayroom. It’s 5 AM.
But the word is out.
“You’re a journalist.”
“Yes.” I wonder if the answer will get my teeth knocked into the next century.
“Why are you here?”
I have everyone’s attention, even the meth heads. “I wanted to know more about what it was like for women behind bars.”
For a moment I worry that they might find that answer patronizing. I don’t mean to turn them into specimens. I just want to understand.
But they seem so astonished that anyone would care that I sense only warmth from them.
Suddenly, they can’t talk fast enough or tell me enough. Abusive boyfriends. Incestuous daddies and uncles. Husbands who drink all their money. Kids they miss, kids they love, kids they may never see again.
The meth heads, who less than 12 hours ago kept trying to pick a fight with me, are now my best friends. The come sit down beside me and tell me a store of Law Enforcement Gone Bad. I wonder if they could see themselves through my eyes what they would think.
Someone takes a precious tea bag, makes me a cup of tea and brings it to me unasked. This tiny gift, given to me by someone who has nothing, touches me deeply. I thank her and sip and listen.
And it hits me as it never has before that each one of these broken women is someone. Many of them have no family who love them. Many have kids who are ashamed of them. But each one of them is someone, and the actions that have defined their lives have led them to this place. Most of them have been in trouble with the law since they were teenage girls, each one of them representing a host of things that went wrong — in their families, in their minds and souls, in our society.
I fight like hell not to cry and just listen.
Then morning count comes and the women are hurried off to their cells. But not me.
“Captain said to get you, ma’am,” a male guard says.
And that’s it.
I grab my bedding and personal items and follow him toward the red door.
“Don’t forget to write about the medical care!” shouts a woman’s voice as the cell doors slam shut.
“Goodbye!” come several other shouts.
The red door opens, and I am free.
* * *
I’m taking to booking, given my belongings and allowed to dress. I slowly put the pieces of myself back together, feeling that I’ve been through an emotional wringer. I hold it together through a meeting with the jail captain, who, by allowing me to be there, has left himself open to media exposure.
I mention Beth and her seizure and he tells me the incident is being investigated, but says that the women cry wolf a lot making it very hard for the staff to distinguish a true emergency from a woman who’s lonely and needs a change of scenery. I can sympathize with that challenge — I believe in my gut he is sincere — and I ask about the screamer.
“Took him down to psych and sedated him.”
I tell the captain I’ll be calling with more questions once I’ve had some sleep. Right now I’m planning to head to the gym to wash the stink of jail off my skin and then in to the newspaper for a day’s work. No sick days today. I’ve got a newsroom to run and several collegues who probably worried about me all night.
He shakes my hand, tells me he thinks I’m brave and let’s me know that I’m the only journalist to have stayed in his jail as an inmate. I take some perverse pride in this and thank him for watching over me, as I’m sure his guards have done.
Then I pack up my stuff, walk out the front door, and find the mountains bathed in the pink light of sunrise. The snow even seems to glow pink. To me, it looks like hope.
I take a deep breath and walk to my car, the breeze icy. But as I pull out of the parking lot, the weight of the past 24 hours hits me. I think of the women inside — pregnant Marie, Cassie with AIDS, the woman with five kids, Renee, the meth heads. I pull over, stop the car, and let the tears come.
* * *
Thanks to all of you who read through this series. Staying in jail was one of the most significant experiences of my life as a journalist. Four years later, educated by this experience, I came across a federal court case filed by a woman named Pamela Clifton, who claimed neglect from the guards had resulted in the stillbirth of her baby girl. I knew enough about the system to recognize how serious her claims were. As you all know, given that you've had the privilege of reading my interview with Pamela, Unlawful Contact is dedicated to that baby, Leah Rhiann Clifton. Handing Pam the dedication page to this book was one of the most emotional things I’ve done as a writer. She and I both bawled.
I’d love to hear your comments or to answer questions.
And thanks again for following along!