Wednesday, September 29, 2010

120 Nights in Jail: Night 3

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.

At 5:00 the lights came on, startled I sat up quickly. I looked around and remembered where I was. The inmate in charge of serving breakfast banged on the glass three times and yelled something unintelligible. Later I realized he said, "chow time." I noticed the blanket that was covering my lower half, it appeared to be a reddish brown. It was tattered near the ends with a few holes throughout. I held a piece of it close to my eye to determine what color it was. When closely examined I could see it was actually a combination of green, blue, brown, red, orange, yellow, black and grey like those tightly woven carpets they install in schools and public buildings. I threw the blanket off and went to stand in line to get breakfast.

As happened the day before an inmate in an all white jumpsuit slid a tray and a small Styrofoam cup of water through a slot in the door to each inmate. The trusties handed us our food while a guard stoodby with a clipboard making note of who received their meal. Again, I was asked my number which I still I didn’t know what number the guard was referring to. This time the skinny black kid who was handing out the trays decided he didn't have time for my ignorance and told the guard “twenty five, twenty five.” The guard looked at his clipboard and said, “no.”A second time I tried to explain I don’t know my number but the guard would look down as if he didn't hear me and then moved on to the next person never acknowledging or letting me know the actual number I was supposed to say. The black kid handed me my food and water. This guessing game repeated itself at every meal for the rest of my time in Wakulla. After about a week I stopped trying to explain and just guessed different numbers for every meal. 

Breakfast was two pieces of white bread pretending to be French toast along with a ketchup packet of syrup along with grey oatmeal all served cold to go with the climate of the jail. After carb-loading most inmates went back to bed as did I. 

At 5:30 I again watched work release leave for the day, knowing I was supposed to be with them but unable to do anything about it I just watched jealously as they left. 

Around 10:00 the intercom said, "BRANARD! BRANARD! Get dressed." I was so excited I leapt off the bed slipped on the orange flip flops I was assigned and ran to the door. After a couple minutes a man who became synonymous with freedom, Lt. Hoppi Strickland opened the door to the pod. He looked down at his a manila file folder and up at me and said, "Brainard?" I nodded.  "Come with me Brainard." 

Lt. Hoppi Strickland, every bit the good ol’boy you’d expect with a name like Hoppi Strickland, was an old man, probably in his early sixties, bald with stiff movement and poor posture. As I followed him through the corridors of the jail I noticed the bunched skin on the back of neck where it met the collar on his green sheriff uniform. It looked doughy and I could smell his Old Spice. When my dad used to wear Old Spice I never cared for it but it became a smell I loved. If you were smelling Old Spice you were about to be free, at least for the day.

Following him through the jail would soon become the best part of everyday. Me and the ten or so other work release guys would walk as he led us to freedom. I pretended we were POWs and we were his guys and he was our captain, he'd swiped one of the enemy uniforms and was now leading us out of the enemy prison. Hoppi, as everyone called him, looked like the older cousin of R. Lee Ermey, the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. He was strict but nice at the same time. With a crotchety grumpy tone he'd zing an inmate and then laugh at his own joke.  He was the only person in the facility that seemed to care about the inmates, just not too much where it'd be obvious to other guards.
 For me and the others on work release he was the most powerful person in the jail even though he wasn’t the administrator. He was our freedom and everybody liked him. 

Hoppi led me to the lobby of the jail and held the door for me to walk out into the only parking lot i ever considered beautiful. When I stepped through the door, the sun on my skin felt as if I'd just left a toxic cocoon. The warmth of the day reminded me what it was like not to be cold. It felt as if it was the first time in about 40 hours, my body was awake.

Hoppi took me to his office which was actually just a shed outside the jail across the parking lot. Opening the door to his make shift office you’d expect to see lawn mowers but instead it’s filled with filing cabinets, a large wooden desk, so large it's surprising when you open the door. It looks as if the shed was built around the desk because it would never fit through the door. The desk was exactly the large wooden type you'd expect for a sheriff and surrounded by framed photos of his Brahma Bull, Pete, who he referred to with tender affection as, “a good ol’boy.” On his desk were business cards for “Strickland’s Goats and Hog” with the sub-head “live or skinned, whole or parts.” I imagined him skinning a hog. It was a good fit for him.

He apologized for not being able to get me out yesterday and confirmed that my truck was around the corner at the health department and told me I needed to return by 6:30. He took me to the shed next door to change. My clothes and keys were in a blue bin waiting for me. As quickly as humanly possible I removed my clothes, pulled my Noles shirt over my head, put my legs in my jeans and ran out of the shed before someone changed their mind. I imagined a sniper taking aim and realized running from a jail was not a good idea. When I started my truck it idled a little higher for a minute, as if to say, "Glad to see you Jeff." I lit the best cigarette in the world and took off towards Tallahassee. At a stoplight I exchanged glances with a middle aged lady in the car next to me. She smiled and it occurred to me she had no idea I was currently an inmate. On the way to Tallahassee the whole world seemed amazing. I stopped at the first gas station I came to for a coffee. As I handed the clerk my debit card I could see her staring at my arm. On my wrist was the yellow band that read Wakulla County Jail. I smiled weakly at her and she smiled back in discomfort. I wondered if she'd report an escapee purchasing coffee.

Back on the road I said hello to the birds, telephone poles and pine trees. I could stop at Circle K if I wanted. Or McDonalds or Publix or take a tour of the Old Capital. Until 6:30 I could do whatever I wanted. Instead of any of those things I went to my office to see my wife and friends. I called my mother and she instructed me that this was to be our routine. I was to call her every morning as soon as I got in my truck so she knew I was okay. She also informed me that Barack Obama had won the election.

Allison met me at my office with our dog Benson and we hugged the kind of hug a soldier receives when they return from war. Her eyes were puffy, she looked tired and sad. Benson hyper at seeing me licked my face as if he understood the situation. She brought me sandwiches and cottage cheese and I told her about the carb-loaded breakfast, Lt. Kelly, the pod and my tattered blanket. I tried to explain things as if they were funny which only had the effect of making her cry. I told her about the zebra stripes thinking that the image would make her laugh but it only made things worse. At the time I didn't appreciate the stress she'd endured in the past forty hours. And while I was scared and uncomfortable in jail at least I knew what I was facing. She did not and her imagination was likely worse than my reality. Ironically, the more sad she became the more positive I became. She stayed for a while. At my desk I read the news to catch up on the election. Eventually she left to go buy me socks, boxers and plain white t-shirts.

Four or five times that day I repeated my stories from the past two days to my bosses, friends and family. Repeating them gave me a small amount of confidence in my situation, perhaps understanding it better, not being there and laughing at the ironies and silliness of the whole situation. My afternoon was spent teaching forty students at Florida State University how to be more creative. Part of my job involved teaching an advertising class called Creative Strategy. This semester class was Wednesday from 3:30-6:00. I'd have to excuse myself at 5:30 to leave to head back to Wakulla. The duality of my life left me slightly amused.

At 5:30 I left to return to Hotel Wakulla. On the way I listened to Johnny Cash and sang
"I Got Stripes.......Stripes Around My Shoulders
  I Got Chains.......Chains Around My Feet"

I parked at the health department, called Allison to tell her goodnight and that I'd gotten to the jail in time. I wandered back to the shed where I'd changed that morning. A few other guys on work release were there waiting. We sat and smoked cigarettes on a picnic table while they talked. At exactly 6:30 a guard came out of the jail and let us into the shed. His name was Lt. Strickland, he was old, probably in his seventies. He was tall, grouchy, wore dentures and had an extra amount of skin beneath his chin that flapped when he spoke. The ten other men and I placed our real world clothes in a blue bin with our name and photo on it and changed back into criminals. The new socks felt especially soft on my feet. Once everyone changed and the Lt. Strickland led us around and into the jail through the back. He ordered everyone to wait up against a wall while he went into a control room.

Standing across from the one way glass I could see my reflection. I suddenly felt that this was all wrong. I thought about being a kid, being a little playful, a little smartass but never bad. About highschool and being disruptive but never a serious troublemaker. I always made honor roll, did they know this? Honor roll kids aren't supposed to be in jail. I was a drama nerd not some punk that smoked in the parking lot. Drama nerds don't go to jail. I squinted at my reflection and thought about college about the scholarships I'd received about graduating with honors. Sure I partied but everything I did illegal was silly, nothing seriously criminal. And here I was, my reflection telling me I was wrong. I thought about buying real estate and stocks about working as a consultant and teacher. Consultants aren't supposed to go to jail. I stood there looking at my reflection slightly shaking my head wondering how I'd gotten here, not realizing everything I knew about myself was beginning to change.

Lt. Strickland returned wearing rubber gloves with a a large black guard named Porter also wearing gloves.  Porter looked like Fat Albert except he serious, almost comically mad. I wondered if he was a bad dancer and because of his size I assumed he was probably bad at sports. Even though it is unfair it made me feel better to pretend that his anger was a result at failing at two things society expects black men to succeed at. I imagined him crying in his pillow after being laughed off a basketball court. This allowed me to believe he was just misunderstood and not purely evil. Porter had huge bulging green eyes that delighted in what was to follow. They ordered us from the wall to a small eight by eight holding cell and instructed us not to use the toilet. Waiting in the holding cell I can see a certain stiffness in a few inmates. Lt. Strickland asks for the first two and Porter says I'll take the next two. Four inmates leaves the cell. The remaining inmates joke about how Lt. Porter is tough and loves to get a piece of ass every night, our ass. A tough looking inmate who reminds me of my uncle Steve except with a white patch of hair on his otherwise brown head says, “if you don’t like it don’t go to jail.”

Meanwhile I had no idea what they were talking about or what was about to happen. Then Porter returned and said, "next two." Eager to end my anticipation I followed him into a small janitorial closet. In the closet I was surprised to find another equally large but much less menacing black guard wearing gloves.  He nodded at me. Which I thought strange because guards don't normally show any signs of acknowledging that you are alive. I nodded back and stood there. He nodded at me again. I was beginning to wonder if this was some sort of code until the other inmate started undressing and I realized what his nods meant. The nod meant "take your clothes off." As I began undressing the guard extended his hand and asked for my clothes. He turned them inside out and felt the seems for anything that could have been hidden. I was instructed to remove my socks and my underwear. I remove my underwear, now standing completely naked when the large guard with the kind eyes says,
"Open the pouch."
"Excuse me?"
"The pouch, I need to see in the pouch?"
"The pouch?" I say, very naked equally confused.
"On your underwear man, where your dick goes, your pouch."said the other inmate frustrated with my naivete.
"Oh. right. okay, the pouch, oh." I said trembling naked trying to separate fabric from fabric.

Then he says, “cough.” I thought this meant he was going to check my testicles like a physical, which I thought a nice and a surprising service for a jail to offer. Standing upright I covered my mouth and went “acch.” Porter and the other guard laughed along with the other inmate who said, “no, he doesn’t want to check your nuts, turn around, bend over, spread your cheeks and cough.” Considering this for a second I stood there blinking, like when you call a dog and he just looks at you, I looked at the guards for assurance this is what they wanted. I followed the instructions, bent over, my head near the ground with my hands reaching back to spread my cheeks I went "acch" and shouted, "is this good? Is this what you wanted?" The guard said, "yeah that's it, you can stop now" approving that my asshole was in acceptable condition. He handed me my clothes back.  I quickly redressed and asked his name. “Sgt. Thomas,” he said. I told him I’d never done that without knowing a person’s name but complimented him on doing a good job.

After the exam the door was opened and we were told to stand against the wall while the remaining inmates from work release could be checked. We were led back to the pod where I saw a fat old man showering. Men were playing cards as they greeted some of the guys from our group. I went back to my bed and pretended to sleep. It was 7:00. The room was loud with laughter and playful yelling.  I wondered how anyone could laugh in jail. I thought about getting out the next morning at 5:30. I calculated that I only had 10.5 hours. I was still awake when the lights went off at 12:00.

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