Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The saddest place I've ever been

They only started the tour after we put all our personal belongings in an old metal locker with an even older padlock on the outside. The signs were clear: no metal, no cell phones, no handbags, no sleeveless tops, no anything that is personal to you. They buzzed us through the first 3-inch thick metal door where we stood in a tiny vestibule until they buzzed us through the next metal door. We were now "inside."

First, they took us to Central Booking where about 20 men and 2 women were waiting for their names to be called, after which they would be photographed, fingerprinted, and thoroughly searched. Then their clothing and belongings would be taken and put in a paper bag awaiting their release, which could happen in hours or years, depending--Mostly depending on things completely outside their control. They were white, black, Hispanic, mostly young, mostly poor, mostly thuggish. They all looked scared.

Then we went up several floors to the roof where there is a fenced-in recreation area. Four men were playing basketball badly on a dilapidated court and several older men were walking laps around the court. There were several black men and a nerdy-looking white man. The deputies told us that all of them were classified at the highest level of security, either for their own protection or the protection of others and were only allowed to socialize (if you can call it that) with each other. He pointed out that the white man was suspected of committing the yogurt shop murders in the early 90s and is just now awaiting trial.

Next, they took us to another floor, through several large metal doors and into a tiny cell, maybe 6x6--a metal bunk, a concrete bunk, a metal toilet and a tiny desk with a stool bolted to the wall and to the concrete floor, all under a humming fluorescent light. The plastic mattresses are too short for an adult man and the bunks are too, probably. Inmates spend almost all their time in jail in rooms like this. It felt like a coffin when they closed the door. One of the other grand jurors said, "A person could go crazy in a place like this" and the deputy said, "Oh, yeah."

I asked if most of the inmates were cooperative and he said that they were, a huge change from just a few years ago when there was constant fighting. He didn't know what made the difference. I thought it would be pretty important to find out. He didn't seem very curious.

We went to the medical floor, where obviously ill inmates stay in their cells 24/7 and sleep, shaking and obviously miserable. We went to the cafeteria where the deputy who was cooking supper (to be served at 3:30 p.m.) proudly showed us the chicken and broccoli pasta and the menu that showed three meals a day with at least as much nutrition, variety, and taste as the typical school menu. Everywhere we go, we are surrounded by only green cinderblock walls, green metal doors, concrete floors. Nothing else.

All the deputies we met seemed professional and sharp. They said they often get to know inmates, even seeing them later in supermarkets and car washes, where they come up to them and smile and shake their hands saying, "Hey bossman! I remember you!" One deputy who has been there for 20 years said that he sees grandfathers, fathers and sons all come through at one time or another.

I can't for the life of me understand why anyone who has been in hell once would ever come back here, yet most of the cases we see in grand jury are repeat offenders. I wonder if it says something about their inability to make good choices on their own behalf. Or maybe it says something about the life they have on the outside. Who knows?

Of course, no one here has been convicted of anything--many have not yet even been indicted. Most will go pretty quickly to a state jail or state penetentiary and some will be released and go home. Some will wait months before they even get a visit from their court-appointed attorney and a few will wait years for their cases to come to trial (some people have been waiting 4-5 years, we were told). I want there to be a place like this, I really do--there are some really dangerous people in the world. But I have to say, it was the saddest place I've ever seen.


Electric Monk said...

I've never been in a prison. It seems like they exist in a parallel universe, more like they're fictional places. They're called "Oz" for a reason, right? But it seems like, if so many people's lives really do revolve around these institutions, they'd be an important place for all of us to visit.

Julie said...

Thanks for giving me an eye-opener. It's easy not to think that these places exist, but they do and it's sad. Some of these people are caught up in a cycle that is out of their control. It's all they have ever known. This will be added to my prayers.
Thanks again.