Names have been changed.
About a year ago, I found myself in jail. By “found myself,” I don’t mean that I had a grand spiritual awakening there, which changed the course of my life and led me to flee the Navy and set up a basket-weaving tent in Dubai. I only mean that I was pretty surprised to be there. I wasted my one phone call, calling the person who had called the cops on me in the first place, so chances of being bailed out were pretty slim.
The cops were pretty nice, and one of them reassured me, during my professional photography session, saying, “Don’t worry. There are lots of people in here way worse than you.” I felt comforted, knowing I would be the nicest person in my peer group. Maybe I would win a certificate or a “Miss Congeniality” trophy.
I was given the mandatory opportunity to perform a striptease, as well as the chance to trade my boring outfit for a set of scrubs and a t-shirt, sized XXXL, which seemed to have been donated by a sloppy eater with a broken washing machine.
I waited around in my cell, which was freezing cold but extremely well-lit, wondering what kind of people my new roommates would be. I crossed my fingers in the hopes they would be quieter than my shipmates in boot camp, with less tendency to complain all night.
A shriek rang through the halls, and I heard a woman screaming, “Get away from me! Don’t you touch me! You have no right!”
It seemed a maniac had been picked up by law enforcement and was being escorted to a cell.
Please, God, I prayed, Don’t let them put her in here with–
Clang. There she was. Welcome home, roomie.
Her eyes darted madly about, and she backed away from me until she was against the wall. “Are you with THEM?” She gasped.
“No,” I said, “I’m with us.”
She relaxed visibly and started setting up her living area. By “living area,” I mean she put her mattress down on the concrete floor. We each had a thin mattress in a plastic tub, a change of socks, an extra t-shirt, and bedding. I found out later that I should have been given a plastic cup and a spork, but neither of those items ever came through, and I went without a drink until the next day, when the lunatic–I’ll just call her Meth-head Mandy for now–offered to share her cup with me. I asked the guards every time they came around for a cup, but they seemed to be suffering with short-term memory loss, and I got pretty thirsty before long.
Many other women joined us, until the floor was completely covered with mattresses. Much to my surprise, every single one of them were innocent of any wrong-doing, claiming misunderstandings, framing, or police error. I was pleased to be in such outstanding company.
For a bunch of upstanding citizens, they were pretty quick to fight, and I worried about Meth-head Mandy when she stole another woman’s mattress while that woman was temporarily away with the officers. Despite the overwhelming evidence against her, such as having two mattresses stacked atop each other, she decried her accuser until fists were raised and the victim and her crony had Mandy pinned against the wall. Only then did she surrender her extra mattress.
The worst thing about being locked up was having no idea how time was passing. With no window, no clock, and the lights always on, I lost all track of time. The only indication of any time having passed was being fed through the slot in the door. I have occasionally complained about Navy chow, but the galley is a five-star bistro compared to jail. The first night, we each got a baked potato covered in spaghetti sauce. Possible to eat with your fingers, but challenging.
At some point, we decided it was night and lay down to sleep. “Wait,” said an elderly lady “Nobody has said prayers. I’ll start.”
I closed my eyes and bowed my head, and the lady began, “Dear Lord Jesus, we thank you for bringing us all here together…”
All the oxygen emptied from my lungs. I bit my cheek with all my might, willing myself not to laugh and possibly offend this congregation of innocent and quick-tempered church-goers. The laugh escaped as nothing more than a choking gasp, which led to one comment of, “That’s right, sister, just depend on Jesus. He knows you’re innocent, just like me.”
“We can’t all sleep at once!” said Meth-head Mandy. “The cops will come in here and strangle us all to death, if nobody is awake to see them!”
Great, I thought, Even in jail, I can’t get out of standing watch.
“Don’t worry,” one woman said, “They won’t try anything with her here.” Much to my surprise, she pointed at me. “She could probably beat up everybody in this room at once, so we can all go to sleep.” I have no idea how I gave that impression, but it achieved the desired effect.
I don’t think we slept very long, but who knows? A woman was taken away. A woman was given back. A woman was taken away. A different woman was given.
She came in breathless and excited. “Did you hear?”
She had just been moved from “the cage” down the hall, where a woman who had been in the news for shaking a baby to death had been deposited. She said the guards put her in there, remarked on her crime, and went away on rounds. I am grateful to this day that I was NOT involved in that situation. The prisoners, who are known to be innocent of all crimes unless accused of harming a child, had all taken turns beating that woman, shaking her now and then, too, in a sense of fitting justice for her crime.
I kept expecting to be released or turned over to the Navy, but when “breakfast” was served the next morning, I was still there. Attitudes were very positive at breakfast, as each woman hoped to be taken to court, heard, and certainly released on grounds of innocence. Only Meth-head Mandy was pretty confident of being kept in jail, since the cops had wired the room, her mattress, and possibly her hair for surveillance and mind control.
At breakfast, I succumbed to thirst and shared a cup with Mandy, as well as her spork. Everyone wanted to know if jail was better, worse, or the same as boot camp. I explained that the food in boot camp was better, but jail seemed much more relaxing. They were pretty proud of that, having been in jail often enough to consider themselves somehow owners of the place, and they pointed out that they assumed they were pretty nice company–certainly better than a bunch of violent military people. Meth-head Mandy said they weren’t always nice, and she shared some prison stories which curled my toenails. However, everyone agreed that the company of convicts was far to be preferred over the company of cops or sailors (except me). I agreed with them, as I did about everything for as long as I was there.
Much to my surprise, I was NOT taken to court and spent the day sitting on my mattress on the floor, being witnessed to by the church lady and reassuring Mandy that there were enough of us to take THEM if THEY tried to sneak in. I learned valuable life skills, such as how to put my hair up with a sandwich bag from lunch, and heard a lot of interesting stories. I had apparently established myself as the most interesting story-teller, and one woman remarked how glad she was to be locked up with me, and that she hoped it happened again, sometime. I was less hopeful.
In what turned out to be afternoon, the police opened the door and motioned to me. I was going somewhere. Home? To court? To the base?
Not at all.
(To be continued)