Friday, September 24, 2010

120 Nights in Jail: Night 2

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.

After falling asleep sometime after midnight my first night I awoke startled by a voice over an intercom. I couldn't make out what it said, it had the quality of most drive-thru windows and from what I could tell was coming from the front of the pod. All the lights were off except for one row of overhead flourescents. The room was a symphony of snores, some loud and nasal, others deep and slow. I scanned the room, everyone was sleeping except two men who'd just crawled out of bed. Eyes fixed, I watched them from my bunk as they pulled on work boots. They went to the door, it opened and they left. Unsure of the time I was concerned. Was this work release? Should I have left with them? When I made my over to the clock on the wall it read 3:00. I did my best to climb back into bed without waking my bunkmate. The second time I awoke all the lights had just come on. It was 5:00. They were preparing to serve breakfast. I could see inmates in white jumpsuits through the plexiglass with metal carts filled with food trays Most of my other roommates, crawled out of bed and formed a line by the door. Some stayed in bed and covered their head to block out the light. Everyone was wearing plain white t-shirts which I thought made them look like a team. Others woke up and began brushing their teeth. I chose to brush my teeth as I knew I'd be leaving shortly and could grab breakfast on the way to the office.

After brushing I went back to my bunk and sat down. I heard the voice come over the intercom again at 5:30, it’s Wizard of Oz-esque, you're not sure where it's coming from, it's loud but since I'm in Wakulla instead of booming and grand it was twangy and incomprehensible. It sounded like the person on the other end didn't understand what they were speaking into was a microphone connected to a speaker, as if they believed they had to actually project their voice through cinder block walls. When I asked another inmate what they had just said he said, "work release." 
"Do I just leave?"
"No, they come get you, they'll call you." 
I was concerned that since everyone else in work release had a ride picking them up it would be clear when they needed to leave but that Lt. Strickland, perhaps forgetful in his old age,  wouldn't be aware that I was now a resident here and that no one would be picking me up because of our secret arrangement. 

At 6:00 the intercom came to life again and I moved from my bed to the front of the room. More inmates left. Perhaps if whoever was behind the one way glass in the control room saw me sitting here waiting to leave they would realize and quickly take corrective action. Of course it did not occur to me at the time that jail isn't really focused on customer service and further, I was just sitting there like someone who wants to get out of jail. Everyone wants to get out of jail.

Unsure of what to do next I watched the clock and waited. After my first night, expecting to be released at 5:30 am for work release the anticipation of coffee, a cigarette and seeing my wife (now ex-wife) drilled holes in my mind. At 8:30 the intercom came to life and two names were called. Two elderly black men lined up at the door. I lined up with them, waving to get the attention of the people in the control room. The intercom came to life, "ahhhhaaa I thought, I'm getting somewhere" 
"Whaddya need" blared the voice
"To go to work, I'm supposed to be in work release."
"Doorspen." said the voice.
"Excuse me?" I replied
"Doorspen." it repeated.
"Pardon me, I can't quite understand what you're saying."
"The door is open." said the voice with irritation.
Though I'm not a master of communication, the implication of this statement meant "it's okay to go ahead and leave." I followed two other work release inmates out of the pod and down the hall. They appeared to know what they were doing and because in jail no one tells you anything, there is no orientation, you simply follow what appears to be right. They walked into a small janitorial closet as a guard was passing, I stopped him and said, “I’m on work release, where do I go?” He directed me to follow him down another hallway, opened the door electronically and let me into an adjoining hallway. He turned away and left. Now I was alone, in a hallway somewhere within a jail and because it is a jail and not a movie theater the exits are not quite clearly marked. After wandering a maze of adjoining hallways I spotted a green exit sign. I imagined my image from the video camera appearing on a black and white screen somewhere, what I must look like, a prisoner in stripes making his way through the jail. Was anyone watching?

The exit I discovered was the back entrance of the front lobby, I saw the front door to the jail, the one I used the night before when I turned myself in. It was as if I could walk out and and undo everything, like I was never here. Can this be it? Do I just walk out? I paced back and forth unsure what to do. Eventually I made my way back to the door the guard had opened for me and found the guard that let me into the hallway. I asked if he could help me find where I was supposed to go, briefly explaining my situation. When you’re talking to a guard you have a half of a sentence worth of their attention, it’s as if they’re not fully listening so you have to be quick before you lose them. Before I could finish he was already on his radio and asked me to follow him. I could tell we were walking back down the rabbit hole towards the inerds of the jail. We arrived at a control room outside of which stood three more guards, one of whom would be the Queen of Hearts herself, the scariest person I'd ever encounter and a constant source of fear and nightmares.

She was an old female guard with a jacket and her grayish brown hair pinned in a bun. Incorrectly, I assumed the woman would be the kindest of the bunch and so I directed my plea towards her. She’d have to be sympathetic I thought, “she’s probably a mom of a kid just like me.” Her face was white like and looked like bread dough. She looked as if she’d absorbed the colors of the jail after the many years of being there. Her eyes hung low in her head, her cheeks sagged creating jowls that began to shake. The woman’s face squinched like someone poured acid on her and suddenly she screamed “What the fuck do you think you’re doing with that goddamn shirt?” Her squint eyes were fire, I was about to be eaten by a lion. “You’re not supposed to have that if you don’t give it to me in three seconds you’re finished.” “Excuse me, I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand,” I said. I was wearing a yellow FSU shirt beneath my zebra stripes. The guard who booked me told me it was okay and not to worry but now I was worried. “Take it off,” she barked. Nervously I took off my zebra shirt and the FSU shirt below. Standing in the hallway shirtless, “You’re trying to escape,” she said as she snatched the shirt from by hand. “No ma’m I’m on work relea-” “Shut up” she ordered, she directed the guard to return me to my pod and said” if you so much as budge from your bunk you’re never getting out of here.” The guard, Nichols, who had let me into the hallway earlier and then back to the control room now escorted me back to the pod his hand on my arm as if now I was suddenly a threat to escape. On the way back he said, “You shouldn't have left if you weren't called. Now you got in trouble.” I told him about what The Voice on the intercom said. "That don't mean you can leave, just means the doors open."

Returning to the pod the other inmates that watched me watching the clock all morning gathered around me. One asked, “What happened, thought you were going to work.” I told them I got in trouble by some kind of demon inhabiting a woman's body. They all nodded in unison and said, “That’s Lt. Kelly.” As if nothing else needed to be explained.

The pod had four phones on the far wall. Calls can only be made collect which cell phones do not allow. Communication with family now impossible, the only landline I knew was my office. I picked up the receiver and the phone was dead. An inmate yelled, "phones don't turn on until 10:00." I climbed into bed, unsure what to do. I knew I needed to get to work. Most of all I needed to call my wife because I knew she'd be worried. At this point I encountered a part of captivity that perhaps today is more impactful than in the past. In a world where communication is as easy as a text message, where all the information you could ever need is obtainable wherever you are the inability to communicate, to receive the information you need is painful. I could not find out why I was not being released and I could not tell anyone about it. Why wasn't I being released? Why wouldn't any of the guards talk to me? How long would this last a day? A week? A month? What I didn't realize at that time was that all those periods of time, a day, a week, a month were irrelevant in jail. When you're captive, time does not function the way it does when you're free. A day was not just twenty four hours, a week not just seven days. New measurements of time were needed, measurements that fluctuated depending on the situation at the moment.

At 10:00 I called my office. Scott answered the robot that told him an inmate from the Wakulla County Jail was calling and he accepted the charges. I told Scott what had happened. He was going to call Allison, my wife, let her know what happened and have her call Alex, my attorney. Since no one could call me back I told him I'd call back in an hour. 

At 11:00 Allison was at my office so I was able to talk to her, a small bit of relief. I could tell she was scared but trying to do her best she was waiting to hear back from Alex. I told her I was fine but I'm sure my voice said otherwise.

I tried to ask another guard about my work release but he couldn't hear my frequency. The only ones willing to provide information are unreliable sources, the criminals. One of the other inmates over heard my conversation and told me it usually took a month or two for your work release application to go through. I did not have a month or two, I needed to leave now. Lunch was served, two green cold hot dogs, four pieces of white bread, a packet of mustard and something resembling coleslaw but completely orange with kool-aid to wash it down.

At 12:00 Allison had spoken with Alex and he told her to give him an hour. 

At 1:00 Allison said, Alex spoke to the Sheriffs office and discovered the mix up was due to an incomplete work release application and they would get back to him with what information was needed. The Sheriff's office was in the same building where I was located and yet it took a collect call, to a wife, to an attorney, back to where the collect call was coming from for information to be given and received.

At 2:00 Allison hadn't heard from Alex.

At 3:00 Allison said, Alex said, The Sheriff's office said the missing information was a signature by a particular jail administrator that was not in the office today as it was election day and many senior jail administrators were out of the office campaigning for Sheriff Harvey. It could not be signed until  tomorrow. Nothing could be done. Allison apologized even though it wasn't her fault.

Once I realized I wasn't going anywhere today and possibly not tomorrow it actually helped how I felt. I could stop anticipating, stop trying to figure out how to get out. I talked to a few inmates even though I had no interest in it. I preferred to lay in bed and make up stories in my head about what each of the other inmates had done like pretending one frail-skinny albino man was an arsonist who burnt down twenty tanning salons.

At 5:30 the meal carts came to serve dinner. Other inmates in white jump suits slid one tray through the door at the time. Everyone stood in line against the wall waiting to be served. When it was my turn a guard who stoodwith  a clipboard next to the inmate serving trays asked for my number. Unsure what this I meant I said I did not know my number. He said not to worry about it and I received my tray. The tray contained a chicken drumstick, grey instant mashed potatos, some kind of unidentifiable bean and a piece of yellow cake. I ate the drumstick and gave away the rest. Even though my body hurt from laying down I returned to my bunk within five minutes of receiving my tray.

At 6:45 everyone who'd left on work release, about fifteen guys returned to the pod. They were in rowdy and in good spirits compared to everyone else. Men played cards at the table, others watched TV while others conspired on bunks.Since it was election day I assumed they would turn on one of the news channels to see who our next president would be. I thought it might be especially meaningful to the three black inmates who were watching TV. They skipped right passed the election coverage and turned on football.

Everyone seemed so comfortable, like they were kind of happy or even if they weren't happy they all seemed okay. Like when you first get a puppy and the first few days it just kind of sits in the corner unsure of it's new environment. I just stayed in bed and tried to avoid thinking of my wife lying in our bed all alone. To avoid thinking about how I disappointed my parents. I did this by trying to remember things I'd forgotten. In Kindergarten, making a Christmas ornament in the shape of a tree with my picture in it. The "field day" themed birthday I had. I tried to remember as many kids in each class from Kindgergarten through highschool.  I tried to remember regular ordinary days, not special occasions, like what did you do on Tuesday? What about the previous Tuesday? Tuesday two weeks ago? It was uncomfortably cold without a shirt under my zebra strips. I had no socks either and the thin blanket was only long enough to keep my feet tucked in or my arms but not both. I tucked my feet in, curled up and at some point I fell asleep.


  1. Glad to see you writing these.

  2. thanks sean, I appreciate it. glad to see you reading them :)

  3. Jeff- you are a remarkable writer. You should get these compiled into a book of sorts.

  4. thanks michela, that is really nice. Talk to your people at CMT maybe i can get them compiled into a country album and you can sing them