You’re driving back home after a trip to the grocer’s, but without buckling up. A policeman notices, pulls you over, and asks for your license. He goes back to his cruiser for a few minutes, then comes back and asks you to step out of the car. Once you’re out, he asks you to verify your name and address, then says, “Did you know you have an outstanding warrant?” For a moment, you’re dazed; this must be a mistake! You ask for a reason, but he’s already walking you over to his car, making you put your hands on its hood. After checking your pockets, he puts your hands behind your back and handcuffs you. Your face is flushed with embarrassment, fear – and humiliation!
As you’re taken to the jail, you begin to feel ashamed for being arrested. You wish you could go back and change everything that led to this. Your thoughts go to the people you left behind; they’re bound to get mad at you, maybe even leave you, once they find out. That worries you – and you begin to feel panicky.
But what happens when you get to the jail itself?
You’re led into a “booking room,” and seated across from a stern-faced, apathetic officer. The handcuffs are taken off, as he starts asking basic ID questions and medical history. From there, you’re fingerprinted and have your “mug shot” taken. You feel a lump in your dry throat as you realize this isn’t a joke or dream, but seriously happening!
When their work’s done, you’re led to a desk in the “prisoner intake” room, just outside the cell area itself where you empty your pockets, and take off your watch and belt. As a clipboard-bearing officer inventories everything and places the contents in a big manila envelope, the jailer at the desk tells you that you were arrested on a bench warrant because you failed to appear for an earlier court date on a worthless-check charge. He shows you a board with a lot of names on it and asks if you recognize any of them who might have a vendetta against you. At this point, your skin turns clammy as you think, “My God, I’m really going to be put in jail!”
When the paperwork and inventory’s done, you’re told to remove your shoes, and taken to a nearby holding cell. This is usually the coldest and most barren of all, with nothing but an open toilet and a rough, hard stoop to sit on. You can’t do anything but sit or lie down on the stoop … and begin to feel sorry for yourself. You might even cry.
After an hour or so, the door opens and you’re taken to a smaller but more personable room. In this, a well-groomed interviewer asks questions about your job, income, and other information that might have a bearing on your release. After a few minutes, you’re taken back to the holding cell. Meanwhile, the interviewer calls the judge for a decision on your case, based on the information you gave him.
In the holding cell, you become edgy, hoping and praying that you’ll be allowed to leave. Shortly, the door re-opens. The answer was “no.” You feel as though there’s no hope, and you become seriously depressed. You’re led back to the main desk where the jailer tells you the amount of your bond. At this time, you can make one phone call, which is recorded as you talk (occasional high-pitched “beeps” give it away). You begin to feel cold and awkward, as, in a quivering voice, you try to tell whoever you’ve called that you’re in jail.
After you’ve made the call, they’ll hand you the standard orange jumpsuit and a pair of flip-flop sandals and make you go into a shower stall to bathe and change. If you don’t have white underclothes and socks, you’re made to surrender them … meaning that, underneath the jumpsuit, you will wear nothing at all.
Once you’re dressed in the jumpsuit, you’re handed a plastic box containing a bar of soap, safety razor, washcloth, towel, toothbrush and a list of jail rules. Another officer will give you a single bed sheet, Army-style blanket and pillow, then lock you in a single bunkhouse-like cell with a group of fifteen or more inmates.
After being shown your bunk, you put sheet and blanket on it, wanting to just lie down to dwell on your misery. No words to anyone – this is a scary, sad experience, and you don’t want to be bothered. But the noise from the other inmates as well as from the television they have (most modern jail pods have limited cable TV), makes it impossible.
Within minutes, another inmate looks over at you and asks what you’re in for. You end up telling him in a low voice strained by stress. Others may ask questions like “Where ya from?” or “Got an old lady? She gonna bail ya out?” These first questions are enough to drive you up the wall; you wish they’d all just shut up and leave you alone.
You want to use the bathroom, but, with only one open toilet, you’re afraid to “go”, since the other prisoners will see you. So you “hold it in” for as long as you can. Maybe after they’ve all gone to sleep …
The dinner (“chow”) cart comes at around 5 PM. The inmates move toward the door and, when the slot on the steel door opens for the food trays, the roughest inmate usually gets his first. Then, one after another, all the others receive their trays. The normal fare is beans, potatoes, some kind of meat, and a Kool-Aid-type drink.
When the meals are finished, the inmates pass the time by playing cards, watching the TV, or using the phone in the pod to make collect calls (another welcome amenity!). At first, you’re hesitant to make a call from the phone – you don’t know how whomever you call will take it. Will that person just laugh, or maybe refuse the call? There’s always a prisoner on the phone, anyway, so that helps you with your decision. Around eleven, the TV and lights automatically go off, and you’re left alone, on your bunk, to get some troubled sleep.
At around six-thirty the next morning, you line up at the slot again for breakfast (but with milk; coffee’s off-limits). After the meal, an officer brings a bucket and mop into the pod, and one of the inmates has to mop the floor. At around eight, you’re called over the cell intercom to get ready for your arraignment.
Soon, two officers appear, and you’re taken out to a bench where other inmates are sitting. While one officer watches, another shackles your right leg. A strong chain leads from one inmate’s leg to another’s, to prevent escape. Then, after handcuffs are put on each for good measure, you all stand up at the same time and are led through a hallway to the side entrance to the courtroom.
When the door is opened, the fresh air emanating from the courtroom exhilarates you for a moment. Then, when you’re filed into the jury box, you’re embarrassed; what if someone in the gallery (audience) knows you? You wait for a few minutes while the judge comes into the room and gives his directions to the people in the gallery. Then he begins calling cases. When he calls your name, you stand up as best you can. He reads the complaint that led to your arrest, and tells you what you’re charged with. Then he asks “How do you plead?” Knowing that you have to tell the truth, you clear your throat and say, “Guilty, your honor.” He reviews his notes, and, as he begins to scribble something down, he says, “The court finds you guilty, and sentences you to …” You feel that lump come back into your throat. You hope he’ll just sentence you to “time served,” and let you off with just a fine. That way, you could be released to go home. The tension mounts until you hear him say,
“seven days in the county jail …” plus fine, restitution and court costs.
A feeling of failure and hopelessness mixes with anger; after all, you just “aired your dirty laundry” in front of a roomful of people you don’t know. The bailiff gives you a sheet of paper with the judge’s decision on it, and you sit impatiently until the last inmate has been heard.
At that point, the jailer tells you all to stand up, and leads you back through the door and down the hall. At that time, your shackles are taken off, and you’re returned to your cell.
The next days bring the same boring routine to the cell pod, but you’re too busy worrying to care. Will your people accept you when you get out? What if they forget and don’t let you out? Mistakes can happen, you know. Your mind goes through dozens of possible scenarios, each scarier than the one before. You try to take your mind off things by reading one of the donated paperbacks. You eventually build a dialogue with one or two of the other inmates. They try to reassure you that, in x number of days, you’ll be free again.
Finally, that eighth morning comes. You get out of your bunk and start to take the bed sheet and blanket from it. Folding them and putting the pillow on top, you wait for the jailer to come in and release you. You grow impatient; you’ve heard that the jailers sometimes wait until after 9 AM to release those who’ve served their specific time. Breakfast comes, but you’re almost too excited to eat; at last, you’ll get out of that place and be free to walk and do as you please … within the law.
The jailer comes in and calls your name, sometimes yelling, “One Way!” That means you’re being released! You get your gear, tell the others good luck, and follow the officer to the main desk, where your street clothes are given back to you. You go to the shower area to change, then back to the desk to have your belongings and pocket contents returned.
After signing a few papers stating that everything is there, you’re escorted down a hallway and to a door that leads outside.
You’re breathe in the fresh air and exhilaration of freedom but now you have to face your friends, your boss, and your love. How are they going to react to you? You begin to worry again. In a way, you’re still imprisoned only, this time, it’s an emotional one.