“Do you know anyone in jail?” the officer asked.
“Um…” I thought through everyone I went to public school with. One them had spent some time in jail, but I was pretty sure he’d been released. “No.”
“Hold out your arms,” he instructed. He ran a metal-detection wand over my body, but it didn’t beep. I’d already put my cell phone, keys, and wallet in my backpack and given it to him.
He pressed a button, and a door behind him slid open. We stepped into a small holding area until the door closed again–as if preventing butterflies from escaping their sanctuary at the zoo–and then he pressed another button that opened the door to the corridor of the Tompkins County jail.
* * *
Besides writing for this blog, I’m also a staff writer for my college’s magazine. I tend towards “social justice journalism”–in the past I’ve written about pro-anorexia websites, sex education, and equal employment for people with disabilities. All of those pieces demanded a lot of researching and carefully selecting interviewees, and then a lot of sighing and backspacing during the writing process.
In October the magazine’s theme was “Edible,” and I chose to take on the challenge of researching and reporting on prison food.
Finding interviewees was hard–turns out that criminal justice researchers aren’t prioritizing nutrition issues–but I ended up connecting with the police captain at the Tompkins County Jail in Ithaca.
On the day of my interview, I got dropped off early, so I sat in the waiting room with my anxiety rising. It was an intimidating environment, and I found it hard to relax between the repetitive rules for visitors (don’t you dare bring in contraband, seriously) and the periodic announcements over the loudspeaker that sounded more like angry robot noises than English letters (I’m sure they’re intelligible to the inmates who hear them every day, but I couldn’t decipher even a single word).
Finally the police captain came to get me. He checked my ID, told me he’d have to “register” me in the computer, and asked what was in my backpack. I negotiated to keep my laptop to take interview notes, but I had to leave behind everything else. He noted down that I didn’t know anyone who was incarcerated, and wanded me. The process is standard protocol for anyone who enters the jail, but it felt like he didn’t trust my character, like he suspected me of having another motive for visiting.
He walked me down the hallway to see the kitchen. On the way, I passed a small room that was nothing more than a glass box with a bench and a small mat. Inside stood an inmate, dressed in the stereotypical bright orange jumpsuit, pacing back and forth. We made eye contact. I looked away, suddenly ashamed of my freedom. I felt once again like I was in a zoo, a zoo where the “animals” look just like I do.
Next to the kitchen was the laundry room, where an inmate in khaki was washing jumpsuits and other linens. He didn’t seem to have a lot of direct supervision, but guards were constantly surveying the hallways, occasionally escorting an inmate by the arm with a rough grip.
I sat down with the police captain and the chef to start the interview–I had a bunch of questions about the day-to-day routine in the jail, how meal times work, the commissary system, etc.–but the chef got a call on her walkie-talkie and immediately got up to leave.
As we discussed the jail’s food policies, I noticed the bulletin board on the wall beside the captain’s desk. It had news clippings of strange crimes, kudos to officers, and stories about visitors getting charged for bringing in contraband. The “c” word never made it into my final article, but all three of my interviewees mentioned it–it’s actually a huge culture behind bars, not just something we see in prison dramas.
After I asked all my questions (and follow-up questions, some of which required careful wording and re-wording to try to squeeze more information out of people who are used to high confidentiality), the police captain told me he loves having students and journalists visit the jail. Correctional facilities are hidden and secretive by nature, he told me, but he enjoys having the opportunity to correct the misconceptions about what happens “on the inside.”
A few of my own misconceptions changed during my visit. I was surprised how bright and clean the jail was, since I usually think of prison as being dingy and dirty (of course, some correctional facilities are, and I didn’t get to see the condition of the bunks/recreation areas, so it could still be a reality at the Tompkins County Jail). The vibe was more relaxed than I expected, but it definitely still felt isolated and exposed.
My visit was a fascinating look into an environment we don’t usually get to see firsthand, but I can definitely say I’m satisfied with that being my first and last jail experience.
Click here to read my magazine article, “Eating Behind Bars.”