A Tourist’s View of County Lock-Up

Burnt hot dog water.

That’s the first thing I smell when I enter any of our county’s jails and the last thing I remember as I walk out. White paint did nothing to prevent the old bricks from absorbing the fetor of thousands upon thousands of high-sodium meals, wheeled through the jail hallways over the course of decades. The stench escapes from the walls and creeps into my suit.

Spring turns to summer, but seasons have no effect on the stale air inside the county’s high-security jail facility.  Since its construction, no breeze has ever entered. Footsteps are the only force to disturb the vapor of poached Spam.

This particular jail site sits 20 minutes or so outside of the city, a trip that can (and frequently does) take up to 40 minutes in heavy traffic. I arrive on a warm morning in mid-May to visit a client who will be starting his trial in less than 48 hours.

I notice the stench even before I notice the harsh surroundings. The walls are white, or were at some point. The floor tile is white, or was at some point. The fluorescent lights above are white, save for a faint hue of blue. For these inmates, every open-eyed moment feels like the middle of graveyard shift at the world’s dustiest hospital.

Each cell block here is separated by an outdoor asphalt path; its vicious heat releases up through my shoes as the sun beats down on my head. It is especially uncomfortable in a suit and tie. However, finding shade comes with the boiled bologna miasma that permeates every enclosed area in the jail.

This is my third attempt at a pre-trial visit. My client will be testifying on his own behalf so I must prepare him for the DA’s cross-examination, and time is running out. My first attempt was with a colleague who would play the role of the DA in the cross, to get him used to a stranger asking him tough questions. But there “were no available interview rooms” so we were turned away. This happened a second time.

I ask the nearest of three lounging correctional officers to see my client, hoping they are not on lockdown and thereby making my trip in vain. I repeat my client’s name three times. The CO shows me to one of the empty interview rooms. The plastic chairs look like grown up Fisher Price furniture, but with bolt loops in the floor with several sets of leg shackles held to it. A maximum security client would have these around his feet for the entirety of my meeting with him. I semi-anxiously bat the chains around with the toe of my shoe until I see my client coming down the hallway; his chains clink heavily but do not echo against the walls.

The meeting with my client goes well. The kid does a good job. He sticks to his story, which fortunately makes sense. I throw myself thoroughly into doing my best DA impression (“So are you saying that YOU’RE the victim here?!”) and temporarily forget the habitat to which my client will return after I leave. When we’re done, I stand, shake his hand as I say goodbye, and turn to leave as quickly as I can hoping my client won’t take my haste the wrong way.

I take deep breaths of fresh air as I walk back to my car, which has been parked uncovered in the afternoon sun. When it’s all over and as I prepare to be slapped by the oven-hot heat when I open the door, I always thank the universe for the good fortune that at least I get to go home.

Respectfully Submitted,
Norm DeGuerre

3 thoughts on “A Tourist’s View of County Lock-Up

  1. One of many fine reasons to stay out of trouble!

    Advocating better lock up conditions isn’t a popular campaign issue, but we ought to consider its value because many inmates didn’t actually do anything wrong – they just couldn’t afford to post bail.

    Thank you for your comment. Glad you enjoyed the read.

  2. Hate to sound sentimental, but this is beautifully written. I love it. Perfect rhythms and really nice, new images. And very sad. My little sister is in county jail for possession of less than a gram of drugs. She was beaten by guards who fractured her skull and broke her rib. She was in a coma for four days and in intensive care for a month. We didn’t even know she’d been hurt. Now she has recovered enough for them to ship her back to jail cell. Thank you for writing and for working to help people in trouble like my sister who is alone and at the mercy of merciless tyrants.

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