Tuesday, September 21, 2010

120 Nights in Jail: Night 1

The following post as well as any others under the 120 Days title are from my experiences between November, 2008 and February 2009 at the Wakulla County Jail.

Well, 105 nights to be exact, when you factor time off for good behavior (yes that is a real thing, not just something from the movies).

In the beginning of October, 2008 I was sentenced to serve 120 days in jail in the Leon County Jail. My attorney, brilliantly convinced the Leon County Jail to let me serve my time in Wakulla County, the next county to the south, about an hour away from my home, so that I could be in their Work Release program. Work Release, just like it sounds, allows a person to leave jail to go to work. "It'll be like staying at a bad hotel." said my attorney. I left the Wakulla County Jail everyday except Sundays (yes, as far as the jail new I worked Saturdays)  at 5:30 am and reported back to the jail by 6:30 pm. Lieutenant Hoppi Strickland, made an exception for me and gave me permission to drive myself to and from the jail. He instructed me to park around the corner at The Wakulla County Health Department, walk around the stand of pine trees and tell nobody, especially other prisoners.

Before jail, for a long time I’ve been into adventure travel and longed for my own adventures. Having eighteen rental properties among other obligations at the time made solo kayaking the Pacific an adventure that didn’t seem like something I’d be able to fit into my schedule. The way I constructed my life I couldn't pickup and move to Tehran for a year just to see what it's like, at least not without disassembling everything I'd already put together. I longed for adventure, an escape from the mundane but didn’t realize what I’d wish for would come to me in quite this way. It did and it was the perfect form of adventure travel for my life at the time because it allowed me to continue to keep up with my obligations. It wasn't an awesomely horrific experience, I wasn't stuck in a Pakistani prison confined to a hole, fed only a scoop of moldy maggot infested rice. Nor am I the wrongly accused sympathetic figure that was screwed by the system. I am just a regular guy who made a bad decision or two and ended up in jail, just like any other American idiot.

I should have foreseen the ironies I’d later encounter during my time at Wakulla when getting into jail was as difficult as you’d think getting out would be. I turned myself in,  as directed by my sentence, no later than 6:00 pm, November 3, 2008. I thought turning myself in would be more monumental than it proved. I'd hoped to walk in to the jail, hands in the air while a waiting sheriff would say,

"You Jeff Brainard?" in the slow country accent native to Wakulla.
"I am" I'd say doing my Johnny Cash
"I been waiting for you, ya dirty ol' dog."
None of this happened. No one even knew I was there. For the first thirty minutes I sat in what I figured was the lobby. Finally I started milling around and found a nurses office and she took me down a corridor where I am told I should have known to have been the whole time. I was now at the real lobby for the jail. The carpet and comfortable chairs were replaced by a cement floor and a metal bench. Behind me and in front of me were one way windows. Behind those windows were guards processing prisoners in and out of the jail. To the left of me was a long hallway of white cinder block walls ending with a heavy gray metal door.

As I waited inmates walked by on there own as if they had some where to go but no reason to go there. Guards walk past with authority but seem to have developed an ability to know you were there without looking at you. And because no one acknowledges your existence it begins to make you think you’ve become forgotten altogether. One of the guards looked like Steve Irwin and I thought "how bad can this guy be, he looks like Steve Irwin and The Crocodile Hunter is a jolly guy.  It appears the main criteria for being a guard is a particular body type for males stiff movement but a large belly with a slow moving waddle. The female guards are required to be every bit of cliche you'd expect when you hear the words "female prison guard." Short manly with man like skin like a leathery cowboy with a short quick paced walk. I tried giving head nods along with a hello-smile but it had no effect. If anything they probably thought, "Why does this kid keep smiling? He's obviously intoxicated. We'll let him sober up before we do anything with him." I waited on the metal bench for three hours waiting to get into jail.

While serving my time on the metal bench I the metal bench across from was occupied by twenty some Hispanic illegals waiting to be booked. What I learned from the group ambassador, the one who spoke English was that Wakulla is a drop off facility for Immigration and Naturalization. The men who sat across from me committed crimes in Florida, they all served their time in the county for which they were charged. Now they were waiting in Wakulla for INS to pick them up to send them back to Panama, Mexico or wherever they called their homeland their homeland. Why the little county of Wakulla was the waiting room for illegals I am still unsure as it is not near any major city or airport.
A fat one from Cuba was both jolly and mischievous. He kept trying to make phone calls when no one was looking. He would slide back and forth from the end of the bench to the phone, tickled as if he was getting a way with something. Perhaps he was just amused by pushing buttons and pretending to talk to someone. Apparently he'd never seen one way glass before as the guards knew exactly what he was up to. One came out and said, "the phone is turned off, it isn't going to work." The man simply giggled.

The most dominant feeling the jail gave me at this point was sterility and coldness. A sterile that did not feel clean but a sterile of indifference like gray on gray. The jail is cold not just in personality but literally. The temperteure set on miserable

At check-in, a guard with the name Zimba on his uniform sat me across his desk and asked me my name. I wanted to reply, "Osama Bin Laden" but knew better. I asked the concierge how long he worked at the jail. How he liked it. Was it what he wanted to be doing. What he likes to do in his free time. The same thing I would do as if I was checking into the Marriott. Zimba was nice, he was young, tall and wore glasses. He looked like he played a lot of video games. I wondered why he, or anyone would have chosen the profession of Jailer. To volunteer for a life sentence of being in jail. And while I smiled and responded to his answers I was scared. I wanted to make this process last for three months. Inevitably it didn't, I was booked and fingerprinted.

I was told to follow a large black guard (clearly the bellhop). Again I made conversation to avoid the inevitable.
"Do you enjoy your job? I said. 
“No, this place is too corrupt.” was his answer
We walked past large rooms of inmates. I wondered which would be mine. A few inmates stood at the inward facing window of their pods doing strange movements with their hands. I asked the black guard with the eighties high top haircut, “How’d they learn sign language?” “They learn it in here,” he said, “People will always figure out a way to communicate.” "What do they have to say?" I wondered, they're both in jail?

He took me to a closet to change into my new wardrobe, zebra stripes. I thought these were only used in old movies. I removed my jeans and stepped into my new clothes. The shirt I wore over a yellow FSU t-shirt (Way to represent. Go Noles!). The zebra outfit was stained with paint and dirt and the material was rough and unflexible like something you’d use to cover a grill, a smock of sorts like wearing canvas.

I was handed a small laundry bag which included two non-fitted sheets, that were once white and now a dingy yellow. If the sheets were new the package would list the thread count at 2. Also in the bag was a pillow case a small towel, a wash cloth and a tattered, paper thin blanket no bigger than the kind you receive on an airplane and resembling something a homeless man would discard as useless.
 I was given one travel size toothbrush and mint toothpaste and a roll of toilet paper. "Travel size?  Where am I going?" I thought. And then the bellman showed me to my room. He called on his radio to open the door to pod three and the large heavy metal door slowly slid open. He instructed me I was to sleep on bunk fifty four (none of the bunks are numbered).

The room or pod that was my home away from home for the next 120 days was three side cement block appointed with one side thick Plexiglas pane windows. It was comforting to know that if Kim Jong Il lost it and sent his nuclear weapons across the globe from North Korea to Wakulla, at least me and the other inmates would be safe. The room came with 59 inmates plus me on metal bunks. I've never seen an army barracks but this is what I imagine only more gray than olive. The bunks were cold and just long enough for your feet to hang over the metal lip. Laying on your side you could feel the cold metal through the mattress press into your ribs, the mint green plastic mattresses like thin versions of lawn chair cushions.

I made my way past men playing cards at the eight metal tables bolted to the floor with metal chairs bolted to them and wandered the rows of bunks. Many inmates were hanging out on their bunks chatting like they were at sleep away camp. Which made me feel like even more of a kid, a kid who just wants to go home. I located the only open bunk, the top of the last bunk in the back of the pod. I spread the non-fitted sheets on my bed. My pillowcase was yellowed from use and came equipped with hundreds of those little round balls of fabric you find on old t-shirts.

I got into bed and took in the rest of my penthouse suite. In the front of the room, above the Plexiglas windows was a 15 inch TV perched half way up the 25 ft. ceiling. In the back of the room was the shower which drained into an open gutter and three stainless steal toilets without seats and two urinals. The urinals smelled as if they’d never been flush, as if they were made from steel piss composite. The pod had six small windows near the ceiling that ran horizontally, no bigger than six inches tall. They allowed you to see just enough sky and trees to see what you're missing.

That night I didn't step off my bunk. I did my best to will myself to sleep. Instead all I could do was lay on my side facing the cinder block wall and try not to cry. The lights went off at 11:30.

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