Posted by Sheila Connolly

Last week I went to jail.

No, I wasn't arrested. Me? Law-biding, virtuous, upright citizen me? I went because the local chapter of Mystery Writers of America arranged for a tour of a county correctional facility, and I thought I needed to know what a jail was really like.

Not that I write about jails, or even violent crimes. As I've said before, in cozies the violence happens off-stage somewhere. And–funny thing–so does the aftermath, once the villain has been identified and caught. The arrest, the processing (the term "booking" apparently is a no-no), the trial, the incarceration. Cozy-writers focus on the middle part–finding the killer.

But it seems like cheating to ignore the rest of it, so when the opportunity presented itself, I went. I admit I was curious. We see so many television shows and movies that depict a fairly consistent view of what goes on inside a prison, and it isn't pretty. We are led to believe that there is violence, both spontaneous and planned. There are gangs. There is forced sex. There are drugs and weapons. And all of this, apparently, is pretty much true, although the degree may vary according to the institution.

So I have to admit I approached this adventure with some preconceived ideas, and most of them were wrong. I expected a dark, dank, loud and stinking place, and it was none of those (of course, if I had been thinking logically, I would have known that they wouldn't let our little group of middle-aged female mystery writers in, if that was the case). My first impression was of quiet, light, spaciousness. And oatmeal: everything was a soothing shade of tan–floors, walls, ceilings. Everything was shiny-clean. It could almost have been a rather spartan hotel, were it not for the heavy duty sliding metal doors everywhere. And the watchfulness of the correctional officers (I think they're called COs, but I can't be sure because we weren't allowed to bring anything like writing paper or a pen).
The officers (most of whom have college degrees–another surprise) wear a basic uniform, and then they start adding things. Those phone/walkie-talkie things attached to their shoulders–and they use them constantly. Keys, often more than one bunch–even though the doors are largely controlled electronically, from control rooms at some other part of the place, with monitors watching every corner. Handcuffs. No weapons–the guards are not allowed to carry guns. And lots of "jewelry", if you will–badges, nametags, insigniae. It's a wonder they don't all clank as they walk, but they don't.

And they are watchful, always. We were escorted through the facility by a very voluble captain–one of the top guys–and he let us see just about everything, including the solitary confinement and protective custody areas, and the mechanisms by which violent prisoners are subdued and restrained–the goal being to minimize damage to both the prisoner and the officers. And through all of this, the captain was in constant contact with someone, or more likely a variety of someones, through his walkie-talkie. Even when he was regaling us with a juicy anecdote, he kept an eye on what was happening around him, and occasionally stepped aside to make a comment to an inmate or group, or to make a phone call.

There is no question that it is weird as a woman to walk into a room filled with close to 100 prisoners, some of whom you know have committed violent crimes. They all turn and look at you. They keep looking at you. It's not hostile; it's not even sexual. Maybe it's just that we represent something new and different, something they don't see every waking minute of every day that they are there, and they are hungry for anything else to look at that isn't the same group of angry, hostile men. And what is the etiquette of the situation? Are we, the interlopers, supposed to avoid eye contact? Smile? Not smile? I don't think Emily Post ever covered this.

This was a "good" jail, as such places go. Overcrowded, true–well beyond its planned capacity. The place offers medical care, psychiatric counseling, drug rehabilitation. It's far more than a warehouse. The officers are not thugs and bullies. They try to treat the prisoners with respect, and want to receive that in return. And in this case, it works, most of the time. It is probably as good as it gets.

So what did I come away with? I'm still working on it, but the reality is–no matter how clean, quiet, comfortable the place it, it's still a jail. The inmates are there because they broke a law, were caught, were sentenced, and were deprived of their freedom. They have a bed–a thin mattress that rests on a metal shelf bolted to the wall. They share an eight by ten room with three other men and a toilet–period. And they are told when and what to eat, to wear, to do. They can't even choose which television show to watch on the only television in their wing–they have to vote on it, and if they can't agree, nobody watches anything. They don't even control the button on the remote control.

The men in this jail have no control over their lives, and in some ways that's scarier than any violence could be.

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Comment by Dennis Leppanen on May 10, 2007 at 1:58am
When I was still writing for the Post-Times in West Palm Beach, I went through the 'total experience' of being arrested for drunk driving.

I spent the evening in the drunk tank at the time--the new West Palm lockup. I stayed in the cell that eventually contained six of us, and 'did time' till my arraignment in the morning.

What a looong night, I would have been better off drunk. The experience as a whole was very degrading...

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