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Doing my time

Tom Boyd

I’ve been thrown in jail.I’ve been stripped, searched, checked for disease, fingerprinted, forced to wear orange, herded through concrete hallways, moved only when I was told to, and locked inside a concrete cubicle behind a door with no handle. Almost all my rights were taken away and I was left, alone, to sit on a concrete slab and ponder nothingness.In jail you are no longer human. From the time you’re arrested to the time you’re set free you are treated more or less like a farm animal. There is absolutely nothing you can do without permission from the Jail deputies or the Jail Administrator. You are forced into demeaning positions (FACE AGAINST THE WALL! HANDS ABOVE YOUR HEAD! SPREAD YOUR FEET! BEND OVER!) and you are asked very personal, private questions about your life. Then you are entered into the great catalogue of names, the long, scrolling list of names that represent all the others like you who have gotten in trouble with the law and now are paying the price.I didn’t like it.I called up Jail Administrator Bill Kaufman (after he set me free) and told him what I thought of jail.”Hey Bill,” I said, “I really didn’t like that. I really can’t tell you how non-enjoyable that was.””Good!” he responded (in his cheery, implacable way). “That’s what we were hoping you would feel.””Well, it worked,” I said. “I had no idea it would be that bad.”And it WAS that bad.OK for the sake of my family, friends, co-workers and readers, I should clarify something: I didn’t go to jail against my will. I wasn’t arrested in the middle of some drunken spree; I didn’t get a DUI, run from the law, get in a fight, steal money, mutilate a corpse, or anything else. In fact, I’ve never been arrested for anything real (so far, anyway).Like some kind of twisted masochist, I decided to go to jail on purpose. I asked Kaufman and Sheriff Joe Hoy to throw me in jail so I could go through what Kobe Bryant went through (as brief as it was) when he was arrested in the summer of 2003. I wanted to know what my friends went through when they were arrested, and I wanted to know who was in there, why, and what it was like.I repeat: It wasn’t fun.Later in the evening I was able to try out a line on a few people I knew: “I got thrown in jail today,” I told them, and what an entertaining game it was to watch the expressions on their face twist and contort in disbelief. Unfortunately my con-artist skills are unrefined, and I could only hold the truth at bay for a few moments before I told the rest of the story.But the look on the faces of my friends told me everything I needed to know about what people think of other people who go to jail. And I was greatly relieved that I was able to say that I wasn’t REALLY arrested, I wasn’t REALLY jailed as a criminal. The social stigma of being jailed would be very unsettling as bad or worse than the experience of jail itself.But consider this: from a purely statistical point of view, there’s a good chance I would have learned about jail the hard way. In America, where more people go to prison than anywhere else in the world, it seems everybody gets a taste of life behind bars (or in Eagle County, where there are no bars on the cells, it would be a taste of the metal door). Scroll through your very own list of friends everyone likes to think that they’re not associated with criminals, with people who have been arrested but unless you’re a hermit, you know someone who’s been to jail, or you’ve been there yourself.And it might have happened right here in Eagle County.Handball and hand-to-hand fightingAs for me, I know plenty of people who have been to jail and I’ve interviewed several who have been there and back again. During the three weeks I’ve been incubating this story I’ve known two people who have been thrown into jail, several more have come forward to tell me about their experience, and had another show me a copy of a letter he wrote during a two-month stay in jail.”I’ve been in here for 1,920 hours,” my friend wrote from the Arapahoe County Jail, “and I have 2064 hours to go. I just finished eating my sack lunch, the same s*** I’ve been eating almost everyday for the last three-and-a-half weeks. I also played a game of dominoes and called my mom. I won the game of dominoes 250 to 85. That means I’ve been in here too long.”The sombre tone of the letter continues over many pages, revealing some of the darker shades of jail life eating bad food, sleeping on a concrete floor, moving from pod to pod to pod, showering in front of a lot of other men, changing clothes, being threatened by violent offenders basic jail living.In Eagle County, however, at least the food isn’t so bad.I met the cook, Rosalie, and she prepares all the meals for Eagle County’s inmates most of whom are in for 30-day to 6-months sentences, too poor to post bond. The food, for many of them, is a relief: three square meals a day isn’t easy to come by for many of Kaufman’s inmates.So they elect to stay, and they eat Rosalie’s menu, cooked up for as many as 67 inmates a day.For breakfast? Coffee, sausage, oatmeal, banana, milk.For dinner? Enchiladas, beans, rice, milk, and a brownie.Lunch is a sandwich or something comparable. It is nearly identical to the food I ate at Minturn Middle School perhaps slightly better.Beside meal times, well-behaved inmates have plenty of opportunity to play dominoes at the recreation table, and a single television hangs from the stark cinder-block walls upstairs. Inmates can even play handball although fighting over rules can sometimes burst into violence.”Imagine a frat house where the doors never open,” said Kaufman. “Fights can happen at any time over the TV, over a cookie, anything.”And those that fight end up with more time to serve and another court date.The ones that stay out of trouble end up on work release, helping the local firemen, or the guys at the landfill, or the humane society any non-profit group that needs the help.As for the inmates who have drug or alcohol problems, Kaufman thinks jail gives them a chance to sober up and begin thinking straight again. Still, at a smaller jail, he says he can’t afford to operate the programs that larger jails operate.”In a bigger jail, with 500 or 1,200 beds, program director can be a full-time job,” he said. “That’s the major difference between large and small jails.”I wasn’t interested in attending any AA or NA meetings. My research was wearing on me, taxing me in some irritable way that I couldn’t really put my finger on. I just knew I wanted out.In contrast to my demeanor, the officials around me seemed jovial. And why not. As Kaufman says, “The only people serving life sentences around here are the deputies,” and so they must take their job as it comes a little levity can help.From the moment Sheriff’s Deputy John O’Sullivan arrested me (on charges of mutilating a corpse, no less) I noticed that the police officers and jail administrators have an, umwicked sense of humor. I asked them to give me the works, treat my like any other offender and they did.About five minutes after my arrest I regretted telling them this. The experience of being thrown in jail is one that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It was far more demeaning than I imagined, far more humiliating and I was only there for a few hours. Even considering the circumstances, I was eager to leave. In fact, I have never been in so much of a hurry as I was to leave the Eagle County building on that day.Behind barsQuick facts about American jails and prisons In 1980, less than 500,000 people were incarcerated in the USA By June of 2002, more than 2 million people were incarcerated in the USA 353 of every 100,000 whites are in prison 895 of every 100,000 latinos are in prison 2,470 of every 100,000 blacks are in prison 113 of every 100,000 females are in prison 1,309 of every 100,000 males are in prison The United States has a higher percentage of it’s population behind bars than any other nation with 702 per 100,000. Russia ranks second with 665 inmates per 100,000 people.Source: Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics


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