A Night in the Slammer
By Chris Lydgate
[[A condensed version of this article appeared in Portland Monthly December 2006.]]
Pioneer Courthouse Square. Late afternoon. Lawyers juggle cell phones and lattes. Street gypsies play Hacky Sack by the fountain. Pigeons patrol the sidewalk for crumbs. And I’m being spread-eagled against a wall by Officer McRedmond.
“I’m placing you under arrest,” he says as the cuffs bite into my wrists. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law …”
Let me explain. I didn’t do anything wrong. Honest.
It all started when Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto issued an open invitation to local reporters to spend a night in jail. Dubbed “Operation Media Lockdown,” the idea was for Portland’s Fourth Estate to gain a better understanding of what the criminal justice system looks like from the inside. To get the full flavor of confinement, I’d be arrested, processed, fingerprinted, booked, and housed along with the general population. The corrections staff would know I was a reporter, but I would tell the other inmates that I had been picked up on a drunk-driving charge.
This bit of deception was critical, I was told, because if the inmates figured out I was an undercover reporter, Bad Things could happen. During a couple of tense planning meetings, we discussed disaster scenarios ranged from jailhouse riot to hostage crisis. In case of a dire emergency, I was supposed to “signal” the officer on duty by faking a heart attack.
Riding down to the Justice Center with my hands behind my back, I’m beginning to have second thoughts. As the gates swing shut behind us, and we descend into the gloom of the Justice Center’s garage, I remember the warning that Lt Jason Gates, the spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, gave me earlier. “We can guarantee your physical safety,” he told me. “As for your emotional and mental well being, you’re on your own.”
Being processed into the jail system is like being a on an assembly line: they count the cash in my wallet (six dollars and fifteen cents—freelancing doesn’t pay what it used to), take my mug shot, fingerprints, interview me about my criminal history and medical condition. Due to overcrowding, first-time DUII offenders are typically released at this point to make way for more dangerous criminals. In my case, however, the Sheriff has kindly decided to make an exception.
So far, apart from the handcuffs, jail feels no worse than applying for food stamps. But that’s about to change. I am stripped of my street clothes and issued jail blues for my stay—blue shirt and pants, pink t-shirt, boxers, and socks, and a pair of plastic sandals. I put on everything but the socks—they remind me of bubble gum. (The purpose of pink, according to Lt. Gates, is not to humiliate inmates, but to discourage them from stealing the underwear when they get out.)
“I wouldn’t want to do what you’re doing,” says the officer, handing me a hygiene kit in a brown paper bag. “Good luck in there.”
He leads me down a joyless corridor to a holding cell—a grimy concrete chamber that reeks of sweat and dread. A dozen inmates are crammed into a space the size of a singlewide trailer. Clutching my paper bag, I step inside, and the door clangs shut with an ominous thud. For a long second, I can feel the guys looking at me, sizing me up.
I sit down on a concrete bench and stare at my feet. On my left, a beefy badass sports prison tats and a mullet from 1983. On my right, an older guy with a watery squint is stroking his walrus moustache. In the corner a young Latino whispers to himself in Spanish. His right eye looks like a rotten watermelon.
A bolt of paranoia surges down my spine: These guys could pound me to a pulp before the officers would even have time to unlock the door. If they knew what I was doing here, they most likely would. I harden my face into a mask, but my heart is thumping. Trying not to attract attention, I peek into the brown paper bag that now contains all my worldly possessions. My house, my car, my bank account, my books, my records—that belongs to a different time zone. All I have now is what I’m holding: a pair of pink socks, a bottle of shampoo, a stick of deodorant, a tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush and a comb.
Finally, the door opens. We file into a corridor where we are patted down and shackled to one another in preparation for the “beer truck”—the armored van that will haul us off to our next destination, the Inverness Jail.
As we walk into the underground garage, one of the officers wags his finger at me. “Where are your socks?” he demands. “Get your socks on—you don’t want bare feet in jail.”
The reason for that is a nasty little creature called MrSA—methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus—that has become the bane of jails and prisons throughout the country. It creeps into your skin through cuts or cracks and burrows into the flesh, creating a stubborn infection that is almost impossible to treat. Not exactly an ideal memento.
Unfortunately, donning my hosiery is going to present some mechanical challenges, because the other guys in my “chain” are clambering into the beer truck, and I’m going to follow them whether I like it or not.
Inside the truck, I slip my socks on, an operation made somewhat awkward because I’m chained to Watermelon Eye. As we lurch across the Morrison Bridge, the inmates peer through the truck’s window, a bulletproof rectangle the size of a paperback, which affords them a rare glimpse of the outside world—and an opportunity to critique the officer’s driving skills.
“Oh, shit, he’s taking 84. Man, we’re gonna be stuck in this thing all night!”
“Don’t he know anything? 84’s always jammed this time a day. Sandy—Sandy Boulevard’s way faster.”
There is a collective groaning and shaking of heads. At first I’m puzzled by all this exasperation. After all, we’re not exactly going to Disneyland. But soon it dawns on me that these guys are actually in a hurry—they want to get there in time for dinner. Myself, I’m in no rush. I close my eyes and try to tune out a guy in the next compartment freestyle-rapping about bitches and brothers in a gritty Brooklyn accent.
Sitting in the darkness of the truck, jolting down Sandy, it seems to me I’ve heard that voice before. Not that I habitually associate with jailbirds, you understand. But there’s something familiar about the way this guy talks in rhymes. Where on earth have I heard this?
Then it hits me. I know this guy. He’s Brooklyn Walker, an underground hip-hop artist I profiled for Willamette Week back in 2001. We can’t see each other, because we are sitting in separate compartments, but I’m positive it’s him. Will he recognize me? Will he blow my cover?
The truck finally pulls into the garage at Inverness, and we file out. Now I can see him—oh, yeah, it’s definitely Brooklyn—but he hasn’t seen me, and it’s possible that he never will. Some of the guys are being led into one holding cell, some into another. Finally the officer unshackles me and points me towards the same cell I just saw Brooklyn trudge into. I take a deep breath as the door slams behind me. Brooklyn is talking to another inmate when he catches my eye and does a double-take.
“Lydgate!” he shouts. “What the fuck happened to you?”
Shit. I am busted, busted, busted. I signal him to chill out, but he’s just warming up.
“Yo, check it out!” Brooklyn proclaims, his voice bouncing off the walls. “This guy’s a reporter, he put me on the front page, bold type, that’s what’s going down. Front page, man!”
Every eye is riveted on me. I can feel a pricking sweat on my temples. Why can’t he just shut up? But paradoxically, his top-volume egotism is already beginning to bore the other guys. As soon as he beats this rap he’s going to shoot a movie, and make another CD, and the pretty soon no one is paying much attention.
“So what happened?” he asks.
I crack my knuckles. This is the moment. Should I spill my guts or cling to the cover story? While I dither, Brooklyn chooses my course for me. “Man, you stink of booze,” he says, flaring his nostrils. “You been drinking?”
It’s true. Earlier in the day, to lend authenticity to my story—and to savor my final moments of freedom—I stopped in at Mary’s Club for a stiff bourbon. I rubbed the whiskey over my face and hands and chain-smoked three Old Golds, hoping that the smell, combined with five days’ worth of stubble, would help convince jailhouse skeptics that I was one of them.
It seems to be working, so I lie through my teeth. “I gotta quit drinking,” I say. “It’s my second DUI.”
Brooklyn shrugs. Once I was a reporter, now I’m just another drunk. After a few more questions he starts talking about his plans for a hip-hop magazine. His rap? Burglary I. One by one, the inmates are escorted to their housing assignments. I sit alone in the cell for about an hour—it’s hard to tell without a clock. At length an officer opens the door and leads me away to Dorm 8.
Take a sullen high school cafeteria, unscrew the door knobs, brick up the windows, line it with iron bunk beds, and you get something like Dorm 8. Designed around the philosophy of “direct supervision,” there are no cells, barriers, no iron bars, between the corrections officer and the 56 inmates who call this place their home.
My dorm-mates tonight are a motley crew: seven are accused of murder; eight of robbery; 21 of assault; 13 of domestic violence; 13 of drug crimes; seven of burglary, five of illegal immigration; five of drunk driving; and three of sex crimes. By the time I arrive, it’s 7 pm—peak social hour—and the dorm is buzzing with confined energy. Some inmates are watching a Western on TV. Others play pinochle, chess, or dominos. Several pace the floor, circling the room counter-clockwise for lack of anything better to do. Across the room I spot a husky black guy with a shaved head who has daubed Maori markings on his face with hand cream. He wanders over to my table and looks me in the eye.
“Welcome to hell,” he says.
Now a sallow chap with a scraggly beard and a thick thatch of curls points his finger at me and pulls an imaginary trigger. Great. Five minutes on the floor and I’m already getting death threats. A few minutes later, however, I realize that Thick-Thatch is systematically taking aim at and blowing away everyone in the dorm, one after another, like the gunslingers on the screen. Maori-Face catches my eye and taps his forehead. I get the message. Thick-Thatch is harmless, which is just as well—turns out he’s my bunk mate.
In terms of jailhouse real estate, Dorm 8 is considered a prime location. Instead of sharing a cell the size of a bathroom with another guy for 23 hours a day, the inmates here have enough space to walk around, to shoot hoops in the minuscule “rec yard” (about the size of a squash court). The lucky ones even get to leave the jail from time to time on work crew, where they can earn up to 50 cents an hour. These meager privileges don’t sound like much, but for inmates in confinement, they are powerful incentives—strong enough, for the most part, to keep them in line. A game of chess means a lot to a guy who’d otherwise be staring at the wall and listening to his cellmate cough. A Fig Newton purchased from the commissary tastes pretty good compared to jailhouse chow.
Suddenly a cheer erupts from the floor. The movie on TV is The Hunted, a third-rate action flick in which Tommy Lee Jones plays an aging Special Forces assassin called out of retirement to track his deranged protégé Benicio del Toro across the streets of Portland.
Benicio has eluded the lawmen by climbing up the iron scaffold of the Hawthorne Bridge and plunging into the river, to the delight of the crowd—inmates like escapes. But what’s this? Now he’s clambering out of the water at Willamette Falls. Willamette Falls? The guy sitting next to me rolls his eyes.
“Who made this fuckin’ movie? Don’t they know that’s ten miles upstream?”
Murmurs of agreement. A shaking of heads. And it gets worse, especially when Benicio rubs two sticks together, builds a fire, and forges a rusty bar of iron into a razor-sharp knife blade. Snickers of disbelief echo across the dorm.
“What is this guy, a blacksmith?”
“That’s bullshit. Why don’t he just go downtown and steal a knife?”
The movie finally lurches to its spectacular anti-climax, and the screen goes blue. We stretch and yawn. Stupid, but it helped kill the time—ninety-four minutes, to be exact. I glance at the big clock on the wall: 10:30 pm. I’ve been locked up for six hours and it already feels like a lifetime.
A few minutes later, the officer on the floor retreats into a “security chamber” and dims the lights. (During night shift, due to budget cutbacks, officers at Inverness supervise two dorms at once.)
We’re supposed to “bunk in” and go to sleep, but I can’t get comfortable. My mattress has the consistency of a blue tarp. The pillow is a Tyvek envelope stuffed with brillo pads. All around me, inmates are coughing, sneezing, farting, giggling, and swearing. (“You blow another one like that and I’m gonna stick this book up your ass.”) They munch potato chips, they rustle candy wrappers, they sip from a water fountain that squeals every time you push the button.
I jolt awake from an uneasy dream about shivs and squealing to an excited whisper buzzing around the bunks. There’s a fight in the bathroom. Apparently one of the guys racked up some debt in a card game and decided to teach the scorekeeper a lesson in jailhouse arithmetic. I jockey for a look at the action, but it’s already over. At breakfast I scan the expressions, but see no bruises. There’s no point in asking about it. In jail, the victim never tells.
The worst part about jail is not the food, the fights, or even the confinement. The worst part is the waiting. Jail is an airport without flights, a library without books, a hospital without medicine. It is a place where things happen on someone else’s schedule, where the demands of the institution always trump the desires of the individual. It is a place where you mark time, and where time marks you in return.
It’s hard to suss a place out in 24 hours, but my hunch is that most guys get used to incarceration pretty fast. Jail is an institution that worships order and routine, where you surrender freedom for security. Sometimes that’s not a bad deal. For dopers and alcoholics, for example, a spell behind bars is often their only hope of breaking the cycle. For others, jail is simply a waiting room, an less-than-scenic way station on life’s journey.
For me, it is an experience I would just as soon leave behind. After what may go down as my worst breakfast ever (cardboard potatoes, glutinous porridge, and gravy that tastes like shoe polish) the officer tells me to roll up—I’m being released. I pump my fists in the air.
“You got lucky,” says a young Italian guy, shaking his head. “Don’t drink and drive no more.”
“Thanks, man,” I say gratefully. “I think I learned my lesson.”
[[The author would like to thank the officers and staff of The Inverness Jail and the inmates in Dorm 8.]]