Archive for the ‘Prisons and Jails’ Category
So I arrive at the “institution,” slam the shift into park, grab my lunch box, and make it inside for role call just in the nick of time. Another two minutes and the captain would’ve written me up, again. Guaranteed time off without pay. A crappy start to a crappy night.
The 4 p.m. count was off. I counted 220 inmates and the outgoing officer counted 219. On the second walk-through I got 219 and her total was 220. On the third attempt we both counted 219. The trouble there was that the actual total in our building should’ve been 221. We got it right on the fourth pass.
I got stuck with being posted standing outside the chow hall to monitor “the line.” 600 inmates, all waiting for the doors to open so they could get their once per month piece of real meat—bone-in chicken. It’s like a freakin’ holiday in that place on “chicken day.” My job was to stand there like an elementary school safety patrol clutz, preventing grown-ass men from cutting line. Of course, there were fights. Some tatted-up white guy cut in front of the black guys. A black guy cut in front of the Nazi Lowriders. And the Mexican Mafia was putting up with none of it. Then all hell broke loose. And it was me, little ole me, against them until reinforcements arrived.
Finally, after the dust settled and ten prisoners were carted off to the hole, the evening meal passed without further trouble, and the chicken actually looked pretty good. No way I’d have tasted it, though. Couldn’t pay me to eat food cooked by inmates.
I spent the next four hours out on the yard where the inmates segregate themselves by race—black guys by the basketball courts, the Native Americans dominated the handball courts, white guys occupy the area by the softball field, Hispanics own the soccer field, and the Italians settle at the bocci area. Then, each group has their own little cliques inside each of their areas. Some of the white guys sit to themselves to play guitars. A few of the black guys hang out by the picnic tables testing their latest rap songs on their buddies. And, well, you get the idea. But the one thing that’s clear is that there is absolutely no mixing of the ethnic groups. The only exception to the no-mixing rule is with the gay guys. They hang out with anybody who’ll have them and no one cares.
There are “guards” who stand watch over each group, and they’re there to let their people know if or when trouble approaches, including a visit from from staff. Looking in from the outside you’d think the inmates are doing nothing more enjoying a bit of fun time. The reality is that many of them of are scheming and plotting all sorts of things. I make a point to waltz through each area as often as I can to let them know that I know what’s up.
Only one stabbing out there on the yard on this particular shift, and that happened when the 9 p.m. buzzer sounded to announce the yard was closing. Too many people in a group to see who stuck the guy so there were no charges and no one went to the hole for it. Investigators would review the videos later.
After everyone was back inside and the doors were locked, it was time to count them again. 221 on the first pass and, by the way, that’s 221 inmates locked inside an open dormitory with only two officers to watch over them.
TV rooms are also self-segregated in the same manner as the rec yard and chow hall—Hispanics in one room, whites and blacks each to themselves, with Italians generally joining the white guys, but for TV-watching only. So those rooms were full (each inmate has to bring his own chair from his cubicle if he wants to sit). The big TV’s in the common area rooms are for watching sports and movies, or whatever the majority wants to see. Of course that, too, is dominated by whichever ethnic group has the most people in the room at the time.
There’s a room at the front of the dorm where inmates do their own cooking, using one of the half-dozen microwaves that’re perched on a long shelf attached to a wall. The opposite wall is home to community washers and dryers. The meals these guys prepare using minimal tools and ingredients are pretty amazing. And the desserts…all I can say is…incredible.
Inmates purchase their recipe ingredients from the commissary—items such as bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, sardines, potted meat, tuna, cakes, cookies, etc. And they somehow turn them into dishes that would make any Chopped contestant extremely envious. When the meals are ready the cooks share with their close friends, or they deliver the steaming hot food to other inmates who’d paid to have the meals prepared for them. The Italian “bosses” really seem to fare pretty well in this regard, having their meals catered, shoes shined, clothing washed and pressed, hair trimmed, etc.
At night the place is extremely loud with chatter and laughter, card playing, TV’s blaring, and such, but when the buzzer sounds for lights out it all comes to a halt. A pin dropped onto the gleaming concrete floor would resound like the 13-ton bell of Big Ben.
The time between 10 p.m. lights-out and midnight shift change is typically a quiet time. Most inmates get up early to go to work, so they do little more than immediately go to sleep. Some, however, read or listen to Delilah playing sad songs and telling sappy, sad stories on their radios (ear buds or headphones must be used at all times). However, it’s around 2 a.m. when things become a bit challenging, even for the most experienced officers, because that’s often a time when the pants come down and the bending over begins—willingly, or not.
The first time I rounded a corner and saw two men, one bent over and backed up to the front of another, well, I didn’t know what to say. I’d only been working there about two weeks at the time and, honestly, the sight totally embarrassed me. It was dark, and I was using my flashlight to illuminate the cubicles and their occupants, and when my light hit those two guys they immediately stopped what they were doing, but didn’t separate, and gave me that “deer in the headlights” look. I’m sure the expression on my face was quite similar. Thankfully, they couldn’t see me (but I’d certainly seen far too much of them). All I could think to do was snap off the light, and did. When I switched it back on a second later they were gone. I never mentioned it to anyone and neither did they.
So my shift was over and it was time to drive home. I was sleepy and tired and was looking forward to crawling between the sheets for some well-earned shut-eye. In addition to my shift at the prison, I’d worked all day at my second job, digging, planting, pruning shrubs, and mowing lawns.
However, just as I was exchanging keys with the oncoming building officer, my sergeant stopped by to tell me that I’d been drafted to work the midnight shift. Seems that someone on the next shift had called in sick and my name was next on the list for the draft. To make matters worse, I’d been assigned to tower duty for the next eight hours. Mind-numbing tower duty, where you sit in a small box on stilts and stare out at absolutely nothing for an entire shift. Radios and cell phones aren’t allowed, so keeping the old eyelids open is always a chore.
But it’s a job. A job that, at best, is not great. But, where else could you go to have crap and urine thrown in your face every day of your life? Ah, you gotta love what you do, right?
Inmate J.L. Bird had never heard of the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS), let alone be a part of their mobile inventory. And after experiencing it, well, he didn’t care if he never heard of it again…ever.
He’d been traveling with JPATS for three days and already he was sick of it. He was also pretty darn sick of the U.S. Marshals who watched his every move, including during bathroom breaks. He was weary of flying a zig-zagged pattern across the U.S., landing at what seemed like every remote airfield in the country to either drop off or pick up inmates.
Then came the never-ending, end of the day van rides to county jails, the holdover facilities located in hick towns that were surely too small and too backward to be considered even for the filming of Deliverance. In fact, Bird was quite sure that most of their holdover locations were in towns with names recognized only by loyal viewers of Hee Haw—places like Bumpass and Doodlum, Va., and Talking Rock, Ga., the little honey hole in Pickens County nestled between Ellijay and Jasper. Yeah, those fine metropolises.
Bird did learn that in exchange for holding federal prisoners, the federal government paid county sheriffs $70 per day per federal inmate held. And that’s a pretty sweet deal for merely furnishing a blanket on a concrete floor, a couple of boiled eggs, and maybe a dry sandwich made from stale bread and greenish-tan bologna.
He also learned that deputy sheriff’s didn’t give a rat’s patootie about federal prisoners, and that they pretty-much ignored him and the others. In fact, many of the star-wearing deputies mistreated the federal prisoners, forcing them to sleep on the floor in dirty, unused cells. Bird and his crew were the last to be fed, receiving leftovers, and they were the last to see soap and water. Therefore, they often went several days without bathing, deodorant, or brushing their teeth. And that really made for a sweet-smelling ride in the back of hot vans, and airplanes that recycled the cabin air.
But, after several unpleasant layovers in county jails, the JPATS jet finally touched down at Will Rogers airport in Oklahoma City. A real airport with real people scurrying about, tending to whatever duties are assigned to airport workers. Bird was ecstatic. He was overjoyed at the thought of seeing honest-to-God people other than the unwashed pack he’d been traveling with for the past several days.
FTC Oklahoma. The jetway is pictured at the top of the image.
The JPATS jet taxied to the far west corner of the airport, though, bypassing the regular terminals, and pulled alongside a private jetway leading to a brick building that stood alone on the airport property. This was the Federal Transport Center.
The FTC Oklahoma City is the hub for JPATS air transport. It’s the facility where many federal inmates are housed until they’re assigned to a permanent prison. It’s also where prisoners are housed while in transit to new prisons, court, etc. Bird finally learned that he was on his way to a hearing at the federal court in Richmond, Va.
“Absolutely no talking!” shouted the marshal who’d stepped inside from the jetway. He rubbed his stubby fingers across his buzz-cut. “Not a sound unless one of us asks you a question. You’ll stand perfectly still until a marshal or other officer gives you a command. Do not, and I repeat, do not let your ankle chains mar the floors in the hallway. Okay, let’s go. Single file. In the jetway, now!”
Unfortunately, for Bird, he’d see not a single civilian. The jetway led directly into the prison facility. However, he was pleasantly surprised at how clean and fresh it was inside. The floors were highly polished and there wasn’t a single blemish on the stark white walls. Overheard fluorescent fixtures lit the long hallway like a night game in Fenway Park.
Bird and his fellow travelers made their way along the wall (following a red line painted on the floor) until they reached three BOP officers who were busy removing handcuffs, waist chains, and leg irons. Bird was elated when the set of leg irons were removed from his ankles. Wearing the steel cuffs daily for a week had rubbed the thin skin there until it was raw and extremely sore.
Next came a brief orientation, a chat with a psychologist, a quick consult with a counselor, and then to their assigned housing units. Bird met his unit officer who assigned him to a cell. Again, Bird was pleased to find a spotless cell, complete with a soft mattress, soft pillow, a large window, and a real door. No bars!
Bird was also pleased to learn that he could shower whenever he liked and as many times as he liked. And, the facility provided the inmates with soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, and more. And, within minutes, kitchen workers delivered a hot meal to the unit for those who’d been traveling all day. The food was absolutely delicious. Real bone-in chicken. Not the unidentifiable ground goop he’d been used to eating back at the prison.
The unit was quiet. The inmates seemed pleasant (he’d discovered that he’d been assigned to a low security unit). And the guard was a guy who addressed the inmates either by their last names or by calling them “sir.” As in, “Thank you, sir.” “Sir, when you get a minute would you please stop by my desk.” And the prisoners did the same in return. There was no shortage of respect.
It was late in the day when the JPATS jet touched down in Oklahoma, so it wasn’t long before the sun set. Bird noticed that as soon as it was dark outside, all the cells/rooms on his side of the unit went dark. Not a single light on in either of them. The cells across the day-room, opposite his, were all brightly lit. He also noticed that most of the inmates had suddenly disappeared into the darkened cells, and it was not yet time for lockdown. Curious, he asked one of the few remaining prisoners, a slack-jawed, flamboyantly gay guy who’d somehow managed to paint his fingernails fire engine red, about the strange occurrence.
“”It’s showtime,” he said. “Not my cup of tea, though…if you know what I mean.” He winked at Bird, but Bird didn’t have a clue what he meant, and his confused expression prompted the prison sweetie to say, “Go have a look. You’ll see.”
So Bird opened the door to his cell and found a gaggle of prisoners gathered at the narrow window, looking across to the next wing. Bird quickly saw the attraction. The next unit over, with windows perfectly aligned with those in Bird’s unit, was the unit that housed female prisoners. Bird also noticed that while the lights were off on his side of the unit, the rooms across the way were brightly lit.
And standing, sitting, dancing, jiggling, wiggling, or gyrating in each window, was a totally nude female prisoner who was working hard to entertain the male population of the transfer center.
It was indeed showtime in Oklahoma, a long-standing tradition, and each cell had its own private, live peep show that lasted until lights out at 10 p.m.
Bird slept better that night than he had in a long, long time. And he went to sleep feeling a little dirty, even though he’d showered three times in as many hours.
*Of course, inmate J.L. Bird is an imaginary prisoner, however, his journey is one of thousands that take place each and every work day of every week. JPATS is indeed a very busy operation. Oh, the peep shows are also very real…