Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Pretty in (Pender County) Pink

So I've been reading Orange is the New Black, as well as re-watching previous seasons in preparation for the Season 5 premiere in June, and it's made me reflect on my short stint in jail (not prison, mind you). In the winter/early spring of 2015 I was sentenced to a total of 10 days in the Pender County Jail for second-degree trespassing (how stupid, right?), leftover from some charges I accrued during my "addict" phase. The one silver lining is that I was able to choose how I wanted to do the 10 days - I could do 5 weekends (Friday to Sunday nights), or 1 day (Friday-Saturday or Saturday-Sunday) for 10 weeks. I chose the latter. I was working full-time and didn't want to have to spend my whole weekend in jail for over a month. After further debate and discussion, I chose to go in at 6 PM on Saturdays and get released at 6 PM on Sundays. That way I would have all Friday night and Saturday to spend with Chris (my fiancé), and still get out early enough on Sunday to prepare for the coming work week. Only now, 2 years later, can I look back at that time with a clear head and reflect on how those 10 weeks shaped my life. This post will be about my first night there, as well as a summary of the remaining 9 Saturdays.

My first date I was to report was Saturday, March 21, 2015, at 6PM sharp. I was terrified but trying not to show it. My probation officer in Pender County had told me that "weekenders", as they call those who only have to serve weekend time, had it easy - she told me to dress comfortably, bring a paperback book, and that it would all be over before I knew it. When I got there, of course my paperwork wasn't finished, so I had to wait for what felt like an eternity. Which, honestly, was fine with me, because that meant less time I had to be in there, and more time I could spent with Chris (who always drove me, and waited with me until I had to go back). One thing that did rattle me slightly was that the lady who did the intake told me that my PO was mistaken, I couldn't bring anything back with me, including my book. If my PO had gotten that minor detail wrong, what else would she be wrong about? Still, I felt hopeful that I would make friends, we would talk, and time would fly by. Eventually they called my name and I nervously said good-bye to Chris. It was unbelievably hard that first night, and, while it got easier over the next 10 weeks, it still wasn't fun, by any means.

The guard brought me back through a metal detector into a holding cell, to get changed out of my street clothes and, of course, wait some more, (Really, the waiting is the worst part - it really shows how you are completely at the mercy of the guards. They will get to you when THEY feel like it - if it's shift change, or they're otherwise occupied, it doesn't matter if it's visiting time, dinnertime or time to get released, they'll get to it when they get to it.) A female guard came in and had me strip, and do the regulation "squat & cough", which was every bit as demeaning as it sounds. Luckily they didn't go as far as on OITNB, where they made Piper bend ALL the way down and grab her ankles! Eventually the embarrassment was over, and I got "dressed out". Prison wear in Pender was pale pink scrub-like pajamas, mesh granny panties and a (too-large) pair of brown plastic slip-on sandals. I definitely preferred the pink to the standard "orange" scrubs I had heard so much about (apparently the only variation is if you were a violent offender, or something, in which case you got black-and-white scrubs, much like the Monopoly man's "Get our of Jail Free" uniform on the Chance & Community Chest cards). As for the sandals, they looked much like the cheap ones you can get at Wal-mart, only even less flattering. I wear a 6, which of course they didn't have, so I was forced to clomp along behind the guard in a pair 2 sizes too large, all the while praying I didn't trip.

Afterwards I was handcuffed, given my lumpy plastic "mattress", blanket, cup, and spoon, and led down a hallway to the cell. I had no idea what to expect - would it be a large room separated by cubes, with bunks and lockers,similar to real prisons (and like the one in OITNB)? Not even close. It was a fairly small room, maybe the size of 2 master bedrooms put together, with 5 bunks along the left wall, 1 shower and toilet in the back right corner, separated by a cinder block partition (blocking off the "bathroom" from the rest of the room), and one long multi-purpose table in the front right corner. The entire room was windowless and made of concrete and cinder blocks, with one camera over the front of the table, a small television set over the rear of the table, and it was COLD. The guard led me into the "foyer" right outside the room, closed the door to the outer area, buzzed me into the room, and uncuffed me. And then I was standing there in front of nine or so other women, all of whom were playing cards, laying on their bunks or mattresses (on the floor), and staring straight at me.

To say that it felt like my first day at a new school is a severe understatement. I'm not shy by any means... unless, of course, I'm in an entirely new situation with a bunch of strangers (who also happen to be criminals). I lugged my mattress into the room, very self-consciously, looking around until Abigail, a plump girl with long brown hair and glasses told me I could sit near her, on the floor. I gratefully laid my mattress and other belongings down beside her, and we played cards and began the obligatory small talk: "What's your name?" "What are you in for?" "How long do you have?" I learned that she was a weekender, like me, and, aside from her stories of her "crimes and misdemeanors" that landed her in there, she had absolutely no personality whatsoever. Eventually I became overwhelmed both with boredom and the need to stretch, so I migrated to the table, where several girls were playing cards, hoping to waste some more time, Among the other girls were Caroline, a sweet blond girl; Jenny, a tough lesbian brunette; an older woman (whom they all called Nana), Macie, a cute young African-American girl, and a few other random characters. It turned out that by coming in at 6, I had already missed dinner, which was fine with me (luckily, I had thought to eat beforehand). Abigail let me borrow a romance novel for later, and it was lights out (at 10:30) before I knew it. I climbed onto my top bunk (which, I soon realized, was a HUGE mistake), pulled the blanket over my head, and laid there. And laid there. And laid there.

One thing I would like to note is that, at least in Pender County, "lights out" doesn't truly mean "lights out" - for safety reasons (I assume), there are always some dim lights overhead, and my choice of top bunk, combined with my need for pitch black when I sleep, did NOT help. Neither did the snoring - oh, lord, the snoring! I am a heavy(ish) sleeper once I actually fall asleep, but I have a routine. I like my fan (both for circulation and white noise), so the still air and the cavemanlike sounds that were coming from the women beside and below me were a sure sign I would be up for awhile, Particularly the sounds coming from my new buddy, Abigail. I would soon find out that she was loathed by all the other women because of her snoring. Now, my father was a snorer, and I have shared a room (and a bed) with other people who have sawed lumber, but I have never, ever heard anyone make the noises she made that night. Between that, the unfamiliar setting, the uncomfortable metal bed and scratchy blanket, and being without Chris at night for the first time in years, the reality of the situation finally settled in, and I started to cry. I couldn't wait to go home the next evening.

I tried getting my mind off of things. I read the book Abigail had given me (not a hard feat, 
considering I was on the top bunk and the florescent lights were still humming above me). I thought about how stupid I had been, to end up in here (even if it was just for a few weeks). I wondered what Chris was doing back at home, if he was missing me as much as I was missing him. (This was, after all, our first night apart in YEARS.) A guard wandered in every hour or so and pushed a little button on the far wall, glancing around at everybody. I guess I eventually drifted off to sleep... and then, before I knew it, the lights were coming back on, and there were 2 guards standing outside the door, calling people's last names for breakfast. I asked around and realized that it was only 5:30. Seriously? I still had 12 and a half hours until I could get out of this hellhole.

Most meals in jail are nothing spectacular, and breakfast was no exception - dry, unseasoned scrambled eggs (that probably came from a powder and not real eggs), a hockey puck that was imitating a sausage patty, and toast, all packed in a Styrofoam box, with a carton each of milk and orange juice (like the kind they give kids in grade school cafeterias). The guards would push all of this through the little slot in the door (the same one you would stick your hands through to be handcuffed). Most of the girls ate in their beds and immediately pulled the covers back over their heads to get some more sleep. I tried in vain to eat something, hoping it would allow me to go back to sleep, as well. Luckily, apparently every other Sunday they turn on the little TV set during the day, and that just so happened to be the "on" Sunday, so I laid in bed, trying to read, and glancing at the television every so often. (The one good thing about having the TV on constantly was that it helped me gauge how much time had passed, since there were no clocks anywhere to be found. You constantly have to ask a guard to tell you what time it is - and pray that they're feeling generous enough to tell  you!)

Lunchtime came at 11:30, when at least half of the girls were still asleep. It was even worse than breakfast - bologna and cheese sandwich, on white bread, with a packet of mustard and some cold, unseasoned fries. To drink was the most bitter, unsweetened, watered-down lemonade I've ever tasted. For the thousandth time in the past twelve hours, I thought about how glad I was to be going home soon, and that I'd get to eat REAL food. The rest of the afternoon was spent making more small talk with the other girls, watching TV, playing cards and praying the time would move faster than it had thus far. At one point I tried to use the pay phone to call Chris - I heard him say "Hello?" and as I was trying to say "Baby, it's me," I instantly got choked up. I heard him start to say something and then we got disconnected. I tried to call back but no luck. Even though I knew I would be seeing him soon, I still felt defeated, which only made me feel worse, since I hadn't even been in there for 24 hours, while some of the other girls had been in there for months! Being in jail has a way of making you feel like you are utterly alone, whether you're in there for one day or one year. After I hung up the phone, I sat down and proceeded to write him a letter, with a sheet of legal paper and a "pen" (literally it was only the inside of a BIC ballpoint pen, the skinny inner tube with the ink - that was it!) I had gotten from one of the other girls, and wrote him a letter.

Dinner was at 4:30, which is ridiculously early for anybody, but especially for someone who typically doesn't eat until after 8! The only good thing was that it meant I only had an hour and a half left. It was "meatloaf", but I not-so-fondly refer to as "mystery meat" . I did learn that the other girls were super stoked for meatloaf (which was served every Sunday), which just made me even more depressed - if this was considered "good" food, what exactly was the "bad" food? There were mashed potatoes (boxed, presumably) and more toast (they sure love the carbs in jail - definitely not Atkins friendly in there!). Luckily, since I knew I would be getting released soon, I gladly passed my box to Jenny, sat back on my mattress (which I had moved back to the floor beside Abigail, so as not to have to climb back onto the top bunk anymore) and prepared to get out of that hellhole and back to my real life waiting outside.

Finally, it neared six o'clock. I gathered all of my stuff together and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Caroline told me that shift change occurs at 6, and the guards will wait until they get settled first before handling any releases, which didn't surprise me, yet I was still disappointed. Finally I heard them call my last name, along with Abigail's last name, and tossed my mattress and blanket into the wheeled laundry basket one of the guards had carted into the room. I then grabbed my cup and spoon, slipped on my plastic sandals and stuck my wrists through the slot to be cuffed. The guards led Abigail and me back to the front desk, where we traded our cups and spoons for our street clothes, and were led into separate holding cells to change and wait to be officially released. Finally the cell opened and I was free. Chris was just walking up towards the entrance as I walked outside and I ran into his arms like I hadn't seen him in a year. Even though the night hadn't been THAT rough, I burst into tears anyway, just from the pure relief at being back in the outside world. We drove home and I relayed the stories and colorful cast of characters I had met, and I went home, ate dinner, and got ready for another week of work before returning for another 9 weekends.

Surprisingly (or maybe not), the next 9 weeks got easier to bear as they went on. I made more friends and by the final weekend, May 23, I knew that Caroline would be waiting for me to come in on Saturday and have a spot saved for me on the floor next to her bottom bunk. She also bought me a crossword book with her "canteen" money (same as commissary, from what I could tell), made me some homemade ear plugs, and let me borrow one of her (clean) sports bras every weekend. Another "weekender," Amy, would save me some of her imitation Kool-Aid flavor packets to mix with water (so I could drink something besides the watered-down lemonade that was served at every meal). I learned how to play various card games (and kicked ass at most of them, if I might add). I met Heidi, who knew Chris' aunt & boyfriend (and we found that we had similar experiences as well, so the combination of the two gave us a LOT to talk about). What's sad is that I heard she passed away (from an OD) shortly after she got out, which made me so sad, because she was only 26, had a young daughter, and had talked about getting her life back together... but I know how hard it is for addicts. I was lucky that I got out when I did. I met a 6' Amazonian named Christi who was locally famous (or, infamous) for doing something unspeakable to her child (yet she was super nice to all of us, interestingly enough). I met a girl named Rebecca with whom I had gone to high school (and, as it turned, out, who had married the best friend of my high school crush!). We had a lice scare my last day and everybody had to take showers with specially medicated shampoo (although, I didn't think it looked like lice, I didn't use the shampoo and nothing ever came out of it - in my opinion, they kept it WAY too cold in there for lice or any bacteria to live!), which at least broke up the monotony of the day. Overall, it was quite an experience, and definitely made me realize how lucky I had been to only have to spend such a short time in there. I do think about those girls often and about how differently things could have gone for us, had we not had the love and support that we did. And I am so grateful for every day that I get to wake up in my own bed, go to work, go shopping, eat real meals, and go to sleep in my own bed, with Chris and our pets, and that alone is enough to make me never want to break any law ever again!


** All names have been changed to protect the (not-so) innocent.



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