When you first set foot in jail it’s kind of like a hotel experience if the hotel staff were allowed to berate you. You arrive and check in with the officers doing intake and they give you a bunch of shit, basically testing your compliance, and then you wait for the old guy who will assign you a locker. You sit in the waiting room which looks a lot like a driver’s ed classroom with all of its “buckle up for safety” and other provisions of Wisconsin state law plastered around the room. One would think that people would understand that if we’re sitting in the waiting room getting ready to check into jail we’re probably not exactly the target audience for posters on how to be a law abiding citizen. You’re never really alone in the waiting room. There are always guys there with you who are slightly more messed up than you are. Some guys are drunk, which is always interesting because you’ve got to really, really want it to get drunk in jail. Others are just bored and trying their best to wait as patiently as they can and there are others still who want to talk to you. I navigated between the former and the latter groups.
When I arrived at jail for the first time there was only one guy who was checking in with me. This wasn’t his first time at this particular establishment. He seemed to know exactly how long everything would take and all the little rules that a newbie like me had yet to understand. When the old guy with the rusty key belt and the rape whistle walked in to get us acquainted with the locker room this other guy casually organized his locker like he had never left. He grabbed what he needed and got ready to go through the body search. I struggled to keep up with this guy because I had no idea where to put anything and actually asked one of the COs for help, which apparently is a no-no in the jail environment. Eventually we got our uniforms and sat outside the medical office as the happy, go-lucky CO processed us into the system. He had to take the mugshot, figure out medications, and assign us to a cell block. This process took well over an hour because apparently this guy had nothing else better to do that day. He took me to task for having a “blinking problem” when he was trying to take my picture. When I explained that I had never been very good at being photographed he simply restated to me that it wasn’t that hard and I should just stop blinking as if this was something that I had control over.
When we finished the whole processing routine we were assigned cell blocks. The guy I came in with couldn’t have been more disappointed with his assignment and when he saw where I was headed he got even more upset. We were waiting for the old guy to get back from the commissary with our bunk mats and locker keys. This guy I came in with was really irritated with me that I had got the assignment that I got and he had no problem letting the guy who made the assignment know about it.
“How many times have I been here?” He asked the guard. The guard shrugged his shoulders. “I deserve this. You know I do.”
“You deserve this?” I wondered. Was this supposed to function like a frequent flyer program where if you have three or more visits to jail you get a nice cell block assignment on your fourth visit? I was confused. What I really didn’t understand was why my block was supposed to be so cushy. Eventually, the old man arrived with our mats that they called mattresses, but not after describing in detail how his back, knees, and hip were giving out on him. The CO led us upstairs and I headed into my cell block. It was about nine o’clock at night. Only a few people were awake. I talked briefly with a couple of guys who were sitting at the cafeteria like table in front of the TV before lights out at ten.
I was really nervous my first night there. I didn’t sleep at all. One of the guys that had come in earlier that day got back from his work release at about one in the morning and I was still awake. I said hi to the guy and he came over and talked to me about his case. He seemed to feel better about things after the discussion and after taking a shower he went straight to bed. I didn’t know how anyone could sleep in this environment. The COs were constantly coming in and messing with the lights or turning their flashlights on to check certain areas of the room. Eventually, around two thirty or three in the morning I fell asleep. I remember because I slept through breakfast. One someone informed me that I had missed breakfast another inmate chimed in that I should have at least gone down to grab my breakfast so that I could hand it to him. He was on a diet after all.
The first week or so I was shown the ropes of the facility by Mark the Crackhead that slept below me. Mark struck me as a nice guy now that he was sober. Had we met under different circumstances he would have probably caused me serious bodily injury, but given our current conditions he was on the whole rather kind. He explained the way things worked and how to get around the everyday hassles that the COs liked to impose on the inmates. He explained that everything we did in our block was videotaped because we were in the “glorified psych ward” as he put it.
“Let me guess: you’re on Adivan or Xanax, Seroquel or Adderall,” he said. I was on Xanax and I told him as much. “That’s why you’re in here,” he explained. “They don’t want to deal with the liability if you hang yourself.” I didn’t understand why I’d hang myself on the first day, but Mark explained that putting me in the block that I was put in was done to avoid a lawsuit. If they ignored the fact that I was on a ton of anti-depressants and I wound up killing myself then they were open to huge potential lawsuits. Apparently that was what really determined which block you were in. If you had an anger problem you went to A-block, if you were a minority you were in B-block, if you had psychiatric issues you were with us and if you had something that wasn’t like the others you went to the block at the very end of the hall. We all called them the troublemakers because they were always in orange, which is the color suit you had to wear if you misbehaved.
You joined a small clique based on what cell block you were in. Like any other niche in society there was a group and then a smaller subgroup within that group. I fit in among the professionals, that is the people that got to leave during the day to go to work. I got to leave to go to school and they got to leave to go to work. We saw each other the most often and hung out while we were waiting to go back in, getting ready for bed, or deciding what to watch on TV. It gave us all a feeling of comradery and the feeling that we weren’t in this alone. It gave us something to look forward to in a world where there was very little reason to get up in the morning and that was the one thing that made the whole experience bareable. That homosocial bonding made us feel like men in an environment where other men tried to scale us down to size and that really meant something at the end of the day.