Serving Time

I’ve been in jail. Not only have I been there, but I served close to nine years. Every day, rain, sleet, snow. Christmas, Easter, weekends. Behind bars. I was with murderers who are now on death row. I know most of the prostitutes in town. I have all the contacts I need to buy crack or learn how to dance exotically. I know how and where to hide things inside my body, make a pizza out of Ramen noodles, and pluck eyebrows with elastic strings from socks. I learned how to braid cornrows, color with M & Ms, and use the ink from inmate pens to make eyeliner. I know how to make hooch, fake a seizure, and dry orange peels to smoke. I gained so many useful skills during my time behind bars that I don’t understand why so many felons are unemployed.

My time behind bars wasn’t quite the same as an inmate’s, but I’m pretty convinced it was worse and by the time you get done reading this you might agree. I was a mental health supervisor in a large county jail, one of the largest in the state. We housed anywhere from 1000-1500 inmates on any given day. The jail consists of four buildings with the largest being 5 stories, all consisting of housing units of inmates, both male and female. All of them were innocent. All of them. All. What is wrong with our criminal justice system? Why are we always catching and locking up the wrong people while the real bad guys are out roaming the streets looking for people to rob?

Jail isn’t quite what you’d think. It is by no means a deterrent to crime. Inmates for the most part love jail. What’s not to love? You get to sleep all day, have your meals served to you, watch TV, no responsibility, pay no bills, and get medicated to the point of oblivion. The same inmates come back over and over again. Some sit in the lobby when released and refuse to leave. The jail staff is like family to them, and in fact, some of them are family. When they’re booked in, there are hellos, high fives, catching up on the latest baby count, similar to a family reunion. Then the inmate is checked out by medical and mental health, given free hygiene items, clean clothes, sandals, a shower, peanut butter sandwich, and finally escorted to their room with a view. They get free mental health medication, even if they’re not mentally ill. They get free tooth pulling, and trust me, most of them need it. They get vaginal cream for the latest disease, and sleepy-time pills to comfort them during detox.

Okay, that’s not all totally true. I might have fibbed about not having any responsibility. Once a week they have to clean their rooms, make their beds and stand outside their door for room inspections. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a lot of hard work. And to compensate them, and make jail a little more fun, as a reward for being good boys and girls they have a contest each week. The housing unit that wins the “cleanest” award gets to watch a movie of their choosing, eat pizza and drink soda. Party time! The second place winners get what’s called a “three way” (nope – not what you’re thinking) which consists of a honey bun, candy bar and you guessed it, those good old Ramen noodles. They are really very versatile. You can make anything from pizza to a chocolate cake with them.

I’m not sure what it is about coming to jail but once they get inside the walls, inmates tend to lose all sense of decency (if they ever had any). I have however seen inmates on the outside behaving normally and socially acceptable. Allow me to be more clear about “lose all sense of decency”. Men in jail hate to wear clothes. Seriously. Not only do they not like wearing clothes but they like to show off what they have. They will get naked, get up on the bench in their cell which is directly in front of the window and shake their groove thing. If my mom knew what I experienced daily she would be mortified and I guess if she reads this she will be. As a mental health counselor it’s hard to focus on assessment questions such as “What grade did you complete in school?” when a groove thing is being shaken in your face. If their pants are on, their hands are down the front of them. Do they think something is going to get lost? If I had a dollar for every time I said, “Take your hands out of your pants” I would be retired.  Women don’t do this as often. They are more likely to just flash their boobs at another inmate they have a crush on. That’s what I do when I have a crush on someone. Isn’t that what everyone does? The women do get caught in the shower together a lot doing the naughty. There’s usually one or two women in each housing unit who wish they were men and make their rounds, wining and dining all the other women, in the jail type of way, so they can add as many jail notches on their bedpost as possible.

Tattoos are interesting in jail. I think I’ve seen enough of them to be a fairly good judge. I’ve seen tattoos on penises, inside mouths, on eye lids, and one creative young man had a dotted line around his neck that said “cut here”. That was my favorite. Jail house tattoos are rarely of good quality. In fact they are rarely of any quality. If I was going to get a tattoo in jail, I’d get it somewhere that it would never show. Everyone in jail thinks they are a tattoo artist. I hate to be the bearer of bad news so I’ll just leave it at that. They make tattoos by taking their radios apart and using the wire along with the ink from their pens.

Some people like attention and will do anything for it. They are the most annoying. If you get tired of staring at the same four walls you can always swallow a few batteries or razor blades and get a trip to the emergency room where the medical staff is likely to give you a free phone call to mama so you can tell her to bring you more canteen money. There’s always time to practice and master faking seizures. One fool went so far as to become a professional at urinating and defecating on himself in the middle of his academy award winning performances. I have personally pulled large chunks of Styrofoam out of eye sockets. The Styrofoam was from a suicide tray – you know, the ones given out so people can’t hurt themselves. One particular young man loved to have his testicles checked out by the physician assistant. He also enjoyed having his anal area checked and constantly complained of pain and bleeding however she never found anything wrong. She always swore she was going to inspect elbow high up his anus but it seemed like the more she searched for something wrong, the more he liked it.  As far as his testicles, she finally ordered him a testicle sling to help him hold things up because they were apparently too large and heavy to be comfortable for him. He was really proud of that and made it a point to tell everyone. Razors are given out for use at 3 AM. Why you ask? Who in the world knows! How many incarcerated women do you think shave their legs? Would you get up at 3 AM to shave your legs?

Speaking of shaving, I never knew how many women have beards. Since they aren’t going to get up at 3 AM to shave their legs, they don’t shave their beards either. Wow. Eye opening. I’m not talking about the 5 o’clock shadow. After three weeks it’s more than a shadow, it’s Bigfoot.

We used to have hand sanitizer in all the housing units since MRSA, lice, and scabies are as abundant in jail as mold in a petri dish. That had to go, thanks to all the inmates who drank it to get drunk. They would throw in a jolly rancher for good measure to give it a little fruity kick. They like to fight more when they’re drunk on hand sanitizer. One disturbed soul liked to bite off his body parts when he did this. Once he bit a chunk out of his arm like it was an apple. Another time he bit his bottom lip off. Yep, completely off. And then spit it across his cell.

One of the most enduring things about jail is the love that spreads like wild fire. It reminded me of that great old show “The Love Boat”. More love connections are made in jail than on Match.com. If you stand on the sink in one housing unit you can talk to members of the other sex in another housing unit through the vent in the ceiling. People really fall in love that way. I’ve seen it. It’s real. Opposites don’t always attract either. Often people are linked by similar interests, like the ones who kill their children. They tend to have more in common with others who’ve also offed their kids. It’s nice to have commonalities to talk about.

Most of the people who come to jail are on disability. It’s refreshing to see our government at work, helping the needy, lending a hand. It does take a village after all. Coincidentally, almost everyone who comes to jail has a drug problem. Thank God for bipolar disorder. If it wasn’t for that, how would these poor folks get their free checks to support their habits?  I feel better knowing that much needed government check will be in their mailbox the first of every month for the rest of their lives so at least they will be able to get heroin and vodka for the first week of the month. Then they only have to steal copper for three weeks until the next check arrives.

Some inmates have such severe behavioral problems they have to be restrained. We had a restraint chair for that. It doesn’t really stop bad behavior in the long run, just momentarily. One guy broke his own arm in the chair. Intentionally. He just twisted it until it broke. For one particularly difficult girl who was unable to be maintained safely, the jail purchased her a very expensive restraint bed so she could rest comfortably during her “time out”. That was supposed to be a punishment. Hell, I wanted a nap on that bed. The jail administrator finally figured out after months of coddling her and running to meet her every need that she just needed a tuna sandwich and that solved everything. To this day, he still shares the story with all the mental health professionals that all she needed was a tuna sandwich and we were just too incompetent to figure that out.

Mental health wasn’t respected very well in my jail. The jail administration and his cronies tended to have a military mentality and liked to enforce their “ownership” of the jail. They don’t really like to hear about or admit that mental health staff are trained and might know what they are doing. Our views and opinions were never welcomed. Often we would order suicide precautions, just to find out later it wasn’t followed through with because, “well, he told me he wasn’t suicidal.” Silly me, I don’t know why I continue to pay these student loans since they were for naught. The girl who was cured with the tuna sandwich actually had borderline personality disorder and loved to wrap everyone around her finger one day only to cast them away the next and demand the assistance of her new favorite person for that day. When inmates like this demanded mental health come see them for the fourth time in an hour and we attempted to set limits and boundaries by refusing,  it was often said that mental health was worthless, didn’t do anything, never helped, etc. I even overheard one officer refer to us “the mental health whores.” I guess I’ll take that as a compliment. By the way, the tuna fish sandwich cure worked for all of one day.

Have I talked about poop yet? Inmates love poop. They can poop on command when mad. Then they will make all sorts of Picasso-like paintings on their windows with it.It comes in various shades of greens, browns, yellows, and orange.  It’s really nice when you are the counselor who has to go see them and do an assessment with them while staring at them through their masterpiece and smelling the stench that lingers in your hair for the rest of the day. They also eat their poop, use it for facials, roll it into meatballs to stack in pyramids, and throw it. Have I mentioned yet that there is never a dull moment in jail, much less a day? If the inmate doesn’t feel like smelling their own poop for a few hours until someone else is ordered to clean it up, he might forego that activity and resort to flushing stuff down his toilet to flood the housing unit. I’ve seen some of the prettiest waterfalls from the top tier in Red Pod. The unfortunate  inmates who got the luxury of work duty and cleaning the messes were only in jail for child support. If that doesn’t get a deadbeat dad to pay for his kids, nothing will.

Moving on to suitcases. Why do people pack suitcases to go to jail? The suitcase I’m talking about probably isn’t the one you’re thinking of. Suitcases are body cavities and you wouldn’t believe the things that fit in them. I’m talking about things like guns, drugs, oranges, leftovers from lunch, money, and sporks. Pretty much anything. One pregnant girl brought her drugs to jail in her suitcase and when it was discovered, she was made to fish it out. It took her hours to find the baggie and get it out. Maybe some suitcases are like four bedroom houses. I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure my suitcase only has one room. I could be wrong. I’m no expert.

I could write for a week about the stories from jail. Like the guy who busted his head open on a window. It (the head) burst like a pumpkin. The guy who insisted one of the nurses was a stripper from a local sleazy bar and screamed it at her every time she walked by to make sure everyone knew (she probably was). He swore he wasted his last dollar on her. The girl who jumped from the top floor which resulted in caging being installed on the top tiers to eliminate future skydivers. The cry baby who acted like it was his first time there even on his fifth visit and always needed to call his wife to come visit him and tell him everything would be okay. The young man who knocked all his teeth out in a drunk driving accident and had to have his mouth wired shut only to rip out the wiring three times in his detox delirium. The girl who used the hook in her room that was meant to hang her clothes on to rub her head raw and lose her hair. My favorite girl who ran the Jail House Rock in the SHU (special housing unit – for the ones who couldn’t play nice with others). She got medicated for being psychotic even though she simply entertaining herself and everyone else through the boredom. There’s one precious young lady who is still saying she’s not going to behave until I come back. I’ve been gone two years now. Every day was a new story.

At the time I left the jail, I had been the longest lasting counselor they had ever had. It wasn’t easy. The inmates were actually the best part of the job. The officers for the most part were great also. However, going up the ladder the dysfunction grew. Somebody very smart and in charge decided at some point to put the head of the medical department over the mental health department. Mind you, I would never have wanted the job however let’s compare credentials. I have a Masters Degree, licensure that takes 5 years beyond the degree to obtain, and substance abuse certification that takes another 2 years. I taught graduate level counseling courses at a local university and developed and managed a substance abuse program. My new “boss” was formerly a paramedic with a very large and sick personality disorder. One time she actually texted me at home and asked me to refer to her from now on as “the queen.” I kid you not. I have the text. It was not a joke. And I guarantee you I did not ever follow through with that directive. Our medical staff was made up of RNs, LPNs. CNAs, med techs. The mental health staff was required to take direction from the med techs and CNAs as well as all the other medical staff. We received absolutely no respect. Our decisions were constantly questioned, challenged, and overruled. However, when something bad happened it was always mental health’s fault.

While we’re on the subject of the medical staff. I might add that the mental health professionals were required to fill in for medical when they were short staffed, which was constantly. That meant we, counselors, were required to go from housing unit to housing unit passing out medications. Everyone in jail is on medication for something or another. Everyone claims anxiety, seeing little green men, depression, high blood pressure, whatever it takes to get that pill. Mind you, they don’t take theses medications on the street but when they come to jail they have an epiphany that their health is of utmost priority. Actually getting medication is of utmost importance in jail. It is equivalent to money. When doing a “med pass” we are required to check the inmates’ mouths to make sure they swallow their pills. They have every trick in the book. The inmate would come stand in the med pass line with a tiny cup containing about five drops of water to down 15 pills. With the skills of a magician, they are professionals at raising their hands to their mouths and dropping the pills right into the upper pocket on their pretty orange shirt. They can quickly slide them into a space that used to house a tooth. They can swallow them into the back of their throats and then regurgitate them. Why do they do this? Because then they want to crush and snort them, sell them to someone else who doesn’t care that they are covered in a stranger’s spit, or trade them for honey buns. They were required to open their mouths for us to prove they swallowed the medication however often refused and would walk away. When asked to come back to show us they had swallowed their pills they would hold their heads way back so we couldn’t really see in their mouths or the backs of their throats. Our attempts to follow through with our task efficiently often resulted in us getting yelled at, cussed out, threatened, and called names.

I don’t know why anyone, especially a skilled professional would want to leave such a pie job. I did at some point come to the realization that I was becoming institutionalized and needed to move on before it was too late and I couldn’t live in the real world like the librarian  in “Shaw Shank Redemption”. I have now been released. I released myself. I’ve done my time. I’m free and clear. No parole. No probation. No work-release. No personal recognizance bond. No home incarceration. No ankle bracelet. No community service. I’ve done my community service and yours and yours and yours.

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