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  • Writer's pictureMichael McConnell

Chapter Two, Sound Thinking

Be it the rules, living quarters, the staff, matters of health and well-being, whatever, I, the virgin incarceratee, find in jail that I am never farther from the next surprise, shock, shocking surprise or surprising shock than the upcoming shift change, mealtime, trip to the infirmary, court date, lock-in or recreation time. Social interaction among the fifty-one guys with whom I share my domestic life is nothing if not a perpetually fertile source of tales and more tales of the unexpected.

A brief digression to describe us: a cursory glance will tell you that we, all of us, are seemingly in love with the color orange. Each of us, according to the law, stands accused of criminal activity, and each of us, according to a standard that must make sense to someone in jail administration, has been deemed an appropriate resident within that sector of the general population for which only minimum security is considered necessary. Finally, and to state the obvious, we are all of the male sex. Otherwise, as components of a group, we are diverse to an almost ostentatious degree.

In terms of shape, height, weight and skin color, we run the gamut of possibilities. Ages range from young adult to geezer. We are highly intelligent, and we are stupid. It is not uncommon to find a mixture of the two in one. Levels of education range from proudly illiterate to obnoxiously Ivy League (and that is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive). We are hairy and smooth, sloppy and neat, energetic and sluggish, straight and (don’t tell anyone) gay. Our origins are broken homes and Ozzie and Harriet families. Our forbears are poverty-stricken and wellborn. Ours has been a godless, hand-to-mouth existence among the dregs of society, informed by rigid discipline or a shocking lack of supervision or both. We remember perfectly happy childhoods.

Our personalities are tempered by how much we were loved, ignored, smothered, spoiled, rejected. Our manners range from the polite to the boorish. We are practical thinkers. We are cunning. We have no common sense whatsoever, and we are unbelievably gullible. We are liars, and we are cheats, but there are those of us (honor among thieves) who are scrupulously honest. We are mama’s boys, brutes, best friends, constant rivals, cowards, team players, show-offs, social animals and loners. We are loud, and we are quiet, and we are everything in-between (but mostly we are loud). We are selfish to the death and generous to a fault, disseminators of gossip and keepers of secrets.

We are whiners and stoics. We are upbeat and downcast. Despairing, we count the minutes. Hopeful, we make the best of a shitty situation. We put up a brave front. We are placed on suicide watch. We are non-believers, and we faithfully attend every available church service and prayer group that is offered. We are drug addicts and drug dealers. We abuse alcohol, spouses, children and ourselves. We disturb the peace. We destroy property. We steal and extort. We are serial rapists, shoplifters and arsonists. We have harbored guns and sheltered gang members. We have snitched, and we have taken the fall for others. We have committed manslaughter, and we have murdered.

Drunk as a lord, we have plopped our fiancé on the back of our motorcycle, which we have subsequently started up, opened up and headed out toward home; and we have arrived there, gotten off the bike, and been in the door and halfway through the next beer before realizing that the fiancé has not arrived with us.

We should not be housed within the general population. We should not be housed within any population. We are the chronically ill. We are amazing fakers. We are career hypochondriacs. We have been unjustly denied hospital care, and we have had unnecessary hospital care foisted upon us. We have spent time in mental facilities from which we should never have been released. We are some of the nicest, smartest, funniest guys you will ever meet. A shocking number, most of us, in fact, are repeat offenders, chronic parole and probation violators, lifetime petty criminals and serial jailbirds-in-training. And for however long we reside in this nasty place, we are family.

There are probably not many jail goings-on that can still shock or surprise the more experienced among my suite-mates, but for me it’s a different story. By virtue of both my first-time status as a guest of the criminal justice system and the time I spent in the environment out of which I was untimely ripped, I find that my new home behind locked doors is a constant surprise waiting to happen. In the heartbeat it had taken to arrest, transport, photograph and finger-print me, I left my financially comfortable, politically liberal, predominately white, college-educated, free and flexible white collar comfort zone, and entered its parallel universe, jail: same component parts, enormously different in number, scale and arrangement.

No longer a majority shareholder in terms of race, economic background, education and age, I reside in a place where my formerly predominant ethnic group is outnumbered five to one. It is possible that I am not the only queer in the place, but the subject does not come up (and I have a very strong feeling that it would not be wise of me to introduce it). My extensive education in classical music, the arts, languages and literature is put to occasional use if someone gets stuck for a non-sports answer in a crossword puzzle, but when considered in tandem with my dearth of street smarts, my artsy background tags me as practically illiterate. Youth dominates in jail. The wisdom of the ages, at least as it regards me, is not revered. This is not Japan, and I am not a national treasure.

Yet is has been surprising that the transition into the general rhythm of the place has been so much simpler than I would ever have imagined. Shockingly, the basic coping skills I have needed, so far, to function day-to-day have been conveniently present when needed or easy to learn.

The most traumatic shocks of the experience of being here came during the first few days in what is called Intake and Classification. Twenty-two hours of my day were spent in a holding cell, alone with my thoughts and in a state of total ignorance regarding the precise facts of the case that landed me there. I had had no experience living in confinement, and no prospects I knew of for getting out. I was stranded, still in shock from my arrest; trapped in a world of condemned men and surrounded by our disinterested keepers, I was miles outside my comfort zone (or any zone). Though I was alone in a cell, I was within easy shouting distance of another three-dozen men, also awaiting classification. I call it shouting distance, but that’s just because no one ever spoke at a decibel level that could be described as anything else. In actuality we were all very much within whispering distance, residing, as we were, in a place where whispering was very much an alien concept.

So, there was the noise. Add to that, troubled sleep, alarming smells from unidentified sources, unrelenting grime and unforgivable food, and you’d have, more or less, a comprehensive list of the major features defining the mood of the holding area. Throw into the mix high levels of inmate anger and anxiety, and you get a pretty good idea of the stultifying emotional atmosphere in which we all stewed, all day. It would be easy to imagine in so much sensory overload that the eventual sensation within would be one of overall numbness. But throughout the nightmare of Intake and Classification, however beaten into submission they were by whatever they had touched, tasted, smelled and seen, my senses remained keenly terrorized by one thing, the noise.

Here’s part of the reason why: the defining features in jail architecture through the centuries consist of an excess of metal, stone, plaster, cement; high, vaulted ceilings and plenty of large, flat surfaces. There is a surfeit of carpet, fabric or sound absorbing material of any kind, and what does exist, whether on floor, ceiling or wall, has become, through the years of disrepair and general inattention, so caked, stuffed or glazed with exhaust dust, dried food and drink as to have become just another hard surface off of which to bounce a lot of sound. The typical jail is an environment capable of achieving rock concert volume without the aid of microphones or speakers. Every room is its own amphitheater.

Empty, a jail is the urban transposition of the proverbial tree falling in the forest conundrum. But if an empty jail makes no noise, neither does it make any money. The other reason then, why jails are unbelievably loud is because they have been stuffed full of people who don’t want to occupy them. Add steel bars and clacking electronic locks controlled by bullies with a little power and less training about how to use it effectively, and . . . voilà: a cash cow that just happens to produce, as a by-product, an apocalypse of sound. Imagine the decibel level of a summer camp for rich juvenile delinquents inside St. Peter’s in Rome. Throw in a few cranky nuns with Tasers and mace, and . . . I still can’t imagine that it would be louder than jail. Then again, I cannot imagine that anything is louder than jail.

OK, that describes the outside noise from within a holding cell. On the inside (of my head, that is) was the unreal, terror-inspired noise. It consisted of an ongoing hiss, like steam from a giant teakettle, and it ran in sync with a sound like the electric hum of a fluorescent light in its final throes. A full-tilt nightmare of white noise, this inside sound competed with the din on the outside to form a maelstrom from which I could not pluck anything identifiable as speech; it provided nothing recognizable for my ear to grab onto and transfer into a word. It was an inescapable reminder of a situation for which I wanted no reminding.

Late at night, as the outside noise faded away, the relative quiet on the inside provided, surprisingly, little solace. Rather, it left me with the more insidious torture of a buzz/hum combo that seemed permanently lodged in my inner ear. During the really crazy, outside noise of the daytime hours, this inside noise tempted me, promising, in the night, the absence of outside noise. But the inside noise was still noise. It masqueraded as quiet, but it was quiet tempered by loneliness and uncertainty, and in its way, it, too, was deafening.

Then, a surprise: several days in, on an afternoon significant for the proximity to which the noise in the room had pushed me to insanity, I was transferred out of Intake and into the comparative comfort of the much more orderly, much (MUCH) quieter environment that became my permanent jail home. The psychological ploy was very obvious, and I felt a little silly giving into it so easily. But if, like millions who came before me, I was to be duped by the classic psychology that practically guarantees a happier, calmer inmate by subjecting him to a miserable Intake experience, then consider me happily duped. After the shocking chaos of holding cell limbo, my transfer to Cell 27, South Tower, Level Three, my new home, was like taking an extended trip to the Elysian Fields.

I don’t know why I expected a hostile reception from my new housemates; too much Shawshank or Oz or Orange/Black had probably prepared me to expect the worst. But I was so relieved to be out of the holding pattern that I didn’t care. It was a very pleasant surprise, then, when I turned out to be completely wrong about the anticipated hostile reception. It was not that my welcome was carried out with flags and marching bands, and in no way could it be construed as a warm welcome. It was an act of no small exertion, in fact, for the deputy on duty to have to look up from his video game and point me in the general direction of the cell that was to be mine. And though I know now that it was totally consistent with normal operating procedure, it seemed even odder than several days before that for a place with so many rules, there was no new inmate orientation whatsoever. Nope, my arrival was, for everyone but me, a neutral event characterized by an almost complete lack of attention. But . . . neither was it hostile.

At first, to be a new resident of Cell 27, South Tower, Level Three was not to be noticed at all. But I recognized the same silent treatment with more seasoned eyes a few days later when the next guy to sign the guest register went similarly unnoticed. In truth, what was happening was a highly detailed, nearly imperceptible inspection/assessment from every other guy in the room. I am very grateful not to have known that I had been scrutinized so closely on my first day because it was during this invisible once-over that attitudes were adjusted and chips were attached accordingly upon potentially very intimidating shoulders. The jail arrival, for good or bad, sets the tone for your entire time in residence. Lucky for me the comparatively favorable reading based on my entrance was that if I turned out not to be the good guy I, on first impression seemed to be, I probably wasn’t a complete asshole either.

Going unnoticed, even if it was only my perception, was fine with me. It meant I could relax a little. So I did. A few hours later, when the temperature of the room and the attitudes of my new colleagues had risen from tepid to lukewarm, I began to feel, if not hope, exactly, that there was the glimmer of a possibility that, after all, my time in jail (however long it was going to be) might pass without my getting beaten up, sexually molested or murdered. And by lock-in that first evening, the full-out terror that had gripped me so relentlessly since my arrest relaxed its control, at least to the extent that I could manage to hold it at arm’s length while I got a decent night’s sleep.

And so, finally, with my subsiding jitters, the concept of sound as an impenetrable, insanity-inducing block also began to fade. Other perceptions drifted back to the way I remembered them from the outside world. A single, big sound was, once again, comprised of a collection of lots of other, individually perceivable sounds with varying intensities and contours. Some of them were even recognizable as my old friends, words.

My other senses came back in line as well. That is not to say that what there was to taste and smell, and, for that matter, see improved very much in my new digs. But their sources (mostly) were less scary. With familiarity came a level of acceptance of my situation, and the basic social skills that fear had short-circuited became operational in me and recognizable in others. Rarely comfortable in the role of new kid on the block, I, nevertheless, recognized the hand of welcome, however hesitantly it began to be offered, and instead of feeling hyper-overwhelmed, I could appreciate the level of improvement that came with being merely overwhelmed. No longer Lucy Ricardo, frantic in the candy factory, I could handle making chocolates at the moderate pace with which they now came down the belt.

Further, the analytical skills that had been frozen by the experience of intake thawed to an extent that allowed me to examine my new life by virtue of its component parts: the personalities and hierarchy of my fellow inmates, the staff that controlled us, the rules and rituals, the manners and customs plus all the kinds of shocks and surprises that can upset it all. For the first time in my life, the need to appreciate routine had become a serious coping skill.

In jail, to have a brush with weirdness resonant of any number of scenes out of Kafka or Bulgakov or Carroll is nothing unusual. (I mean, fervently wishing myself, on occasion, into the form of a cockroach while forced to live in a place where the command to ‘spread ‘em’ has nothing to do with a game of cards seems, in my mind, to be a perfectly reasonable pastime.) If, by blessed chance, I wake up and, like Judy Garland freshly transported out of Oz, find that the experience had all been a dream, mine will be the retelling of a story in which, more observer than participant, I had been trapped in an ongoing sociology experiment for which the scientific staff had lost interest and/or hope, and for which the grant money had long since dried up.

Like Oz, jail is a fascinating place to visit, but hand over the damn ruby slippers because I do not want to live here.

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