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Navigating the Rutherford County Criminal Justice System – Part 7: “Upstairs” 940

Being processed to move to the upper floors of 940 to a jail cell in a “pod,” or to an annex connected to the jail where women are currently housed, involves a couple of steps added to being processed back out into the town (which was discussed in Part 6).

The nurse’s room, which resembles a basic doctor’s examination room with the parchment-covered blue exam bed, vital statistics cart and counter, is where a Registered Practical Nurse (RPN) collects an incoming inmate’s vital statistics and a urine sample for analysis. The incomer is then asked questions pertaining to any current medical afflictions and mental status, such as “are you prescribed medication for anything?” and “do you feel a desire to hurt yourself or others?”

I replied, “No,” and told her, “I drink.”

She asked, “How much?”

I just shook my head as I looked down.

She prescribed Lorazepam twice a day for the first three days of my incarceration to treat any alcohol-related withdrawal symptoms.

Lorazepam is “in the Benzodiazepine class, so it’s used for nerves, anxiety,” said Pam Todd, a pharmacist at one of the local Kroger pharmacies. “It’s not a narcotic. Narcotics are for pain mostly and the benzodiazepines are for nerves.”

“It’s in the same class as Xanax, Valiums,” Todd continued. “It’s just [for] nerves. Like anxiety attacks that people have. It helps you calm all that down.”

When asked if it is ever prescribed for drug- or alcohol-related withdrawal symptoms, Todd replied “Possibly, because it would help with the nerves [and] all the shakiness and nervousness from withdrawal.”

“[Lorazepam] does have a drowsy side effect,” she stated, and when asked if there could be a potential loss of balance, Todd replied, “Could be, yeah. That goes along with the drowsy. So, drowsy; dizzy; confusion . . . used appropriately, it’s fine.”

Back at the jail, next to the nurse’s room, is the inmate prep-room, where those being processed in are made by a jailer of the same gender to fully undress, squat down to the floor naked and cough a few times in front of them to prove there is nothing hidden in the anus (which the coughing would expel).

The incomer is then offered a shower.

Once civilian clothes are traded in for the infamous orange sweats made out of thin cotton canvas material and a pair of cheaply made orange plastic slippers, incomers are supplied with a white mesh laundry bag filled with a roll of toilet paper, the filler part of a pen, a couple of sheets of notebook paper, two envelopes, a bar of soap, non-alcoholic shampoo, a comb, a towel and a washcloth, a short plastic toothbrush with a traveler tube of toothpaste, and a plastic cup with a white packet of fruit-flavored sugar powder inside of it. This is when an incomer officially becomes an inmate and also when it becomes noticeable just how cold that jail is kept. A beat-up gray mattress, a scratchy, dark grey blanket and a white sheet are also supplied to an inmate on the way back across the booking division to another holding cell that separates Booking from a labyrinth of hallways leading to a rickety cage elevator that lifts 10 or so inmates at a time to their assigned floor.

Inmates are seemingly assigned to cells based on availability. I say this because we were all placed in there together no matter what our charges or convictions were. The cell is about six feet by ten feet and made for two occupants, as there are two metal trays bolted to the walls on which to place mattresses, one “cell desk,” or two boards bolted to one wall, one slightly offset below the other, a metal toilet with a drinking fountain at the top that acts as a sink, a sheet of scratched-up reflective metal bolted on the wall above that, and the guard-controlled cell light and intercom system just above the metal mirror. There is an emergency button on the light rigging to notify a jailer in case of an emergency. A window about as long as a shoebox and half its height is just below the ceiling above the lower of the bed trays—those are the small windows on the exterior of the building that can be seen from New Salem Highway. If a cell had three occupants instead of two, the third inmate could place his mattress on the floor below the higher of the two bed trays, next to the toilet sink.

A group of cells are in gymnasium-sized white-and-gray cement rooms called “pods.”  Each pod has its own kitchen, a line of five or six phones on the wall from which inmates pay the jail to make phone calls with money put into an inmate’s account by friends or family, about 12 four-person fiber-plastic dining tables in the middle of the room and about 24 blue metal cell doors lining the walls in two stories with a metal-grated flight of stairs up to a narrow metal-grated walkway that acts as the second floor for the upper 12 cells.

Upon entry to 940, it’s easy to lose track of time. By the labyrinth and cage elevator, it’s easy to become disoriented and no longer correctly guess cardinal directions. It was dark when I arrived. All of the lights in the pod and cells were faded to a dim glow. But, BK#116 is a second-story cell for sure, and I will never forget what that metal cell door sounded like shutting and locking behind me.

What seemed like 6 a.m. is when the lights grew bright in the cells. A trustee called my name from out in the pod to come down and see a nurse, who fed me Lorazepam. I’d be given one before breakfast and another before dinner. A couple of 20- to 30-minute recreation periods were given shortly after breakfast and dinner, during which inmates would come out of their cells and socialize, play cards and chess at the tables, work out on the stairs, walk laps around the pod, make phone calls, or just hang out. The rest of the time is spent locked in a cell. I slept through the first day’s recreation periods because of the pills and general malaise, but began coming out of the cell for the recreation periods after that.

When I left the cell for recreation periods, I’d be high from the Lorazepam, walk a couple of laps around the pod, and eventually gravitate to the insanely fast-paced chess matches played at the tables. Other inmates would be raucous, slapping cards down in games of hearts or spades, but I found an appreciation for witnessing the guys who dedicated their time to their chess skills. One match in particular was between a short, stout guy and a quiet, scrawny guy with glasses. As a crowd grew around their match, others would tell me these two were the best players there, as they’d been there the longest, but hardly ever played one another. So, loopy from the benzodiazepines, I nerded-out as a chess fan at this spectacle of a match as the glasses-guy quickly advanced all of his force’s might to bombard and overwhelm the defensive trustee’s patient and stealthy assassination attempts on the glasses-guy’s king, if and when the glasses-guy made a mistake during his onslaught. On top of the encouraging commentary from onlooking inmates that likened to football fans around a television, there were bombs, cannon fire and the sounds of war going on in my head during the 15-minute match. It was an intense game. Excitedly, I complimented the glasses-guy after his victory, saying, “Dude, you killed it. You just mowed down everyone on that board.” In response, he slowly glanced up at me standing beside the table among the small crowd with his eyebrows still low from the match’s concentration, I assumed. I can’t say it’s evil, but he looked at me through those little glasses with a look of a man who knows exactly what he is capable of, and just stared at me for a second. That glance as a response to my stupid compliment has lingered with me since then.

I would later find out from the glasses-guy’s cellmate that he was in 940 waiting to be transferred to a state prison for shooting a man to death at his house while the man was fleeing across glasses-guy’s yard after an attempted burglary.

The economy system among inmates is interesting to watch, too. It’s basically a group juggling act of goods and services with the currency being items supplied to the inmates when being processed in—jail food and higher quality “commissary” goods such as snack foods, coffee and better hygiene products obtained through a company that sells and distributes goods to inmates for those who have friends and family putting money in their jail accounts (of which the jail takes a cut). These items bounce around the pod to balance individual inmates’ excessive or below-average use of living essentials and materials for writing letters, or to simply trade up. Rolls of toilet paper weren’t given out by the jailers but every four or so days, and they were of high value. Some used more than others and could trade for an unfinished roll in a time of need. A collection of the fruity sugar-mix packets handed out with each meal, plus something unwanted from an inmate’s dinner, could be traded for a bag of Doritos or a cup of coffee. A box of cupcakes can raise an inmate’s social status tremendously in 940, as such a delicacy is valued as a small freedom within itself.

An emotional currency existed, too, in the talents of the inmates. I saw a couple of cupcakes exchanged for an ink sketch of a flower drawn by one of the better artists in the pod. The cupcake-rich inmate’s girlfriend had a birthday that week.

It was surprising that the e-cigs were not a hot commodity. Advertisements were on the pod walls selling them for $13 per e-cig, while commissary items rarely got over a few dollars. But when an inmate had one, he’d pass it around nonchalantly to others wanting a few drags as if he was already tired of it.

No matter what the deal was or the value assigned to an item by pod consensus or individuals haggling, though, this little economy occupied the inmates’ time, strengthened positive interactions and helped boost morale.

Empathy, mutual discomfort and pod economy instilled a sense of “we’re all in this together,” for the most part. Inmates seemingly just want to serve their sentence and get back to their outside lives as fast as possible. The consequence of additional charges or a stint of two weeks to a month in solitary confinement is not worth any outburst to most in such a sobering and alienating atmosphere.

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