by Laura Speranza
Clink. The cold metal of the handcuffs pressed into my wrists. I stared down at them, completely dumbfounded. I was expecting a scolding or maybe an increased fine for my transgressions. Being taken into custody was not on my agenda.
Not that I didn’t deserve to be incarcerated. I am an addict in recovery, and in my using days I spent a great deal of time visiting local doctors convincing them of my ‘disabling’ panic attacks which required sedatives or my ‘debilitating’ back pain which necessitated heavy pain killers. My scheme worked because I dressed nicely and spoke well, and had a job and health insurance. Drug addicts didn’t look like me or talk like me, or so I had been told. My offenses were clearly catching up with me though. I was in court that day for bad checks that I wrote to numerous doctors. I missed an ordered work service, and the court’s patience with me had come to an end.
The bailiff led me to the benches towards the side of the court. I had work and children in daycare. I mentally sifted through appropriate excuses that I could use for not showing up at work. I sat patiently through the rest of the cases, noting the particular distaste the (male) judge seemed to have for women.
A young man, who missed work service like I did, also ended up in handcuffs. The bailiff led him to the bench next to me. He looked just as taken aback as I was. I looked at him and down at my cuffs and shrugged.
After the cases were complete, I sidled up to the bailiff’s desk.
“Can I use my phone, just for a minute, please?” I pleaded.
“Just for a minute” he scowled, handing me my purse.
I texted my boss a bullshit excuse about having a child in the emergency room and called my husband to let him know I’d be spending the day in jail and he would have to be home tonight to relieve the sitter. He sounded somewhat amused.
The bailiff led me and the other guy down a corridor and lined us up against the wall. Another bailiff patted down the young man. I swear it looked like he was fighting back tears.
The bailiff leered at me, “You don’t get the same treatment.”
He seemed to relish running his hands over my shoulders, waist and legs. He then led me to a room with a metal door.
“Can I use the restroom?”
“There’s a toilet in here,” he motioned toward the back of the room where a small metal toilet was. Clank. The metal door shut behind me.
The room had dismal brick walls and a cement floor with a wooden bench lining the wall. I eyed the toilet skeptically. What happened if someone walks in? Not to mention the numerous diseases I’m sure were festering on the seat. I would hold it, thank you. I sat down on the bench and shivered. The room was freezing cold; a large air conditioning vent was right above me with icy air blasting out of it. I was wearing a silk wrap dress with high heels. When I got dressed this morning I hadn’t an inkling that I would end up here.
There was nothing in the room. There was no one to talk to, nothing to read, nothing. Wow, I could see how this was an effective form of punishment. As I sat shivering, I contemplated the fact that I was actually worthy of this punishment and worse. Drug addiction had taken me to places I never thought I would go. The constant drive to sate something that can never be satisfied; turned me into somebody I did not recognize. Like when I crawled through my elderly neighbor’s bedroom window while she was gone, ransacking the house for prescription pills. Thinking about it now, it seemed like a lifetime ago. Only by the grace of God and months of tireless work, was I able to I find a reprieve from my disease. I drew my knees up and pulled my dress over them and tried to situate my hands so that the cuffs didn’t dig into my wrists.
After what seemed like forever, which in reality was probably twenty minutes, the bailiff came back and guided us down the corridors beneath the court house. We walked past holding cells packed with men that been detained recently.
In each cell, the men nudged each other and crowded toward the small window, gawking at me as I walked past and saying undoubtedly disgusting things to each other. I slumped and hid my face, wishing I could shrink into the woodwork.
We walked into a waiting area with metal chairs. He sat me down next to a surly woman with wild hair who was shackled to a chair. The nurse was taking her blood pressure and flashing a light into her eyes. A woman behind the desk motioned for me to come over. She shoved various forms at me which I signed. I sat back down and waited for the nurse to examine me.
The nurse finished with the other woman. As she took my blood pressure and medical history, I desperately hoped that nobody was going to shackle me to a chair.
After a bit, a female sheriff called me over to the other counter. She had me stand against the wall, while two large bright lights flipped on and blinded me as she snapped a photo. I walked over to the counter and she put a red bracelet on my arm with my picture on it. I glanced down at the photo; I truly looked like a deer in the headlights.
The sheriff asked me if I was homosexual, bisexual, had gang affiliations, and if there was anybody I needed protection from. I was none of those things, but the question itself scared the daylights out of me.
She led me to a smaller cell. Clank. Another metal door closed behind me. There was one other woman in the cell. She had multiple facial piercings and a perpetual smirk.
“I’m Shana, what are you in for?” she asked.
“Writing bad checks” I didn’t feel like expanding. “You?”
She animatedly recounted a detailed story about being in a Motel 6 to get a face tattoo (yes, a face tattoo) and the room was raided. All eight people in the room were busted for an ounce of methamphetamine, because no one person ‘claimed’ the meth. She did however ‘claim’ her stolen car and bag of marijuana. I nodded sympathetically.
This cell was freezing also. I sat rubbing my hands together while she made a series of calls from the pay phone asking her ex-boyfriend to drop the stolen car charges.
Then, the cell door opened and we were joined by a well dressed woman who looked ill at ease and distinctly out of place. She ignored us and proceeded to make calls on the pay phone trying to get bailed out.
Shana was motioning wildly to her friend, the woman with the crazy hair who was shackled to the chair outside. The other woman finished with her calls and sat down on the bench.
“Whatcha’ in for?” Shana asked her nosily.
“I had an old warrant. They picked me up on disturbing the peace.” She replied, avoiding eye contact and looking at the ground.
I introduced myself also. Then Shana proceeded to tell Sophia her face tattoo story about being a victim to the people who didn’t ‘claim’ their drugs. Sophia wasn’t as good as I was at hiding her revulsion.
At that time, we were joined in the cell by the wild haired woman whose name was Charlie. She and Shana chattered to each other about the ‘bullshit’ charges and how they were going to get out. Shana told Charlie that she had called Jimmy (the ex-boyfriend owner of the stolen car) and told him she would do whatever he wanted if he bailed her out. She emphasized that she did mean anything and proceeded to repeat in detail all of the sexual acts she offered to perform.
Poor Sophia’s jaw dropped and she flushed bright red. I chuckled and maintained my poker face; my ability to not show emotion was serving me well right now.
Charlie walked over to use the toilet, which was right next to me because the cell was so small. Shana followed her, serving look out while she squatted and pulled a small baggie of drugs out of her vagina. I tried to act like I didn’t notice and attempted to tune out the sounds that went with this act. Sophia stared at the wall because she didn’t know where else to look.
We sat for a bit longer, trying to make stilted conversation. Then the cell door opened and the sheriff steered us out. She cuffed each of us to another person; I was cuffed to a very young girl dressed like a boy.
We were then herded into a van where we were to be transported to the woman’s jail. The van was packed with inmates almost sitting on each other’s laps. One of the women who was stumbling and barely coherent, starting throwing up in the back, which caused a couple of the other women to gag. The smell of vomit now permeated the van.
I was crowded next to three women. One of whom was in the hotel room with Shana, and was apparently the alleged owner of the ounce of meth. Shana was sitting across from us, glaring intensely at her. The other two women were already in the orange jail attire and chatted excitedly with each other. They seemed very upbeat considering their circumstances.
The one with her two front teeth rotted out and track marks on her arms, told me she liked my dress. She said I looked like “Beverly Hills.” I smiled and thanked her. This seemed to open her up to telling me about how when she was busted a couple days ago she had a full rig of meth in her pants and she had ‘popped it’ in the cell. She pulled her pants leg up to show me the needle mark and bruise. I wasn’t sure why she was telling this, but I again sympathetically nodded, indicating that I might have done the same.
The other woman was in her fifties with tattoos all over her neck and arms. She asked me why I was in here, and I repeated my bad check story. The owner of the bag of meth started to doze off at this point and her head bobbed forward.
She proceeded to tell me about her bust for heroin and how she had been clean for a year before a recent relapse. Our eyes connected, and I felt a kinship with her. I shared with her that I was an addict too and congratulated her on being able to achieve a year of sobriety. She accomplished something I had not yet been able to and I admired her tenacity. She gazed down, studying her dirty fingernails and softly replied that she lost her sobriety when her daughter was murdered. I had a feeling that I might regret asking about it, but it seemed like she wanted to tell me her story.
Apparently, her 21 year old daughter was working as a nanny for a man who she was (unknown to her) a gang leader. He wanted to have sex with her and she denied him, so he took her and her four year old son to a hotel while he plied her with meth in hopes of getting her to comply. When she didn’t, he beat her senseless then choked her to death with the hair dryer cord. The four year old was witness to the whole thing.
The man then claimed that she committed suicide and hung herself with the hair dryer cord. Despite the bruises all over her body, he was never charged with the murder. The four year old son couldn’t testify because he was so traumatized he hadn’t spoken a word since. She recounted this story without any emotion or inflection in her voice, staring impassively out the van window. I sat silent, not knowing what to say.
We then arrived at the jail and were herded once more out of the van into the building. We were uncuffed and took a seat while we were called into the next room in groups of four. I rubbed my reddened and sore wrists as Shana and the older woman started talking about the bail bonds men that would bail you out if you had sex with them. They claimed they were all ‘tricks’, including a lot of police as well. Shana was talking loudly about how she should give one of the bail bonds men a call.
I couldn’t help but ask her. “Why do that to yourself? Why give your body away like that?”
She turned to me with a hardened expression. “You close your eyes for a minute and it’s done, you know? This country was built on the barter system. They have something I want, and I have something they want.”
When we arrived, we were handed jail attire. As filthy and tattered as the clothing was, I was grateful not to be freezing any more. A few of the women were outfitted in the same striped attire that I was, but the rest were outfitted in orange. Apparently, the striped attire indicated that you had already been sentenced. We were separated out by our uniform and ushered in two different directions. Shana gave me a wave and a lopsided grin, “Good luck doll!” I waved back and off we went.
Sophia and I walked across the courtyard with a couple other women and approached a large brick building with barbed wire around the fences. The sheriff led us into the building towards a room where we were instructed to grab a blanket, sheets, a cup with toothpaste and a toothbrush and a plastic mattress. She told us that this was the only cup we were going to get, so don’t lose it. We then followed her to room with a desk that was in the center of glass walls that housed two levels of beds. The beds were divvied into groups of eight, with a letter designating which ‘pod’ they were.
The women inside the glass walls crowded together, straining to catch a glimpse of us and nudging one another. A large woman with purple hair caught my eye, ominously grinned at me and gave me a little wink. I tried to focus my eyes anywhere but on hers. Sophia looked like she was ready to bolt.
“You two are in pod F. You’re bed 4 and you’re bed 2” the sheriff indicated the pod on the second level and opened the door for us so we could drag our plastic mattresses in. Sophia followed me up the stairs as we tried to ignore all of the prying eyes following us.
I threw my mattress on what was meant to be a bed, but was really just a metal rack. I tossed the threadbare blanket down and crawled onto it. As soon as Sophia and I put our things down, a couple of women walked in who were inhabitants of pod F. A woman with a strange amount of facial hair introduced herself as Julie; her heavy set friend was Deb.
Julie and Deb flopped down on their beds and proceeded to chat about a fight that had happened earlier that day.
“They keep telling us that we’re too wild. We’re always getting our privileges taken away because they keep busting us for fighting and drugs.” Deb explained to me.
More nodding on my part. “Welcome to our little home! How long you in for?” Julie asked.
I debated telling her the truth. I sensed that they might not be very welcoming to somebody that was lucky enough to be departing in a day. “Umm, you know. Just a day…” I answered hesitantly.
“Lucky dog!” crowed Deb. “I would hate you, except I’m finally out of here the day after tomorrow. What are ya’ here for?”
“Writing bad checks” I answered. I wished in that moment, as I had several other times that day, that my conviction had been for something a bit more menacing.
At that time a loud horn blared through the room. All of the women scrambled to get on to their beds and the clatter and noise subsided. I looked curiously at Deb. “What is that?”
“Shift change. You can’t get off your bunk, don’t talk either. When they call your last name, answer with your first name.” she instructed.
The women seemed to take this so seriously, that I couldn’t help but wonder why. “What happens if you’re not on your bed?” I inquired.
“They take a privilege away from all of us!” she glowered at me, clearly unhappy by my inquiry.
I nodded in compliance and followed the other women’s lead by answering the male guard with my first name. He seemed inordinately happy with his position, strolling through the room with a swagger and a sneer.
“Asshole.” Julie grumbled after he passed. After he left the room, she turned to Deb. “Can you believe that shit with him and Cora?”
“Fucking, sick pig.” They continued to gossip about how the guard apparently enjoyed regular oral sex with an inmate named Cora in exchange for privileges. When I asked how he didn’t get caught, they laughed heartily and ribbed each other at my hilarious joke. Sophia caught my eye, and then rolled over on her cot.
I folded up the sheet to try to create a semblance of a pillow. I stretched out and tried to get comfortable while I closed my eyes for a moment. This place was truly another world. Whatever all of these women were convicted of, did they really deserve to be treated like this? It was shocking to think that the justice system and those that upheld it seemed more deviant than the convicts. Some of these women were so accustomed to being used and discarded; they seemed to feel that was their role in the world.
At that point, the piggish male guard came back. “Number 4, you’re out of here! Get your stuff, let’s go.”
I tried not to appear too happy, but I inwardly breathed a large sigh of relief. I was told earlier that I may be released early due to overcrowding. I gathered my plastic mattress and accessories, gave Sophia a small hug and wished the other women good luck as they glared at me.
I followed him downstairs, placed my mattress and bedding on the shelf, and changed back into my clothes. My belongings were returned to me and my red bracelet with mug shot was cut off of my wrist. The large metal door clanked, this time with me on the other side.
I walked outside of the building and turned around one last time to look at the drab brick building with barbed wire. I turned my face towards the sunshine and let it warm me while I thankfully said a prayer for the women I left behind.
About the author
Laura Speranza is an aspiring writer and autism advocate. Her work can be found on Booksie and the Den of Amateur Authors; as well as autism sites such as Autism Awareness. She has a blog about parenting with autism and is working on an autobiographical novel.