In the Fall of 2000, I was sentenced to two, back to back, 5 year sentences to be suspended, 1 year in Clinton County Jail, and 500 hours of community service. With a slam of the gavel I was off to begin my 1 year sentence. The next year of my life showed me a lot about man kinds’ true nature, pushed the physical and mental limits of what most people typically endure, and gave me a window into my future if I did not veer quickly from my current path.
When I first arrived at Clinton County, and after the whole booking process, I had a few minutes to take the place in. It was built in 1974, on the same site where two previous court houses had burned to the ground, and one would imagine it hadn’t been touched since. The jail is in the “basement” of the court house, and is very much like a dungeon. All cold metal, and slick, gray, lacquered floors and walls giving the appearance of perpetual wetness. There are two wings in the jail with a small third wing set up for the female inmates. All three wings are separated by heavy, solid, metal doors with only a small, one foot by one foot barred window facing into the main kitchen and intake area. Each of the two main wings, ideally, holds up to 28 inmates with 7 sets of cells excluding the drunk tank/solitary cell, containing 4 beds each. Even in the middle of Summer, somehow, it is always freezing cold. The beds are made of rusting steel and painted with layers of green paint, now flaking with age. They are bolted to the one foot thick, concrete walls with large, rusty lag bolts one bunk above another. The whole place never stops stinking of human waste as the only bathrooms are 1 per cell and completely out in the open. The toilets are connected to a water fountain sink abomination made from shiny, beat up steel. The mattresses on the bed are made up of some sort of green, woven canvas and if you have the bottom bunk you can usually stare up as you lay there and read all kinds of graffiti on the underside of the bunk above. Everything from tick marks counting down days, to threats to the guards, to perverted jokes, to claims of faith and promises to god about what will change if he will “just get me out of this!“. Once a week, barring any incidents, you get to go to visitation down the hall. The visiting room is more like a small, dead end hallway then a room. It has 5, semi partitioned, sections each with an old, rusty, lopsided, metal chair in it. There is a small quarter counter that runs the length of the bays in front of the chairs. In each bay there is a large, bullet proof window with a set of small, concentric circles cut into them in the middle. The glass is all smeared, and chipped from years of inmate temper tantrums, and hands being pressed against the smooth glass, reaching out to loved ones on the other side. On the right hand side of each bay there is an old fashioned phone receiver connected to the wall with a shiny, metal cord used to communicate to the visitor through the glass. Everything in this room is painted with cold, white, chipped paint that flakes off and floats onto the counter like some mockery of snow. Appearing to those on the other side of the glass, in my mind at least, as if they were staring into some sort of terrible, slow motion, snow globe. The whole place gave the impression that the whole building was elderly and depressed and ready to crawl back into the earth and die at any second.
Over my 365 days, I learned that human nature, when given the right set of circumstances, can be a funny thing. I was ushered back into the cell area and shown what 10 x 10 dark, damp, and stinking corner I was going to share with 4 other grown men for the next year. I slid onto a paper thin, green canvas mattress, kicked my feet up and laid back on my small bundle of provided possessions. I have always been the type of person who sits back and observes, letting events, and people, flow around me like a river. I fell back into that habit here, and haven’t seen anything quit like it since, short of television. As new inmates were admitted, I came to notice they went through 3 phases over what was usually a two week period. When they arrived they would be angry usually, desperate, willing to do anything to get out. Demanding the guards let them use the phone so they could call everyone they could think of. Trying to get friends and relatives on the outside to sell cars, houses, electronics, anything so they could just make bail and get out of this pit. They would bang on the door to the cell block until a guard would finally come over, and they would proceed to tell them all kinds of stories about how they shouldn’t be here and someone had made a mistake. As if, if the story was good enough, the guard would say “oh my god what have they done!?” and open the door and set them free. After they had banged, screamed, and sometimes cried themselves out, they would enter the second phase. This phase, was a phase of depression. Usually they would stop eating, not speaking to anyone, and sleep for, what was sometimes, days. The third phase was acceptance. Once they realized they were here for the long haul, and they had a chance to fall into the rhythm of the daily cycle, they would fall back into, what I assume to be, their usual selves, and personalities. How people of all backgrounds, race, personality, integrity, would all sink into the exact same cycle always mystified me.
As I am a very antisocial person, with A.D.H.D. and a decent temper, being thrown in with a bunch of violent strangers definitely tested the limits of my endurance. To make matters worse, the conditions were subhuman to be sure. There was one uncovered light in each cell, it was never shut off even at night. There was always this one, unblinking, yellow eye glaring down on you, cutting through your eye lids as you tried to sleep. All of the inmates would yell back and forth through all hours of the night. Screaming nonsense sometimes, sometimes threats, sometimes just a conversation. It would wear on my nerves until I just wanted to rivet their mouths shut. It took all my self-control not to start anything as I knew it could add another year to my sentence if it escalated to a full on fight. So I just kept my mouth shut most of the time and squeezed my forearms over my ears until I passed out from pure exhaustion. I tend to over think things a lot, and in there it was compounded at least ten fold. Especially when it came down to what time of day I would mark that particular day off my calendar. I know it doesn’t seem like much now, but if I marked it off in the morning I would usually forget by evening and all day think that I had spent one more day then I actually had. At night when I discovered what had happened, it was incredibly depressing. In the winter it got terribly cold. The walls being made of gray concrete and old, chipped windows with ill fitting bars didn’t do much to keep out the freezing temperatures from outside. Everyone was sick constantly, all we were issued was one scratchy, very thin blanket, and sick or not that was all you got. I would basically divide my day into meal times, which was the only thing to look forward to, and broke up the monotony of the day. I dealt with my time in there much the way I hear AA tells alcoholics to deal with their issues. By not looking too far down the road, but only making it to that next meal, then on to the next one, and so on.
My time in Clinton County opened my eyes to how I would live a very large chunk of my life if I did not immediately transition away from my life style. It showed me how easily something that seemed so small at the time, could have such a very large impact on my quality of life. I realized very quickly that I wanted a big house, not a 10 x 10 cell with 4 uninvited room mates. I didn’t want people telling me what to do every second, how to dress, when to eat, what to eat. I gave a guy a ride and I was in the same cells as murderers and rapists. There was this guy named Joe who, I found out after playing several hands of cards with the 19 year old, stabbed his girlfriend 27 times in front of their 6 month old son. Or a guy they shipped in named Billy, that swung his 1 year old son by his ankles, head first, into a concrete wall until he was dead. I also saw people that had made one small mistake, a mistake that I could easily have made myself with my temper, and my tendancy to drink vodka, that sent them away for decades at a time. Like a guy I met named Ray, who after finding out his wife was seeing someone else, downed a case of beer and went and found the guy. Inevitably, one thing led to another, and they started swinging. Ray got one unlucky shot off and the guy drops dead. I saw Ray get 30 years for 2nd degree murder and wondered how many drunken fist fights had I been in over some girl. How close had I been to that very same thing. How long would my luck hold until the judge would just replace Ray with James, and I would be getting 30 years? I knew what I had to do now, and I knew how to do it. I was determined to make that guard that always jeered at people when they got released, saying “You’ll be back! They always come back!” into a liar this time.
In the end, that year is one that I would never give back. I learned more about human kind then I ever wanted to. About how any random acquaintance I may know, appearing perfectly normal in every way, could be hiding a killer, or a rapist, or a thief, behind those surprisingly average looking eyes. I gained a lot of inner strength from enduring the boredom, solitude, fights, and mental stress. Proving, in my mind, that old adage “What ever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. It also gave me all the tools, and inspiration I would ever need, to never find myself in that position ever again. That year is one I would never wish on anyone, and at the same time, one I wouldn’t give up for anything.