By Elizabeth Hawes
When you first arrive in county jail, you are segregated from others in the general population of the facility. With 10 to 16 other people, you are put in “the bubble,” a holding area for those awaiting their sentencing, trial, or deportation. You are locked in a cell for 23 hours a day and are only allowed out for one hour a day—one person at a time—to walk in front of a row of cells; to sit on a metal chair attached to the floor and read a newspaper at one of the metal tables attached to the wall; to get a book off the metal book cart; or to make a local phone call at fifty cents a minute. It is called “the bubble” because one wall of this area is made of Plexiglas. It is like living in a fishbowl: you can see others in the general population day space—where there are tables and chairs not bolted to the floor or wall, a TV, and an officer’s station—but can’t talk or communicate with anyone.
County jail is cold and windowless. We sleep on thin, green vinyl pads covered with a sheet and a threadbare blue blanket. My pillow smells like dust. Lights out by 11:00 p.m. The officers often whistle, rattle their keys, slam the door to the bubble, and click their handcuffs that swing from their utility belts as they do their rounds throughout the night. These sounds echo. I don’t know if their noises are meant to intimidate and flex power or because they are bored and just like the reverberation effect. They shine their flashlights in my face. I never sleep well.
At night, soon after the lights turn off, some women sing what sounds like Spanish folk songs. It is their way to communicate and console each other between cells. The songs sound sad-beautiful. I hope they are songs of redemption, but they sound lonely.
The jail is also used for federal detention. Every day, people are dumped off by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be deported. In the morning, as I leave in a van to my trial, I pass 18 to 25 men sitting on plastic chairs, hands zip-tied, waiting to be sent out of the country. Most of them look young and nervous, trying to make brave faces. They look nice, and I feel bad they were rounded up just because they wanted to work. I wish I could say something to comfort them. I wish I knew more Spanish. I wish I weren’t wearing handcuffs.
I spend 14 months in county jail—locked in my cell for 22 to 23 hours a day. There is little to do. I read a lot of books my friends send to me. There is a volunteer who comes in to lead Bible study once a week. Incarcerated people can play volleyball in the gym every other day for about 45 minutes. Everyone is fired up to play. One afternoon, I watch them. Except for one person, they are horrible athletes. Enthusiastic, but horrible.
We wear navy scrubs and orange, flimsy jelly sandals. Every other day, we get a “new” set of scrubs and “new” underwear and socks. By “new,” I mean washed.
I’m a vegetarian and have been for more than 24 years. The jail is not set up for vegetarians. Not that a non-meat diet is that complicated: a peanut butter or cheese sandwich will do—but every lunch and dinner I receive a scoop of white rice (often hard and crunchy), a scoop of bland white beans (often hard and not cooked through), and a scoop of mushy broccoli or green beans. By the time I am transferred to prison, my iron level is so low that by day four of arrival, I faint and am rushed to the hospital, where I spend the night with an IV drip in each arm.
I can still hear the woman in the jail cell next to mine screaming, “Get off me, get off me” as she sleeps. I see the young woman who worked as a sex worker. The people struggling with substance use issues. The women with bruises on their faces. The women who are terrified of losing their children.
When I think of jail, I think of being tired and having no one to talk to. I think about running out of paper and envelopes. How the guards would toss our cells—knocking our few toiletries off the ledge above the metal sinks in our rooms, throwing our clothes and books on the floor. I think about not being outside for more than a year. Of not understanding what was happening to me in court or how the legal system really works.
I think about being cold and usually hungry. I think of people coming down from heroin and just off meth, begging for anything sweet. I think of my best friend dying from an out-of-the-blue heart attack at the age of 46 and how I sob for three days and can’t attend his funeral or speak with his mother. I think of my wedding anniversary and not being able to see my husband because the jail was on a lockdown, and we couldn’t have any visits.
Visiting is conducted in two ways: a half an hour of face time, either through a TV screen or a piece of Plexiglas with both people talking through a telephone—just like in the movies. Except it’s not the movies; it’s my life.
Elizabeth Hawes is a five-time National PEN award winner in poetry, memoir, and playwriting. Originally Published by Vera Institute of Justice.