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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Spending the day in jail

My characters have taken me to some fascinating places: Florence, Italy; the top of Pico Espejo in Venezuela; the Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon. Last week a character in my new WIP took me to the Butte County Jail.

Captain Andy Duch, the jail commander, is a great guy I've met several times. When I called and told him I'm writing a novel that involves his jail, he was pleased to show me around. He invited Correctional Deputy Janice Young to accompany us, since he has never booked a woman.

What I learned was amazing, but mostly I learned there are all kinds of good reasons for staying on the right side of the law.

Of course my heroine, Maggie, is falsely accused, but it makes no difference to the people who do the booking. They don't even know what the charges are (or will be) for the people who come in. Every prisoner, no matter his or her alleged crime, is treated exactly the same.

It isn't pretty. The stuff you've heard about strip searches? All true--and necessary to try to keep dangerous contraband out of the facility. Deputies don't touch any more than needful, but there are ways . . .  Standing in the hallway, listening to the deputy describe how the patient is standing in front of the shower fully naked and vulnerable during an intense exam (mouth, between the toes, body orifices) made me feel pretty vulnerable myself. How can it not be demeaning?

During my visit, I learned a few fascinating facts:

  1. Our county jail dresses inmates in 14 different colored jumpsuits. Deputies can tell in an instant that the woman in the dark green quilted one-piece is threatening suicide and know not to mix colors X and Y or Y and Z, identifying members of rival gangs.
  2. Prisoners in single-cell housing (those considered most potentially dangerous) are inside their cells 23 hours out of every day. When they are allowed "yard time," they are out there totally alone except for guards.
  3. Every prisoner is required to do a census check twice a day. The guard walks down the hallway between cells and calls last name. Using a "headboard," or registration sheet, she checks each name as the correct prisoner answers.
  4. One of the major punishments to being in prison is the boredom--hours every day with little or nothing to do. Inmates may read (anything examined and approved by guards) and write (anything that can be produced in pencil) so long as they are not being disciplined. Under discipline, such privileges are removed.


One of the more chilling moments in my visit came when Deputy Young opened the heavy barred door to one single cell and pulled it shut, letting the CLANG ring through the hallway. "That's a pretty scary sound when you hear it behind you," she observed. I agreed. My character, Maggie, feels that way, too.

Most prisoners are cooperative once inside. "They just want to do their time and not have any trouble," Captain Duch told me. "We try not to hassle them and they try not to give us any reason to." It was heartening to see how he recognized several of the prisoners and spoke to them quite pleasantly, by name. With more than 600 at a time in his facility, that was pretty impressive.

It wasn't impressive enough, however, to make me want to stay. I'm just hoping my one tour was thorough enough that I won't need to go back there -- ever, ever again.

Susan's new Work-in-Progress is called MAGGIE RISING. Her first 8 books are available in digital form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, Kobo and other online sources.