My Jail Experience

01/27/23 – first rough draft

I blinked back tears as the constable snapped the cold metal hand cuffs first around my right wrist, and then my left. I was in a cumulative state of shock, anger, and fear. The gruff words of the judge ricocheted around my head as I was led out of the dingy little courthouse of Columbia, Pennsylvania, and to the constable’s SUV. “Secure bail. Ten thousand.” Secure bail because apparently being homeless means I’m a flight risk. A $10,000 price tag on my head because of $52 in stolen merchandise from CVS. Merchandise, mind you, that I stole only because I was desperate to come up with money to pay for a motel room so I didn’t have to spend another night outside in the cold in the middle of November. The two together meant I would be spending an indeterminate amount of time in Lancaster County Prison, because considering my how-to-pay-for-a-motel-room predicament, clearly I wasn’t going to be able to afford bail.

“I’m sorry”, the portly constable said to me, as he opened the door to his vehicle. “He’s a bit of a hard ass.” A bit? I literally was arrested on a warrant while I was reporting sexual assault, and then I’m tossed in jail because of a bail amount I won’t be able to pay because the judge profiles all homeless individuals as flight risks. A bit? He’s more than a bit. He’s a lot – a lot of unfair judgment and discrimination, and a lot of unchecked power.

The first thing I learned about jail is this: nobody cares. Nobody cares who you are, what your socio-economic status is, or what you did to get arrested. The jail system is just a series of mindless gears that keep turning.

The second thing I learned about jail is this: jail is the great equalizer. Again, nobody cares about your name, your socio-economic status, who you know, where you went to school, or about anything else about you; so by default, with everything figuratively and literally stripped away from you, you are on equal footing with every other inmate there. There are only two things that can set you apart from other inmates: the amount on your commissary account, and if you’re close to the correctional officers (and if you are, you’re labeled a snitch). Since I had no money on commissary, and even as a first-timer I knew what happens to snitches, I was on equal footing with just about every other women in there.

Jail is boring, frustrating, and loud. The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. The correctional officers are so fed up with their jobs that they only put forth the bare minimum. I quickly learned that unless I asked, begged, whined, or screamed, I probably wouldn’t get anything that you want or need. And even then, it’s still a shot in the dark as to whether or not I’d get the wanted or needed thing. It depends on the CO, their mood, the day of the week, the current phase of the moon, and whether or not I  made sacrifices to the gods old and new. “I don’t know” is the most common answer I’d receive, followed by, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” (spoiler: they almost never did).

Time in jail is measured in “sleeps” and “wake-ups” – i.e., “I have my court date in three sleeps and a wake-up”, meaning three full days (three sleeps) plus an overnight (the wake-up). Court dates are the second most-oft looked-forward-to dates, because for many inmates, court dates will dictate release dates. Inmates on probation, for example, often have to attend the preliminary hearing for their new charge before they can face the violation (either a written reprimand called a Fast Track, or an actual court date with a judge, at which time he/she can sentence the inmate to time for the violation, or release them with no time to serve for the violation) and then get out of jail. Inmates held on bail amounts won’t have a chance to get bail reduced until bail modification hearings, or at arraignment or preliminary hearings. (I spent 87 days and a wake-up in jail.)

The best way to pass the time in jail is to sleep. Inmates know not to wake sleeping inmates unless they are prepared to fight to the death in order to save their skin. Inmates will create eye masks out of socks and t-shirts, ear plugs  out of bits of toilet paper rolled up in plastic cling wrap (generously given to non-pregnant inmates by pregnant inmates, who receive sandwiches wrapped in plastic cling wrap), and they will go so far as to lie to the prison psychiatrist about non-existent hallucinations and nightmares in order to obtain a prescription for Seroquel, a medication with strong sedating properties. I didn’t go quite that far, but I did manipulate my way into an increase in my migraine preventative medication, since it’s main side effect is drowsiness. I also pampered myself with tube-sock eye masks and cling wrap ear plugs.

When an inmate has done all the sleeping they can possibly do, the unfortunate truth is there aren’t many productive ways to pass the time. Lancaster County Prison has a strict maximum security policy that results in inmates being locked down for close to 22 hours per 24-hour day. During “blockout”, which is essentially recess, inmates are free to leave their cells and explore the unit, walk in the “yard” (which is nothing but a concrete room with a skylight and glass-less windows that allows for plenty of air flow), and sit at cafeteria-style tables. Playing cards and simple games such as Yahtzee are available. There’s a television, too, but between some inmates fighting over the channel and other inmates screaming at each other or themselves, watching television in jail is an exercise in futility. I used to pass the time by walking and talking with other inmates, learning card games, and people-watching for the potential drama that will inevitably be simmering just below the surface in such an environment. I witnessed at least one physical fight each week, and several verbal altercations every day. “Wiki Warriors” were the most common source of these verbal spats – women yelling obscenities, insults, and threats at one another from the food tray slot cutout of their door. Wiki Warriors very rarely escalated their disagreements to a physical level; it was the quiet ones who would suddenly “pop off”, as they say in Jail Speak.

Like everything else in jail, the food sucks. It is both bland and terrible tasting. The majority of each meal is comprised of carbohydrates – bread, rice, pasta, and something they have the audacity to say is cake. One meal is much like the previous, and it’s also not unlikely to actually find part of the previous meal stuck to the current one. I can’t tell you how many times I found lunch and even breakfast adhered to the bottom of my dinner. I also couldn’t tell you how many different meals there actually were, as they all seemed to be a similar blend of a mysterious meat floating in a mysterious gravy, a side of wilted green beans or browning lettuce, a hunk of bread and/or cake dry enough to choke on, and juice that occasionally was salted instead of sweetened.

One would think the chance to escape jail, even if for only a few hours while dressed in a jumpsuit and wearing handcuffs and shackles, would be a welcome reprieve. No such luck. Court dates are grueling in their weariness and aggravation, because to travel five miles in order to spend five minutes with a judge somehow necessitates my being woken at three o’clock in the morning, tossed in a holding cell with nothing to eat, drink, or do for several hours, then hustled into aforementioned jumpsuit, handcuffs, and shackles, cuffed to at least one other inmate (but as many as four), crammed into a van, and driven to the courthouse for the hearing. There, I am further treated like a sardine by being packed into a four foot by eight foot room with two or three other women. Also in this room is a toilet, which, when not in use by one of us while we’re still handcuffed and in full view of the others, doubles as a chair. There we all sat, as we had to wait for every inmate, both male and female, to have their court date, before we could go “home”. Usually court dates were all-day affairs – and ones I quickly learned to dread.

The most exciting event in my life is no longer the day I met my husband, the day we committed ourselves to each other in marriage, or the days our children were born. Those important life milestones take a back seat to the most important date of all: Release Date. This is without a doubt the longest day in jail, where minutes turn hours, and the hours take an millennia to pass by. This is because the fine folks of Lancaster County Prison don’t see any reason to hustle for anything at all, not even cutting loose inmates who have served their time, or paid their bail, or answered to their sentencing judge. I, like every other Lancaster County Prison inmate, was forced to go through yet one last grueling and boring morning, afternoon, and evening before the most blessed four words in the English language are strung together and screamed over the unit’s microphone: “Foreacre, pack your stuff!” (Actually, a different word – an obscenity – was used in place of “stuff”, but for the sake of my audience, I’m substituting.) And even then, it was another hour of waiting around in a hot, stuffy little holding cell, pacing impatiently, before I was finally processed out of the facility I refused to call home for 88 days.