Tuesday, June 24, 2008
I've never been to jail before. Yes, my mother is very proud.
When I learned the Polk County Commissioners were taking their biannual tour of the jail in Dallas, I simply couldn't pass up a chance to see what I hopefully never would have otherwise.
About 10 of us walked over to the jail around noon on June 18. We were led to the back of the building. Sgt. Barb Shipley met our apprehensive-looking group at the staff entrance, buzzed us in and passed out badges with the word "VISITOR" emblazoned on it in all caps -- just in case anyone got confused.
Shipley's cell phone rang loudly in the small, empty room.
"Jail break!" County Commissioner Tom Ritchey joked.
I had felt uneasy about being in jail to begin with, and the possibility of a jail break did nothing to soothe my anxiety. This 22-year-old city girl tried to be prepared by checking out who was in jail online, but it only made me more frightened. Mug shots can't make anyone look friendly.
Shipley showed us staff offices and gun lockers, as no weapons are allowed in the facility, and explained many of the doors in the jail are interlocking. I felt like I was at the zoo in the bird cages, making sure to close the first door before opening another so the birds do not escape. It was the same, just replace criminals with the birds.
Next, Shipley showed us where it all begins for inmates. Patrol cars drop them off in the carport, where they move into the pat-down area. He or she may have to use a Breathalyzer, be interviewed and thrown into a holding cell.
The cell was nothing special, just a white room with a phone, toilet and very uncomfortable looking shiny metal bench.
In the booking area, the smell began to bother me. The scent of industrial chemical cleaner sat stale in the air, and I began to feel a little claustrophobic in the pure-white room without a trace of daylight. The designer had painted the doors and trim bright turquoise, but that didn't detract from the feeling of utter coldness, emphasized by more of the metal benches lining the walls.
This room led us to two of the worst features. Shipley showed us the restraint chair, a black seat with all sorts of straps and locking devices on it. Ritchey again made some jokes to lighten the mood, but the chills I was feeling only increased as we were shown the padded cell.
Shipley explained that people are placed in the padded cell who may be a danger to themself, and they have certainly left their mark. The padding is a soft, light brown material, and inmates have scratched initials, profanity and other graffiti into it.
One glance inside, and you can read "Shorty," "NAVA" and see crosses etched in by those once locked inside.
Maybe I've seen too many movies, but my heart was pounding. Shipley kept going on about laundry, bar codes and fingerprints, but I was just trying to take slow, deep breaths. I had never seen anything like that room before with my own eyes, and part of me wanted to run out of there as quickly as possible -- but I couldn't. I was in jail, where they are experts at keeping me locked inside.
Now that I was thoroughly freaked out, we were led into the main corridor where we came face-to-face with the inmates. The men being held on the bottom floor pressed their noses up to glass walls with an odd sheen. Shipley explained how the glass gives us the ability to see them, but those inside couldn't see us unless they pressed their noses up to it.
This is exactly what they were doing, their noses on the glass, seeming to leer at us, but just trying to see what the noise was.
In general, the jail was very quiet. Eerily quiet. However, as the tour continued through the female-inmate division, the concrete recreation yard where even running isn't allowed, the visitation booths and law library, I was beginning to feel more comfortable.
Up a flight of stairs, Shipley took us into the control room. It was a small, dark space lit by computer monitors, where staff sat and controlled the doors and intercoms. It felt like I was at the Pentagon.
More screens scrolled through each camera, showing inmates sleeping under blankets. One inmate was sitting on the floor, his knees to his chest, looking like a lost, frightened child.
Shipley said inmates are woken at 11:30 a.m. each day for a meal, and most go back to sleep afterward.
Now it was our turn for lunchtime. Our group was served in a sort of programming room, and no one was very chatty.
Big light brown plastic trays held our lunch, highlighted by a bright red plastic spork. On the menu was bread, butter and meat, possibly ham, to make a sandwich, cole slaw, onion and potato mash, and a cookie.
The food was not delicious, to say the least. Most everyone happily ate the bread and cookie, but one woman wouldn't even touch her tray. She sat looking at it with defiance.
Shipley assured the commissioners that they were having the same lunch as the inmates, and answered some routine questions about the facility.
She said although the jail was completed in 1999 to hold inmates for a year or less, some have stayed as long as 2.5 years.
The last stop on our tour was the kitchen, where our meal was prepared assembly-line style by low security male inmates. It reminded me of the industrial kitchens at summer camp or college -- well, at least the smell of soap and food and the humidity did. The knives on tethers? Not so much.
Shipley said they count all of the sharps and utensils four times each day to make sure none of the pieces were taken. One last chill went down my spine as I thought of what could happen if an inmate got hold of a knife.
Luckily, our tour was coming to a close.
As I walked up to Shipley and returned my visitor's badge, I realized how lucky I was to take it off and simply walk out the door into the sunshine. I can honestly say I hope I won't ever return.