I dressed in my “prison stripes” and when done exited the room.
The guard was waiting for me outside the doorway. I was instructed to stand facing the wall to my left. It seemed to me that you spend a lot of time facing the wall in here. A chain was once again wrapped around my waist and secured snuggly with a padlock at the center of my back. On both sides were handcuffs, and they were secured with a key. I was handed a bed roll, consisting of two white sheets, two gray wool blankets, and a white towel, which I balanced firmly against my lower abdomen using my hands which were secured at my waist.
To my right and to my surprise stood Spencer in his body cast, dressed in prison stripes also. I hadn’t seen him since we “de-boarded” (or disembarked) the bus and he seemed relieved to see a familiar face. His cane was gone now but he maintained his labored breathing and disdain for the whole process.
The guard carried the roll for him and together the three of us limped down the hallway, me in my post-operative boot and Spencer in his body cast. We made a few left turns, then a few rights; walked down a hallway that looked pretty much like the hallway we had just deserted, and finally were instructed to stop in front of an elevator. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this elevator had been just around the corner, and that our trip was designed to make sure we didn’t remember that. We took the elevator up one floor, walked to the left down another similar, or perhaps the same hallway, went through a few more doors and down a few more hallways, where we were finally met by another officer.
Officer Gilligan, a short, friendly, Caucasian man greeted us warmly and welcomed us to the medical ward. He advised us that our length of stay on this module would be determined by the doctor, although he couldn’t tell us when we might be seeing the doctor; it could be a few minutes or a few days.
We, Spencer and I, followed him down the hallway to room M-03 on the right side of the hall. We stepped into a large, green room with a total of four cots – two on each side. The room measured 16 cinder blocks in length, 15 blocks high, and eight blocks wide. In the corner to the left of the doorway, there sat the stainless steel toilet. Unlike any of the other rooms I had been in, there was no restraining wall to offer privacy. On the wall opposite the doorway, was a window which had been boarded-up with a cement barricade leaving a four inch wide strip of frosted – so you could not see out of it – glass.
I chose the cot on the right in the far corner adjacent to the window and opposite the wall where the toilet sat. I walked directly to it, dropped my roll on it, waited for Officer Gilligan to remove my chains and began the task of making my bed. Spencer took the cot on the other side of the room.
I draped the sheet over the mattress, pulling it even so there was an equal amount of overhang on all four sides. Making a bed in jail is an art. The sheets are less than perfect, but your bed is one thing that you, as an inmate, can control. I took pride in it because one, it was mine, and two, because it gave me something to concentrate on besides being in Solano County. I tied the sheet in a knot in the back of the mattress at the head and the foot to instantly create a fitted sheet. I then placed the second sheet over it. I folded one of the two blankets given to me in my bedroll in half to increase the thickness. This place was cold.
The second blanket I placed over this and tucked it in at the foot. I folded the sheets and the blankets at the head and tucked them in tightly at the sides. My extra socks and underwear I placed under the mattress to raise the head and create a pillow. With that completed, I lay down, crossed my legs, and cleared my mind.
I allowed myself to just be: no thoughts, no anticipation. In a few moments I was floating. I was acutely aware of my surroundings but I wasn’t there at Solano County. I could hear the guards walking, their keys jingling with every step and the voices of people talking in the adjacent rooms. My soul was not yet whole, but my mind was at peace. I lay there just enjoying the silence. I even ignored Spencer. I simply closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep. Besides it seemed the logical thing to do. We had arrived on the floor after the dinner hour, and so, rather than agonize over it, I let it go. Falling asleep was beginners luck.
The hardest time to serve in jail is the first night. I had spared myself the agony by simply going to sleep. It also helped to be on the Medical Ward because it separated you from the general population; a time to get acclimated without the politics of incarceration.
I was glad I did because breakfast comes early to Solano County Jail, I mean really early. Sleeping through the first night spared me the anguish of having to deal psychologically with my first night of incarceration, but in jail the nights are shorter and morning comes earlier. The day begins at 0400 hours and the only question on my mind was why, to what end? Why did our day need to start at 0400? There is absolutely no point to it, except once again the meanness and psychological warfare applied by the caretakers. Clearly, no one was going anywhere. Furthermore, under what circumstances on the outside would one be eating breakfast – a bad breakfast at that – at 0400 hours? “Hell, we were inmates; no one had any place pressing they just had to get to”. The fact is we weren’t going anywhere.
The process of incarceration – it seemed to me – had two goals: first to get you away from the public as a safety issue, and two – to allow you to make sense of your situation so that you could alter your behavior before your discharge. Breakfast at 0400 hours served none of those. I concluded that it could have no purpose except to confirm that you were no longer in control, someone else was.
Breakfast consisted of corn flakes, white cornbread, gravy, hash brown potatoes, and an eight ounce carton of milk. I ate the potatoes and drank the milk. That seemed the safest tactic. Spencer asked for the leftovers and I gave him the bread and gravy. This simple act of kindness immediately exposed me as a first time “fish”. You soon learn to eat as much as you can when you can. In here the next meal may not be edible, or worst yet, may not even come.
My cell was cold, always cold, and very quickly become even colder after breakfast. The fan never stopped, and the whole process – I am convinced – occurred by design. The cold forces you to retreat to the comfort of your bed and in particular the warmth of the covers. This minimizes your interaction with other inmates, staff, and guards. When you are out of bed, you find that your fingers have become so cold, insidiously, that it’s impossible to read, to sit at a desk and write, or to concentrate. In actuality, the cold served as a way to control the inmates. There was clearly not much chatter going on through the walls. Everyone, it would seem, was simply trying to stay warm.
It was that fact which once again shed light on my mother’s wisdom. When I contemplated doing time rather than probation, my mother’s two biggest worries were my getting enough to eat and staying warm. The necessities of life I would say. Very quietly and very succinctly she had gotten to the fundamentals without the bullshit that most of us are constantly shoveling. She had been quite astute at identifying what could only be described as a weapon the staff at SCJC/DF would use to punish and control the inmates. Face it, it made no sense whatsoever to run the air conditioning 24/7 in the middle of February in Northern California. All I could think of was the magnitude of their energy bill in these economic times. I’m sure that just by cutting off the air conditioning system; they could save 50 jobs a year in the corrections industry and probably paid the salaries of ten guards.
During the day there is enough going on to occupy your mind, at least initially, but the nights can be, and at many times are, particularly disturbing. There is your own loneliness, but worst, there are the sounds of the other people’s misery. With the constant whirling of the fan in the ceiling and the creaky noises of the building including the constant chatter of electronic doors opening and closing serving as background, the tortured souls demonstrate their frustrations by screaming. They demand to be heard. There are intermittent blood-curdling screams; not screams for attention, but chilling screams suggesting horrible, wicked violence. There is the constant sobbing of those who simply have given up and are hoping to die but too afraid of what’s on the other side; and most disturbing is the constant, frantic, banging on the doors as the inmates who are insane struggle to be free.
Spencer also seemed a bit odd. I couldn’t put my finger on it.There was something that just didn’t seem to fit. There was an almost childlike character to his mannerisms and yet here he was this 280-pound man with a thick, fully grown, jet black beard. I was jealous of his facial hair, so thick and dark; my beard had had sprinkles of grey from the time it started growing. His gentleness suggested a feminine side, but I never discussed it, and he never really let on. He had even spoken briefly of his son (which really confused me).
On our first visit to the day room, an opportunity to read a newspaper and to watch television, the program we were watching went to commercial. Spencer being quite aware of prison etiquette asked if he could change the channel for a minute. (You cannot afford one enemy and so compromise in the form of a town hall meeting is the norm.) He surfed quickly and got to the desired channel: Golden Girls, a show about four elderly white women. He smiled and then giggled like – what can only be described as a little girl – “this show is funny,” he said. Everyone in the room looked at him and then at each other: it was confirmed, Spencer was definitely gay to all concerned at that moment. It, however, was never confirmed and the fact of the matter remained that over time, it was a nonissue.
Everyone, including the four white guys in the cell two doors down, was quite comfortable being at Solano. They knew how it worked and I listened as they shared insights about our surroundings. They were friendly, personable, and funny. If you didn’t know you were in jail, you could have easily believed you ran into them at your favorite watering hole. Of the four, two of them were in wheelchairs- this was after all the medical ward- one unfortunately with a brain tumor that the system had failed to address at the time of discovery, and now, 10 months later, had been declared inoperable, and the other with long grey hair and a very long beard who not only was witty, but I’m sure the past president of the “Hell’s Angels”. The younger guy with them was the class clown and bore the brunt of most of their jokes. The fourth member of their group, Wayne, had a serious foot infection, and was constantly receiving IV antibiotics. Although a motley crew, I was happy to meet them. I recognize now that they were indeed a special group as inmates go; older, less hyper, and in no need of validation. They were colleagues, friends that we saw once a day for one hour, and our only contacts outside of the guards.
The medical unit was different in that women were housed there too. And although they were silent most of the day, you could hear their conversations, beginning after dinner and proceeding well into the evening. You never saw them, but once they got started talking, it was as if they were in the room.
One of them was young, maybe 19 or 20, and was pregnant and about to deliver. Like clockwork, approximately one hour after dinner, she started screaming for a snack. She held numerous conversations through the walls with the four white guys who she had named “new kids on the block.” They serenaded her with Beach Boy songs and she would return the favor with a song from a more recent generation.
It was sad that she was there. Not so much for her-I didn’t know anything about her-but for the baby. The notion of her delivering a child and having the authorities immediately take the baby away to foster care and then bringing her directly back to the jail, just seemed wrong. But any sympathy given to this woman was wasted, because she was mean. She treated the guards worse than they treated us, and that was pretty bad. She had the foulest mouth I’d ever heard, and made sure any of the guards who got on her bad side knew it immediately. In a sense, their conversations and interactions that I could hear through the walls served as a nightly sitcom that I looked forward to every evening. I’d lie in bed and imagine I was in a hotel in London or Paris just watching TV.
My conversations with Spencer increased as his restlessness began to increase. He was no longer wearing his body cast all the time – which would later prove to be his undoing – and had started to pace often, sit on the window sill and complain, and to beat on the walls to engage the four women – actually now three as one had been transferred – in conversation