(Note: The names in this piece have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.)
“Let’s wake the bastards up,” are the first words I hear. I’ve entered the darkened control room that looks out onto the inmate population of the county jail, and within thirty seconds I realize that I’m going to have a huge problem fitting in.
I take a seat in one of the empty chairs, my presence ignored by the four uniformed deputies, including Corporal McCully. He is one of five people who interviewed me for the position. After about ten minutes, he informs me that Carla, the woman training me, is late. Another five minutes pass, and Carla breezes into the room. Hair bleached blonde, colorful clothes, and lime-green Croc sandals, she is the physical antithesis of the other deputies. With her presence, I feel less alone and, for some reason, less guilty, relieved at where I’ve found myself—behind bars.
“It’s best not to know what they’re in for,” Carla advises as we walk toward the kitchen for breakfast, one of three free meals offered during my shift. Impossible. Not only do I want to know who I’m handing over the Honey Buns to when I’m delivering commissary orders, I’m more curious than a 5-year-old kid on Christmas Eve. My job title, detention specialist, is kind of misleading, because I don’t know exactly what I’m specializing in. My daily duties include not only ordering commissary items and phone cards, but also creating the court list of new arrests, accounting for the inmates’ funds and running to the library to pick up their weekly book requests. And there’s an occasional warrant that I need to modify in the computer system. But mostly I’m a glorified gofer for the guys and gals behind bars.
When Carla gives me my first tour of the facility, every eye watches me like I’m parading around in the nude, and I feel my body tense and my temperature go up a notch. Being the new person is kind of cool at a regular place of employment, like an insurance agency. But when you’re dealing with men who have been locked up for months, it’s creepy.
Our first stop is the five-hundred block, the special management cases. Carla warns me that I should bring along a deputy whenever I step inside this unit because it houses the men incarcerated for the most serious offenses. As we step into the concrete holding pen, she introduces me as though I’m the next contestant in the Miss America pageant. The ten men peer from behind bars to get a better look at me. I meekly say hello, do a little half-wave and turn to leave.
“Who’s in there?” I ask as the gate clangs behind us.
“You really want to know?” She says this like a woman in a sewing circle, eager to share the juiciest piece of gossip.
“The guy on the end is Ben Wahler. He used to be a sheriff and a foster parent. I think he had over one hundred kids over the years. Anyway, he’s in here for sexual assault on a child.”
My mouth drops open.
“Oh, and one more thing. You can’t tell anyone, like your husband or friends, about the people in here. The only thing you can tell about an inmate is their offense and bond amount. That’s it. Especially if you want to be a deputy, cause during your polygraph, they’ll ask you if you’ve revealed any confidential information.”
When I get home that night, I Google the name of the molester. I am shocked and disgusted by what I find. But I’ve got to put my natural instincts away if I want to perform the duties of my job. I find out on Wednesday, commissary day, that he is one of the lucky inmates who has money on his books. Among the items in his order are fire hot Jolly Ranchers, a drawing tablet and Gardetto’s corn chips. When we approach his cell, I half expect to find the devil himself with sharp pointy horns sprouting from his head. Instead I find a tall, balding man reminiscent of the Pillsbury Doughboy, with a soft lilting voice. He informs Carla that he’s going to draw a picture for his daughter.
As we continue the deliveries, I find that the inmates are very respectful. They call me Ma’am and say thank you, like I’ve just pardoned them. Their formal sincerity makes me feel older than my years, but I’m not going to insist they call me Miss or by my name. We are playing the game of institutionalization: Be nice to the woman who holds your bag of Cheetos, and she’ll be nice to you.
After each delivery, the inmate must sign his name on the sales slip with a pencil stating that he has received all of his items. We all touch this little golf pencil, and as soon as we’re finished with deliveries, I wash my hands with an OCD-like fervor. Later that day, the nurse calls me into her office to give me a TB test and a vaccination for hepatitis B. The following week, I don a pair of surgical gloves, which amuses most of the inmates, like I’m some candy-carrying nurse there to give them a rectal exam. I tell them it’s flu season. What they fail to realize—or maybe they do—is that only I am protected from the germ-ridden pencil. They have virtually touched every inmate’s penis in the joint.
Hygiene, especially of the dental variety, isn’t a huge priority among the inmates. I can only surmise from this that their bad breath is a defense mechanism to ward off the unwanted advances by love-hungry fellow inmates. Either that, or they have never adopted a tooth-brushing routine into their daily regimen, and they entered the facility with a mouthful of gingivitis and cavities. To freshen the air between us, I chew minty gum and breathe through my mouth. BO isn’t really a problem, at least from where I stand, because they do buy soap. They have two choices: good old-fashioned Ivory or the nauseatingly scented Irish Spring, which seems to be the soap of choice among male inmates. I guess no one wants to be perceived as an Ivory girl around here, even among the women.
“Tough” or “been around the block a few times” are just two ways to describe the few women at the county jail. The majority are in for drug-related offenses, mostly meth, which, as side effects, rots their teeth, making them look way older than they are, and dots their skin with angry acne. If there is any compensation for their affliction, they are slender and, for now, sober.
On my third day of training I see a familiar female face pass by the control room window, making her way towards the female housing unit. She is my kids’ pediatrician, a woman I like and totally respect. I panic and duck out of view.
“Oh, my God, is that Kelly Harrington?”
One of the male deputies looks at me disapprovingly over his newspaper. “Yep. She’s been in here a couple of times.”
“She’s got issues with her ex-husband.”
“Oh,” I sigh, thankful that it isn’t for doing something harmful to kids. She will be here only one night, and I inform everyone I work with that I don’t want her to see me. It would be too uncomfortable and weird the next time I take my kids in for a checkup or a flu shot.
Carla trains me for four weeks, and at the end I still don’t feel confident enough to handle the job on my own. Dealing with the inmates isn’t the problem. It’s the temperamental computer system that I use to check criminal histories and warrant information that intimidates the hell out of me. The system is not user-friendly; barely any of the deputies know how to operate it, which I find rather strange.
“You’re the Detention Specialist,” one of the older male deputies quips after I’ve tried to modify a warrant several times and finally asked for assistance. His attitude echoes that of most of the deputies, but since he’s dating the female lieutenant, who outranks them all, he feels empowered say whatever pops into his mind. Everyone is afraid to point out his less than stellar work ethic because they fear retribution. Unbeknownst to his girlfriend the lieutenant, he is frequently on the control room computer watching a raunchy video of the Pussycat Dolls shaking their scantily clad bodies.
Sexual innuendo, foul language and inappropriate conduct are a daily occurrence at the jail. And it’s the employees, not the inmates, who are guilty. I am not a puritan, and I’ve worked plenty of jobs where inappropriate behavior was not only accepted but encouraged. My problem is that I feel the conduct of jail employees should be above reproach if we are to set any kind of example. It is beyond annoying to sit in a room full of supposed professionals, sober people, who can’t verbalize without interjecting “fuck” into every sentence.
One day, as I order the inmates’ books from the library, I come across a request for Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I share my excitement with a male deputy, as I’m tired of seeing all the requests for Patterson, Koontz and King—the standard jail reading fare.
“What? Is it a book about pot?”
“Actually, it’s a book of poetry. You know, using the English language to paint a picture, instead of using it to sound ugly and uneducated?”
“So, who’s the fucking fag who wants that?”
The female deputies aren’t much better. To fit in with the boys’ club at the county jail, they’ve adopted an over-the-top hardness, especially in their dealings with female inmates. They strut and attempt a badass demeanor, but to me they’re about as menacing as John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. During my first week of work, one of them shows a video of a naked female magician. It is cute and clever, but not appropriate for any kind of work environment, and I am sickened as everyone stands around commenting on the woman’s tits and ass.
For now, Carla remains free of affectation. “I’m not here to judge these people,” she says to me one day after dealing with an inmate who refused to be transported to prison with Ben Wahler, the child molester. “They’ve already been judged in a court of law.”
But judgment appears to be a job duty of the deputy. As I place a weekly commissary order, I come across an inmate who indicates on his form that he wishes to purchase a pair of women’s underwear. Out of curiosity, I pull the man’s booking card to see what he’s in for, what he looks like and where he’s housed. The inmate, Mr. William Begay, is a Native American with long black hair, carefully applied cat-girl eyeliner and a formidable set of hormone-produced man boobs. He’s in for domestic violence against his boyfriend, who is housed a mere twenty feet away in another unit at the jail. Mr. Begay is all alone in a special solitary cell because he is a pre-op transsexual, not to mention seriously delusional for thinking he could squeeze his 5-foot-10, 220-pound body into a woman’s size 7 Hanes Her Way pair of panties.
Being the people pleaser that I am, I ask one of the deputies if I should order Mr. Begay the XL “big girl” undies, or should I just order what he put on the sheet. The room becomes silent and as Deputy Whittaker’s jaw drops, I swear I can hear the theme song from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly begin to play.
“What…did…you…just…say?” He draws out each word for dramatic effect.
“Should I just go ahead and order the extra large? Because there is no way in hell that he’ll fit in a medium.”
“Men can’t order women’s underwear.”
“Well, isn’t he on his way to becoming a woman?”
“He’s still got a dick.”
“Yeah, but he’s got bigger boobs than I do.”
“The It gets men’s briefs. End of story.” Whittaker’s face is flushed. I shouldn’t continue with the argument, but I can’t help myself.
“How come all the women get to order boxers?”
Whittaker is at a loss for words. Corporal McCully saves him, interjecting “because they wear them as pajamas.”
“Well, maybe Mr. Begay wants to sleep in some women’s underwear. What’s the big deal?”
Carla decides to settle this argument. She checks with Sergeant Howard, who handles administrative policy at the jail, and he agrees that women shouldn’t be able to order boxers. Two days later, the shit hits the fan when Whittaker bellyaches to the lieutenant that he doesn’t want to see all these skanky women in their tiny underwear at bed check, and that them having boxers is the only way to protect his aesthetic sensibilities. It’s a crock, but it flies and for once the double standard works in favor of women.
Even though my coworkers and I are not technically “in jail,” the undeniable affects of institutionalization still manifest themselves. “I’m not Racist, I Hate Everyone,” should be elegantly embroidered on the front of all deputies’ uniforms, right beneath their names. Since there is not a lot of ethnic, cultural or religious diversity where I live, everyone I work with assumes that I am Republican, Christian and intolerant of gay marriage and gay people in general, with the exception of the lesbians that work for the sheriff’s office. During my first week of work, I unwisely decide to eat my lunch in the break room with my peers. As I plop my plate down on the table, the female undersheriff looks me up and down as if she knows me but can’t remember how.
“Where do you go to church?” she asks. “ You look so familiar.”
“I don’t,” I reply, wrangling a scoop of jello into my mouth. From the reaction of the other people at the table, this is not the correct response. I might as well have said I was orchestrating a human sacrifice and was wondering where I might find a couple of goats and a virgin.
“Where do you go to church?” I ask out of politeness, but more to break the awkward silence.
When she tells me the name of her church, I say that I’ve been there a couple of times for craft shows. This may not be connection she is hoping for, so I wolf down my lunch and make a speedy exit. I imagine that the minute I leave the room, people will begin to plot my demise, as it is becoming glaringly apparent to the people I work with that I am not one of them.
The Beginning of the End
I become an official outsider on my favorite holiday, Halloween, a day on which there is no obligation to exchange presents, attend church services or travel hundreds of miles out of familial obligation and guilt. All you have to do is put on a costume, get a bag, go out among your neighbors and let your kids rake in the free candy.
And so when I have to work on my favorite holiday, and I can’t even wear a costume, I am seriously bummed out. One of the more flirtatious and outspoken inmates asks me what costume I am going to wear. I inform him that employees of the sheriff’s office aren’t allowed to dress up, but that I’d be showing up as my evil twin.
“I hope your twin likes to wear mini skirts.”
I don’t wear a mini skirt, just an orange shirt with a pumpkin on it. All the deputies are kind of jumpy whenever I walk up behind them since the prison jumpsuit is orange. As quitting time approaches, I ask Deputy Connor, a hulking man with the temperament of Charlie Brown, if he is taking his daughter trick or treating.
“I’m going to go home, eat and go to bed. I hate Halloween.”
To kill time as the deputies sit and wait for the next shift to arrive, I ramble on about my love of Halloween. When I finish, Connor adds, “I hate Christmas, too.”
“Are you Jewish?” I ask.
Deputy Johnson, one of the female deputies whose whole family seems to work for the sheriff’s office in one capacity or another, lets out a shriek.
“I can’t believe you just accused Connor of being a Jew.”
My face flares into an expression that could melt a glacier. Accuse?
“I’m Jewish,” I say. The room is silent, as no one knows exactly what to say. “Actually, I’m a Jew for Jesus.”
I stand up, grab my purse and exit the room fuming. I’m not really Jewish, but I am shocked by her blatant anti-Semitism. Deputy Preston, a young, good-natured guy, tries to soften the blow of what just happened by insisting that I do a dance before he’ll let me leave for the night. I’m so angry that I want to scream, but instead, I do a little jig as the door buzzes, and I rush out into the cool night air.
As if it couldn’t get any worse, my supervisor, Sergeant Garcia, whom I’ve never met, starts to work the day shift. He is a compact man with a large head that sits on his shoulders without the assistance of a neck. He fancies himself a country musician and tortures the night shift with his guitar playing. Fortunately, during the day, the serenades aren’t allowed. He hates working days and reminds everyone around him of this on a nonstop basis. Within the week, he calls Andrea, the other detention specialist, and me into a meeting.
“The lieutenant and I feel that you both weren’t trained properly, and with the upcoming jail expansion we need to fix that. We need both of you to work the night shift for a month or longer and be trained again by Deputy Johnson.”
Oh joy. The anti-Semite.
“I can’t do that. I’ve got kids, and daycare is next to impossible to find,” I plead.
“You can take it up with the lieutenant, but I need both of you to go through the training again.”
I immediately talk to the female lieutenant, explaining that working nights is not feasible for me. I further explain that my husband is turning forty, and it’s the holidays and my family is all coming in for Christmas. She says she’ll talk to the captain. Within a week, we are called in again. The lieutenant and Sergeant Garcia look at Andrea and me as if we are very naughty children.
“The undersheriff said you’ll have to do the training,” Lieutenant Marsten states in a matter-of-fact tone.
“What am I going to do with my kids? I mean, when I was offered this job, no one ever said I’d have to work a night shift. If they had, I wouldn’t have taken the job.”
“This is law enforcement. If there was an emergency here at 2 in the morning, who do you think we’d call?” she says.
“Who?” I ask innocently.
They look at each other and smile. “You.”
This is news to me.
“But I have kids.”
“That’s not our problem, and I really can’t relate. I really can’t,” the lieutenant says.
Of course you can’t, I want to say, but I don’t have the guts. This woman stands about 4 feet tall, yet her heartless uncaring demeanor makes me feel small and helpless.
“Maybe law enforcement isn’t for you,” she continues. My eyes well up with tears, not because I will miss out on the glorious opportunity of one day rising through the ranks of the sheriff’s office, but because I feel as disposable and disliked as one of the inmates.
Allen Johnson’s pock-marked, expressionless face stares out at me from the window of his new cell, situated directly in front of the control room door, a door that I must exit at least twenty times a day. He’s dressed in a dark green, tear-proof gown that looks like a heavy winter coat that a matronly woman in North Dakota might wear over her church clothes. For the past 48 hours, he’s been on suicide watch, after he informed the nurse that he had a long necklace in his possession that he planned on hanging himself with. Even though a heavy steel door separates us, his dark vacant eyes bring out a primal fear response as they stare into mine, making me want to sprint away like a scared animal. He is awaiting trial for raping his 2-year-old niece with an axe handle.
“He’s just a pussy,” one of the deputies loudly proclaims entering the control room, fully aware that Mr. Johnson can hear him.
“If you really want to kill yourself, you don’t tell anyone, you just do it,” adds another. I don’t say a word.
I realize now why I can’t stay here. I can’t change the fucked up system, and I refuse to become immune to it in order to survive the day. Because the jail serves several purposes—holding tank for trials, sentencing for misdemeanors and initial intake of all offenses—it is just a motley mix of messed up people. Most are harmless folks doing dumb things that really only hurt themselves and the ones they love. But sometimes you encounter true evil. I don’t want to suppress my fear with false bravado; I want to toss a razor to Allen Johnson when no one is looking.
The following day, I draft my letter of resignation and leave it on Sergeant Garcia’s desk. I’m not surprised that none of my coworkers begs me to stay or acknowledges the fact that I was squeezed out of a coveted county job during the holidays. They’re used to people leaving, and they’re always hiring in corrections. At the end of my shift on my final day, I leave without ceremony. As I’m buzzed out of the thick metal door, I am greeted by a couple of grumpy night shift deputies who are late for work. I smile widely at them as if I know something that they don’t.