I Spent the Evening in Jail (Part 1)
And in a courtroom, and a juvenile detention facility and a juvenile rehab center….
It was for school. Really! One of my professors is also a judge, and when he asked the class if we’d like to go on a field trip, I sat up on my hinders, folded my paws, and said yes, please! This was easily one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had in a criminal justice class. I thought I would pass it on to you all, as writing fodder, because let’s face it -crime, in all it’s many forms, will never go away. Whether you are writing science fiction, fantasy, or mysteries, having some idea of what is to become of evildoers – or the poor schmoes who just blunder into trouble – may be useful.
We started in the courtroom, which was interesting. At this point in my life I’ve been in a handful of them, for family matters, a citizenship ceremony (Hi, Kate!) and now, this Juvenile Court. Some have been rather pedestrian (Family Court wasn’t much to look at) while others were grand (the Federal courtroom). The general layout remains the same. A judge’s chair, elevated in some way. A visitor’s gallery, for people who are not players in the drama unfolding before the judge. A pair of tables, one for the plaintiff, the other for the defendant. In the Family Court, there was no provision at all for a jury. In the Juvenile Court, there was, even though there are never juries in a juvenile case. I assumed this was to allow the courtroom to serve more than one purpose.
The judge introduced the class to the sheriff, and we headed over to tour the jail. A low, cement building with a facade of bricks, it doesn’t look like much on the outside. We crowded into the control room (there were about fifteen of us, plus the sheriff and a corrections officer who was serving as tour guide) and he showed us how the entire building was run from this room. Subsidiary boards are located in each ‘pod’ or wing of the building, but this one can override them in the case of an incident. Two walls are covered in monitors, giving a view of all the checkpoints and main areas in the building. An old-fashioned control board, literally a map of the building with blinking lights, is watched at all times by an officer. Behind her, a rack full of servers records the feed from the monitors, in case review is needed.
He pointed out the window on the far side of the room. A large garage is termed the sally point, which he didn’t explain the source of the term, just described how they use it – when a prisoner is brought in by law enforcement, the doors on either end mean there is nowhere to run. A small pre-booking room where prisoners are searched lies between the sally point and the main booking room. In that room, which is much larger, there is a digital fingerprint scanner – gone are the days of smeared ink and smudged prints – benches, telephones, officers on a dais behind a heavy counter who search criminal records and start a classification process, and a wall-mounted board with paper records of who is in what cell. This jail is meant to be able to keep running even if the computers go down, which I approve of.
We were lead into the ‘dressing-room’ which was full of banks of lockers. The corrections officer (CO) explained to us for the first time – it would be emphasized throughout the tour – that the jail was rather badly overcrowded. The lockers held the prisoner’s belongings. Anything they brought in with them was locked up until they left. Special yellow tags marked the lockers which held potential weapons. In front of the lockers were restraint chairs, which were intended to hold a person who intended to harm themselves or others. He showed us the shoes – a strange hybrid of croc and flip-flop – and told us that the prisoners paired them, and mostly didn’t care if the two shoes were the same size. Nothing ever fits, he told us. I guess what size they are, and toss them a shirt and pants. They just have to deal with it. The clothing is color-coordinated. I was amused to note that yes, they do still use the black and white stripes we mostly associate with old movies. Colors mark out the violent offenders, this jail is too full to allow the separation of maximum-security from medium-security, so they use the clothes to keep an eye on potential trouble.
From the dressing room we entered a long, narrow hall that made up the ‘waist’ of the building, with the pods extending off it like the legs of trousers. As we were being shown the door to the medical facility, and told that it is manned night and day, but serious injuries were transported to a local hospital, the fire alarms went off. We all stood stock still, not sure what the flashing lights and ear-piercing siren (noise travels through the body at a certain level, and you can *feel* it. This was that loud) meant. After a minute on the radio, the CO explained that a prisoner had managed to break off a sprinkler head in his cell. The alarm would be turned off when the water was reset.
The alarm added a surreal, nightmarish quality to our tour. We passed along the hall, looking at a conference room, the prisoner’s side of the visitation room, and into the first pod we would visit. Here, on one side, was the laundry. The prison generates a lot of laundry, and two prisoners, who earn the job of trusty, are working on folding piles of it. They smile at us, we smiled nervously back. The CO proudly shows off the huge washers and dryers, explaining they each cost about $50K dollars. There are a pair of residential washers and dryers, though, for small loads. He leads us into a smaller pod, the one for special prisoners, and now, as he will do for each door after this, he radios his position and asks for the door to be opened. A faint buzz, and the door is unlocked momentarily. We all pile into the small common area. Hexagonal stainless-steel tables are bolted to the floor, with those dot-stools attached to it by horizontal pillars in place of chairs. Open showers are off to one side of the room, along with the washer and dryer he wanted to show us, and on the other side of the room is a glass-fronted recreation room. We don’t go into it, but I can see on the far wall shelves of battered paperbacks. Later, he will explain that the prison accepts donations of paperback books – no hardbacks- and they are checked thoroughly before being placed into the various pod libraries. The alarm, which had fallen silent, blares again, and the unseen prisoners cry out in protest. Some of us are putting fingers in our ears, so I can understand why they don’t like it. We can at least go back into the hall, where it is quieter.
To be continued… I’ll finish this next week. It’s longer than I thought it would be, now that I’m unpacking all my impressions of that night.