J is for Jail

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Sometimes I think the reason I no longer yearn for big adventures to far-flung places – is because I had that. I worked in a jail for ten years. I saw ordinary and extraordinary things; I met amazing and awful people; I heard stories to make my hair curl and then more stories to make it go straight again.

Most of all, I met people who were smart, kind, ordinary, and precious, caught in systems of poverty and addiction.

This is what I saw inside of the Racine County Jail.
1.) The jail was ridiculously ugly. The old part of the jail was arranged with 2-person cells that open out into a common area. The walls are painted cinderblocks and noise reverberates as if you are in a canyon. What are the ordinary sounds? Conversation, yelling of inmates who decide to yell, the heart-stopping clanging of the steel doors as the slam behind you as you go to wherever you are going in the jail.

The walls are always beige, with door trim and baseboards painted strong colors in each of the different wings and floors. I understand that this pop of color alerts you to what floor you are on, but beige walls with neon green trim is something.

What seemed ironically clueless to me was this. Among the jail population at any there are many extraordinarily talented artists, yet authorities choose to maintain that sea of beige and orange. Very few of the men and women in the jail are there on assault charges. Those people could create art that could begin to address the pain and hope in their souls.

The old part of the jail has bars and more bars. When you first walk into a wing - where you will ask the correctional officer if you can speak to a specific inmate – what you first see is dazzlingly wrong. So many people moseying around in confined areas, all in orange. And not the crisp ironed orange of prison shows – inmates get a fresh uniform once per week and it doesn’t come ironed. There are usually about 3-5 pods off the central correction officer station. So when you first walk into that central area, your eyes are taking in several pods at once, and it is viscerally intense to see so many locked-up and milling humans. They don’t allow this in a zoo.

The new part of the jail is a system of open dorms with steel bunk beds. There are generally about 30 guys in one of these dorms. Imagine trying to sleep every night on a narrow bunk, thin mattress, in a dorm of men with their snoring, yelling, and conversation. I often worked with men who had red-rimmed eyes because they couldn’t sleep. It was also fairly common for men to fall off the top bunks. Officials didn’t talk about this, but I worked with inmates who witnessed it more than once a month.

There is no outdoor exercise time and so are inmates are without sunlight for weeks and months. I knew a guy who didn’t get to trial for three years.

2.) Jail is busy. People are coming and going all the time. Deputies have to accompany each inmate to every place they go outside their pod or wing. So deputies are always moving people. The nurses have giant rolling carts that they push through the jail every day, administering required medications (that, in most cases, the inmates’ family has to provide). Lawyers are sitting with the people they will be interviewing at utility tables in the halls. Chaplaincy program volunteers are also trying to lead Bible study groups at those utility tables. The jail social worker (which seemed to be a rotation of young people just graduated from college with a BA in psychology or social work) is going to see people, often at the request of a correctional officer who is witnessing unusual behavior. Representatives from the Child Support dept, Probation Officers, and random qualified others like me, are all trying to get to particular inmates for particular information. It’s busy.

3.) Its stale. I was reading articles from the early 2000’s about “why we need a jail expansion” and all the articles said there is no outdoors access and the air feels canned. Well, they didn’t built fresh air into the new part of the jail either. In the old part, there are a few windows inmates can look out. In the new section there is only frosted glass high up on the walls. Any sense of access to outdoor air is completely removed.When the food being cooked for a meal is stinky, that circulates through the entire building.

I have not thought about these realities for a while. I don’t miss anything about that job except the people. My opinion of the architecture of the Racine County Jail, and probably most penal institutions in this country, is that these buildings are built for tax-payers who believe that they way to “solve crime” is to make humans feel less than human. And then punish them if they act that way.



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